Time Out

Notes from a flaming moderate

Hats of Jerusalem

Are religious people different? Let's look under their hats.

According to a report released last week by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly a third of the world's population live in countries where it is becoming more difficult to freely practice religion.  In some countries, such as China, Nigeria, Thailand and Britain, public hostility to religion is the problem. In other countries, like Egypt and France there is increasing government restrictions.  For both these reasons the free and open practice of religion - particularly for religious minorities - is becoming more limited in large parts of the world.

In dramatic contrast, here in Jerusalem, Israel, where I am vacationing, religion is flourishing.  The old city of Jerusalem is a cornucopia of religious expression.  I think of it  (and mean no disrespect), as religion's theme park.  Small and crowded, Jerusalem's ancient streets are filled with fashion in every shade of monotheism.  Here's a nun in a burgundy habit, there's a man in a round fur hat.  Here's a large white skullcap topping off a flowing jalabiyah, there's a knitted yarmulke over jeans and a tee shirt. A young mother wearing a velvet snood pushes a baby stroller down the stone steps.  Female heads wearing multi-colored headscarves and stylish-looking turbans stand out as pretty flowers in a field that features a great deal of classic black and white.  A Coptic Christian cleric has a somber expression under his miter; a Greek Orthodox clergyman has his long hair tied back under his chimney-pot hat. What this endless variety of hats share in common is one important characteristic.  Each is worn for religious reasons.  One might observe that Jerusalem hats demonstrate unity in diversity.

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But what about the personalities under the hats?  Do religious personalities have something in common?

Psychological researchers have looked into this question, many of them using the highly regarded Five Factor model of personality.  Religiosity is consistently correlated with two of the main factors, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness, in this model of personality, is related to orderliness, impulse control, restraint, social conformity and low flexibility.  Agreeableness involves altruism, caring and emotional support.

Introversion-extraversion does not distinguish religious from non-religious.  However, emotional stability correlates positively with religiosity, primarily because it correlates negatively with impulsivity. 

Studies of personality and religiosity usually represent one moment in the lives of their subjects.  Thus, while we can know that, religiosity is associated with stability, order and impulse control, we don't know whether people with those characteristics are attracted to religion, or whether religion provides it for them.

Religious personalities share some characteristics, but there is so much more to them than that.  What about religious fundamentalists, what personalities express their religion in those terms?  And what about religious seekers, or those who describe themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious"?  Jerusalem has all of them, and we will explore their personalities, values and actions in future blogposts.

What's most fascinating is what lies under your hat.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at the George Washington University.

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