Studies: Cultural humility offers healing balm in the Culture Wars

Imagine talking seriously about religion at the dinner table or at coffee hour after Sunday worship without acrimony.

Or addressing sensitive issues such as sexual orientation and sacred texts without sending people running for the church or temple exits.

New studies indicate the simple act of recognizing the limitations of your own worldview and having an open mind toward other’s perspectives, a concept referred to as cultural humility, can lead to profound changes in the way we view, accept and even forgive one another.

For example, in one study of nearly 1,000 U.S. adults, cultural humility was related to greater concern for others, reduced prejudice and a lower likelihood of seeing refugees as a real or perceived threat.

In a separate study, higher levels of cultural humility in religious communities were associated with less depression, less anxiety, and more sense of belonging among gay, lesbian and bisexual worshippers.

“In a world where religion and sexual identity can cause great tension and conflict in religious communities and sexual minorities,” the study authors stated, “cultural humility may be essential to maintain strong social bonds in addition to promoting better health.”

The power of humility

No one is downplaying the difficulties of lifting up humility in a polarized culture. Anger and conflict seem to be the most effective way to draw attention these days and many individuals, including the U.S. president, regularly malign those who disagree with them in faceless conversations across the barricades of social media.

What cultural humility involves is setting one’s fears and ego aside and admitting one’s limitations, particularly when it comes to judging others.

Rather than being self-focused, it requires being open to understanding the other person’s cultural background and experiences in a manner “marked by respect and lack of superiority,” humility scholars Joshua Hook and Don Davis said in the introduction to the June special issue on the virtue in the Journal of Psychology and Theology. That shift in perspective can make a big difference.

Consider the results of these new studies:

Less prejudice. More compassion for refugees. In a study measuring attitudes toward Syrian refugees, researchers found that cultural humility was associated with moral principles of caring for others and fairness. These moral foundations and resulting respect and concern for people of other cultures helped individuals counteract prejudice and perceptions of refugees as threatening or dangerous. Of particular note, the positive impact of cultural humility on welcoming Syrian refugees was independent of participants’ religious and political views.
Providing a safer sanctuary for gay and lesbian worshippers. In analyzing data from 159 sexual minorities, researchers found gay, lesbian and bisexual believers reported better mental health when they were part of religious communities perceived as being respectful and interested in learning more about others. Perceptions of high levels of cultural humility also had a significant impact even after controlling for differences in the community’s stance of issues of faith and sexual orientation. “Hence, high levels of cultural humility in religious groups may work to attenuate harmful minority stress (e.g., exclusion, alienation, discrimination) experienced by LGB individuals, which in turn can lead to less depression, less anxiety, and a stronger sense of belonging in LGB individuals,” researchers said.
Opening up paths to forgiveness. A third study involved 244 undergraduates recalling how they personally handled religious disagreements with another individual. As expected, individuals with higher levels of compassion for others and less emphasis on the importance of following rules were more likely to forgive those with dissenting views. However, when the other person was perceived as open-minded and respectful, there was no difference among participants in their willingness to forgive as opposed to cutting off ties or seeking revenge. The study not only indicates that cultural humility buffers the negative effects of conflict, “but it offers individuals and communities a point of focus for embracing diversity in their relationships.”


Respectful dialogues are critical, researchers indicate.

The way forward

There is a way forward toward a kinder, more civil society, researchers suggest.

But it is not going to happen by casting aspersions on those who disagree with you from afar in the manner of a U.S. president portraying immigrants seeking a better life as an invasion force or a former Democratic presidential contender labeling massive numbers of Americans as “deplorables” for choosing her opponent.

In practical terms, researchers in the refugee study said congregations that highlight biblical mandates to welcome foreigners and advocate for the vulnerable would help parishioners become humbler about their own culture and more welcoming toward groups such as Syrian refugees.

Religious leaders could begin by meeting with leaders of refugee communities to understand the challenges they face, and develop collaborative ways their congregations can promote ongoing relationships.

“Congregation members welcoming and learning from refugees—while providing practical help and support—could enhance cultural humility, leading to a positive feedback loop of acceptance,” study authors said.

Researchers analyzing the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals said it is crucial for religious communities to emphasize mutual respect and partnership-building with sexual minorities above the differences in beliefs.

That does mean that anyone has to let go of their own cultural values, but rather should enter into dialogue aware of their own biases and maintaining an other-oriented stance that is respectful and open to another’s culture.

The researchers invited “religious communities to explore another’s culture with a sense of wonder and awe. We bid they strive for the same sense of wonder they have for religion and spirituality when they take on the life-long learner mindset of a culturally humble individual who engages with admiration for the other cultural being in front of them.”

Besides, researchers in the refugee study noted, trying to change the political beliefs of family and friends by admonishing them for their own perceived moral inferiority is rarely successful.

A more effective approach, they indicated, would be to emulate Abraham Lincoln in his call for national unity, and strive to appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature.’”

Image by Ted Eytan, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Oregon Department of Transportation, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

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