Religion and Prejudice

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What is Prejudice?

Prejudice: thinking badly of someone because of the group he/she belongs to.

Stereotyping: having an oversimplified mental image of people and applying it to everyone in a group.

Discrimination: actions as a result of prejudice.

Positive discrimination: treating people more favourably because they have been discriminated against in the past.

Scapegoating: blaming certain groups for problems in society. 

Effects of prejudice

Prejudice causes great harm. People can be made to feel worthless, frightened and vulnerable just for being who they are. Prejudice has caused the deaths of millions of people. During World War II, six million Jews were killed in Nazi Germany. Genocide (killing whole groups of people) has taken place more recently in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The removal of white farmers from Zimbabwe in 2000 is a type of ethnic cleansing (clearing a country of a particular ethnic group) even if it did not result in their deaths. 

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Types of Prejudice

Race and Colour

A person’s race usually refers to the ethnic or religious group they come from, their nationality or sometimes to the colour of their skin. People speak of ‘blacks’, ‘Asians’, ‘the Jewish race’ or ‘the German race’. In the past people used to think humans could be separated into distinct races, which passed their physical characteristics down to the next generation. Scientists now agree that there are no biologically distinct human races, and everyone shares most of the same characteristics.

Racism: is the belief that the colour of a person’s skin determines their ability. Racists believe that people of some races are inferior to others. Although it is against the law, racist abuse and even physical assaults do occur. Black football players, even at the top level of their sport, have suffered racist chanting, spitting and objects thrown at them from the crowd. Public bodies, such as the police, armed forces and even the Church, have been accused of having deep-seated racism.


A person’s gender can be determined by what sex they are, male or female, their sexual identity, and the way they see themselves and relate to the world. Society creates certain expectations for the behaviour of each gender, known as sexual stereotypes. People who do not conform, such as men who want to work in a caring profession, can experience prejudice and discrimination. 

Sexism: is a form of gender prejudice. It means treating people unfavourably because of their gender. Like racism, sexism is against the law, but old attitudes that consider men as superior to women still persist. Stereotyped ideas, such as that women should look after the home and family, have helped to deny women equal opportunities in the workplace. 

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Other Types of Prejudice

Religious Prejudice: People of all religions have been discriminated against throughout the centuries. Discrimination based on religion or belief is now against the law. Since the terrorist attacks in New York (September 11th 2001) and London (July 7th 2005), Muslims have experienced increasing religious prejudice. Yet Islam as a religion does not accept or support terrorism, and the Muslim community rejects these violent acts. However, because some terrorists claim to be acting in the name of Allah, some people think all Muslims support these crimes.

Ageism: (prejudice against someone because of their age, leading to discrimination) is often based on stereotypes. For example, some people wrongly think that all young people are rude, irresponsible hooligans and old people are ‘past it’. Ageism usually refers to discrimination against older people because employers think they are incapable of doing certain jobs. Younger people have better chances of being hired. Employers may think that their health, energy and productivity may be better than someone nearing retirement. Some employers now realise that older people have a wealth of experience, just as young people have potential. Age discrimination is against the law. 

Disability Discrimination: Most people would consider it wrong to call a disabled person names. However, discrimination can occur against people with a disability in the workplace or when they are denied access to services. Sometimes this is unintentional. Disabled access ramps, lifts, toilets and other facilities have only recently become normal in public buildings and firms. People with learning disabilities sometimes experience prejudice because people do not understand their problems. 

Prejudice based on class, lifestyle and looksSocial class (peoples position in society) was often determined by their family background, education, job and wealth. Today, people move between classes or fall into different ones. For example, bright working-class children may go to university and become middle class. Many celebrities have great wealth, but may not have had much formal education or come from upper-class families. Money is often the biggest influence on a persons lifestyle: their interests, activities, opinions, possessions and spending habits. Great attention is paid to a celebritys looks, their clothes, their body and their fashion sense. People who do not conform to these images can often experience prejudice.

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Religious Attitudes to Prejudice

Tolerance: respecting the beliefs and practices of others.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued in 1948 said that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Everyone has the right to think what they want and express their opinions. This is the basis of tolerance. Tolerance is accepting all people and valuing their contribution to life and society. People should be allowed to keep their own beliefs, practices and ways of life as long as they do not harm others or break the law.

Tolerance towards other people who are different or hold different beliefs does not mean agreeing with them. It means respecting their rights to hold beliefs that some people may think are wrong, without oppressing or persecuting them. There are limits to tolerance, however. Racist or other prejudiced views harm other people, so cannot be tolerated.

 Justice: bringing about what is right, fair, according to the law or making up for what has been done wrong.

All religions teach that people are equal. This means that all people have the same value and worth and equal human rights to live and work freely, and be happy and at peace. This does not mean everyone is the same or has equal advantages in life — they obviously do not. Religious believers think people should be treated with justice, that is, fairly and according to the law. If laws are unjust, religious people should work to change them.

Harmony: living in peace with others. 

Harmony means living at peace with others. It requires people to act justly and have tolerance and understanding of others, even when they are different. Many religious believers have a sense of community, feel responsible for each other and share the same values. They believe that practising kindness, compassion and generosity within their religious communities will help them to live in harmony with people in the wider community in which they live. 

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Western Faiths


  • All Christians agree that discrimination goes against the idea of God’s design. Christians believe that God created men and women in his own image; therefore all are of equal value. 
  • Jesus’s teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ was explained in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, the Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, was the hero. 


  • Muslims believe that Allah created all people equal, whatever their race, gender or background. They believe that their differences show the wonderful variety of Gods creations. 
  • Muhammad preached against slavery and taught that someones tribe, race, colour or traditions are not an excuse for unjust treatment. Equality in the sight of Allah is shown on hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, where all wear simple white garments regardless of racial or social status. 


  • Jews believe that humanity was created by God in his image so all are equal in God’s sight.
  • The Torah commands ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ and says that foreigners, like the poor, should be treated with compassion. 
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Eastern Faiths


  • The Buddha left his wealthy lifestyle as he realised that wealth did not bring happiness. He rejected the caste system, which divided people into classes. 
  • He thought people only created divisions to feel superior to others.


  • A Hindu’s duty is to regard everyone with respect because they have been created by God. God is present in every living being and loves all creatures equally. 
  • All men and women of any caste can reach the spiritual goal of moksha (release) if they seek God. 


  • Sikhs believe that all men and women are equal; they are all children of God, their creator. 
  • Since God has no colour or form, it is wrong to discriminate on grounds of race, gender or religion. 
  • Sikhs are tolerant of all religions and the Guru Granth Sahib contains Muslim and Hindu writings
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Responses to Prejudices

Society and the law

Democracy and human rights are founded on religious principles of equality and justice for all. These ideas are central to the laws created to combat prejudice and discrimination. The UK government is a secular government, but religious people would support any laws that promote and secure principles and beliefs that are shared with religions. In Muslim countries Shari’ah law is based on religious principles. Britain has passed a number of laws against discrimination:

  • Sex Discrimination Act 1975 
  • Race Relations Act 1976 
  • Disability Discrimination Act 1995 
  • Equality Act 2006 (against religious discrimination and ageism).

These laws mean that all people should have equal rights at work and equal pay for the same type of work. They should have equal chances to get a good education or healthcare, go to a restaurant or the cinema, buy things and do whatever they want within the law. If someone thinks they are being discriminated against they can take the person to court. Prejudice is harder to stop than discrimination, because you cannot arrest people for their attitudes, only for their actions. Schools and the media have an important part to play in getting the message across that people should be treated equally. 

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Mahatma Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu born in India in 1869. Originally called Mohandas, he has been given the title ‘Mahatma’ (great soul), which is now sometimes used as his first name. He trained as a lawyer in England, and at the age of 24, he went to South Africa to work in an Indian law firm. Whilst there, he personally experienced racial prejudice and discrimination under the apartheid laws. These laws kept blacks, other non-white groups known as coloureds and whites separated in all areas of life, and discriminated heavily against non-whites. 

Gandhi’s South African campaigns

As a Hindu, Gandhi practised non- violence and believed in the presence of truth in each person’s soul. He believed that the only way of treating others is to love them. He thought that the best way to fight prejudice was peacefully, refusing to cooperate with the authorities who discriminated against people. He started to campaign for the rights of Indians living in South Africa. He used a method of non-violent mass civil disobedience. In other words, thousands of people merely refused to register for an unfair poll tax. Although many were beaten, jailed and even shot, eventually after seven years the poll tax was dropped. He also succeeded in making Indian marriages legal in South Africa. 

Gandhi’s Indian campaigns

Gandhi returned to India in 1915 and used his peaceful methods to fight against the British who ruled India. He also campaigned to help the poorest people, who, under the caste system, were not allowed to associate with others, even while worshipping, because they were considered unclean. Gandhi called them Harijans (children of God) and led them by the hand into the temples that had excluded them. He brought women and people of all castes into the Indian National Congress. After a massacre of unarmed civilians by British troops in Amritsar in 1919, Gandhi led a nationwide campaign of not cooperating with British rule. This included boycotting British goods and refusing to pay taxes, particularly the tax on salt. He led thousands in a march to the sea where they made salt by evaporating sea water. Although he was arrested and imprisoned for two years, the campaign succeeded and the tax was stopped. 

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Martin Luther King

The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1929. When he was 18, he became a Christian minister, like his father. 

Segregation and discrimination

In America at that time, black people faced awful prejudice and discrimination. Segregation (a policy of separating blacks and whites) meant that black children had to attend different schools from white children. Often these schools had poorer facilities, books and equipment than the ‘white-only’ schools. Black people could not use the same swimming pools or sit in the same restaurants as white people. They earned half as much as white people and many were not allowed to vote. A racist group, the Ku Klux Klan, used violence against black people or anyone who sympathised with them. These injustices went against Martin Luther Kings Christian beliefs. He wanted black people to be treated fairly, so he set out to change the laws by persuading people through argument. Inspired by the life of Jesus and the ideas of the Hindu leader, Mahatma Gandhi, he was determined to fight racism without using violence. 

In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year the US Supreme Court gave equal voting rights to black people though America was not to elect a black president until 40 years after King’s death. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39. Americans remember his great contribution to the fight against prejudice every January on Martin Luther King Day. 

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Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu was born in Klerksdorp, South Africa in 1931. He became an Anglican priest in 1960 at a time when the apartheid system denied many black and ‘coloured’ people their rights. 

Anti-apartheid campaigns

Desmond Tutu became the first black general secretary of the South African Council of Churches in 1978. He used his position to campaign for equal civil rights for all and a common system of education for all children. He worked to get rid of South Africa’s unfair ‘pass laws’, which limited employment prospects and travel for black people. People were separated based on race and forced to live in certain areas called homelands. These were poorer, rural areas where there was not much work. Many black people were arrested if caught outside the homelands without their pass.

Non-violent protest 

Desmond Tutu supported non-violent protests, like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. In the black township of Soweto young people had protested a ruling that said they had to do half their lessons in Afrikaans (the language of the racist government). The police opened fire on them and around 600 young people were killed. Desmond Tutu led a peaceful march through Soweto to protest the actions of the police. He saved the life of a black policeman by throwing himself over him when a crowd tried to stone the man to death. He organised petitions and called for other countries to support economic sanctions (penalties) against South Africa. In this way, pressure was put on the South African government to change the apartheid laws. He was an outspoken critic of the racist laws in his preaching and writing. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his leadership and for the courage and heroism shown by black South Africans in their use of peaceful methods in the struggle against apartheid

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