The Psychology Behind Religious Persecution | Persecution

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The Psychology Behind Religious Persecution

Lisa Navarrette MS

Peace and harmony are fundamental values of every major world religion. So why is there so much hate and violence towards people of other faiths? The answer can be explained by a number of factors which drive people to hate, some of the most notable being individual shortcomings and group dynamics.

Individual shortcomings

People often identify characteristics within themselves that they deem unlovable and as a result, “project” those qualities onto others. By projecting these beliefs on one’s external relationships, they are essentially saying “you are the bad one, not me.” Sigmund Freud, a famous psychologist, believed people repress the things they view as bad and displace their emotions onto others. These projections manifest as hate and judgement, often encouraging further repression of individual feelings.1

Research has shown that repressed feelings of inadequacy can lead to serious mental health issues. Thus, people want an outlet to place blame. Whether one is experiencing financial hardship, homelife issues, or a low self-esteem, it is naturally easier for the person to take their frustration out on another person rather than to identify their own role in the issue. Persecution is a way of scapegoating and eliminating individual accountability.

People often feel insecure when confronted with someone who has what they desire. When a person appears to possess qualities or circumstances which one wishes to obtain, a type of “inferiority alarm” sounds within them. Often unconsciously, they make it a priority to tear that person down as much as possible in order to make themselves appear better. Though slander is often the most common manifestation of envy, it can also lead to violence.

People are afraid of the unknown. They often do not understand the doctrines and customs of other religions, so the immediate response is rejection. Hate towards entire people groups can often be attributed to exacerbating known stereotypes, an unfortunate reality for many persecuted religious groups.

Like children who will misbehave to gain attention, adults too suffer from neediness. Many people are lonely and would rather have bad connections than none at all. Instead of proving themselves meaningful companions, they hurl negativity about others to see who agrees. When those in agreement emerge, a hate group forms.

Group dynamics

Hate groups are the perfect place to hide from individual shortcomings. Individuals look to groups to fulfill the deep human need of belonging. A hateful group allows an individual to blame their personal and/or society’s problems on an entire group of people. They are supported and encouraged to do so by members of the group. Being hateful towards one person or group allows social circles to become clear. Junior high and high school is the perfect example of cliques and social divisions. However, these divisions don’t end after high school. The division of “who belongs and who does not” strengthens the bond of the group members.

“Trauma bonding” is a popular term to describe the growth in a relationship during a time of heightened negativity in peoples’ lives. The bonding often occurs when two people share their present or past hurts with each other. Like trauma bonding, hate bonding deepens the relationship through trust. While social norms dictate that being kind to people is the way to make friends, bonding through mutual hate develops deeper relationships than kindness.

Recent research has shown that a deeper sense of trust is acquired when one shares their negative feelings about someone to another person – it is an immediate icebreaker.2 It says “I trust you and think you might hate this person too.” On a deeper level, sharing negative emotions often forms lasting, intimate bonds. It shows the other person that they trust them enough to be vulnerable with them. When a person shares a deep, personal struggle, the other person is often taken aback by such vulnerability and bonds to the person, desiring no further harm to come upon them. This vulnerability often leads to them becoming an advocate for the vulnerable person.

Leaders of hate groups will exploit this vulnerability by using the collective fear and insecurity of their members as a catalyst to persecute. Negativity about outsiders permeates and is used to strengthen group bonds and maintain group dynamics. Feelings of love towards group members develops and the shared identity of the group encourages hatred towards outsiders.

Persecutors often see other religious groups from a scarcity mindset, rather than one of abundance. Scarcity says “there are only so many resources and my group will get them,” whereas abundance says, “there are enough resources for both my neighbors and me.” In countries with poor economies, the scarcity view may be a contributing factor to the increased persecution in recent years.

The antidote to hate

While bonding through negative words may not have dire effects, words lead to actions, actions lead to habits, and habits lead to a consistent reality.  If one religion consistently persecutes another religion over years, decades, and centuries, it is no longer an isolated incident. It becomes a way of life. The thoughts, feelings, and actions of hate are taught to the next generation.

Silvia Dutchevici, LCSW, president and founder of the Critical Therapy Center explains that in a “war” culture, people are taught to hate an enemy, meaning anyone different than them— which leaves little room for vulnerability and an exploration of hate through empathic discourse and understanding. 3

Historical scholars such as Buckle and Mill believed that religious persecution was caused solely by the belief that there is only one way to heaven. They asserted that if exclusive salvation was denied, tolerance of other religions would be assured. Later scholars have unraveled that hate and persecution do not have only one cause but consist of a myriad of causes. The ever-increasing religious persecution around the world confirms these later findings.

Psychologists agree that the way to end hate is through understanding and compassion for both oneself and others. This will help persecutors see the world through a lens of love rather than a lens of fear. One action step in the antidote to hate is to make new friends from the hated people group. Friendships change an individual, ultimately changing group dynamics and working to end religious persecution.


Lisa holds degrees in Psychology and Criminal Justice Administration and is currently pursuing her Doctorate in Constitutional Law and Public Policy. She hopes that her writing will have an impact on securing justice and human rights for all people.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.

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