The Psychology of Religion
Why are some people more religious than others?
Posted December 14, 2017 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
One of my first memories is from church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosary, but this particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors closed.
It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only four at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peek through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!...” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.
The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?
For the past 20 years, I have taught an undergraduate course in the psychology of religion and spirituality. Most of my students haven’t had much exposure to significant religious and spiritual diversity, so I often bring in 10 to 15 community members during the term to share their stories, often during interfaith panel discussions. Through these presentations, it becomes quite obvious just how different people are in their approach to religion and spirituality, and it beckons us to consider why. One of the most common hypotheses made by panelists and students alike is this: non-religious people are more likely to process information analytically or logically while religious people are more likely to rely on intuition or emotion.
Evidence has been building for this “processing style” hypothesis. In a 2011 study, participants assigned to write about a time they followed their intuition were – maybe surprisingly – more likely to believe in God afterward than those assigned to write about a time they carefully reasoned through a situation.
Along the same lines, a 2012 study found that participants assigned to view artwork depicting analytical thinking (Rodin’s The Thinker) were less likely to believe in God than those assigned to view artwork with similar surface characteristics (Discobolus of Myron).
Recent research that is getting a lot of press, however, paints a different picture. Scientists from the Universities of Coventry and Oxford tracked down pilgrims on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain to ask them about the strength of their religious and spiritual convictions and how long they had been on pilgrimage. The researchers then presented these pilgrims with a probability task where they could choose either a logical or “gut feeling” response. Neither strength of conviction nor time on pilgrimage predicted logical or intuitive responses to the task.
In a follow-up study, an area of the brain devoted to analytical thinking sometimes thought to be more active in religious skeptics was stimulated in research participants. This had no overall effect on belief in God.
In science, this is what’s called a “failure to replicate.” In other words, with different samples and methods, findings sometimes aren’t consistent.
I can imagine an argument unfolding among my fellow psychologists of religion about how to interpret all this. Some might say they favor the processing style hypothesis because that research literature is more established, with the more recent research being merely an exception to the general pattern. Others might argue in favor of the more recent research because its methods are better, with a broader sample of people included and use of more advanced technology.
Personally, when I see mixed findings like this, my assumption is that, even if there is an effect to be found, it’s probably on the small side. In other words, even if processing style may be somehow involved, it may not be the best explanation for why some people are more religious than others.
So, what are better explanations?
If I were to limit myself to three variables – based on all the research I know about in the psychology of religion – this is what they’d be:
First would be our genetic predispositions. Research supporting this shows that identical twins – even if raised apart – are considerably more similar in religious beliefs and activities than fraternal twins. In fact, the scientific consensus is that 30-50% of individuals’ differences in religiousness is due to genetic factors, making this the single most powerful explanation.
Not that religiousness per se is inherited, but some features of personality that may influence religiousness, such as openness, humility, or proneness to questioning and doubting, may be genetically predisposed in ways that influence us more than we might guess.
Second would be a need for control. In one study, for example, scientists assigned individuals to either write about a recent positive event in which they either possessed self-control or one in which they didn’t. Remarkably, individuals who were primed to think about their self-control were significantly less likely to believe in a controlling God afterward.
I have an atheistic friend who jokes that, if he knew that he was imminently going to die, he’d offer up a prayer, just in case. Not that he would actually do this, but why would someone? When we lose control in our lives, we often turn to religion. When we have lots of personal control, we don't.
Third would be the groups with which we identify. By this, I mean family, community, and the broader culture. Research based on nationally representative Gallup polls supports this point. For instance, when asked “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” over 99% of Egyptians say “yes.” Compare this with 66% of Americans and 16% of Swedes. As an American, though I tend to believe I have chosen my religious and spiritual beliefs and activities, the reality is that I’d probably believe and act quite differently if I had been raised in Egypt or Sweden.
More specifically, I imagine it is the religious beliefs of those we most admire that have the greatest impact on us. If we have come to believe that religious people are “cool” for some reason, we’ll probably start believing and acting more like them. If, instead, we have come to believe that atheists are “cool,” we’ll probably move in that direction.
Genetics, control, and groups. Like every other behavior psychologists have studied, religious behavior is influenced by an interaction between nature and nurture. Still, there’s a lot we don’t understand. One tentative answer generates five additional questions. Mystery remains and, I suspect, always will.
Some people like to ask me how scrutinizing the psychology of religion like this influences my personal approach to religion and spirituality. Has it threatened the strong religious and spiritual inclination I had as a child?
Surely, none of the science I have reported here conflicts with my beliefs, a point that reinforces my general view that science and faith do not conflict if we probe the evidence deeply. My Christian faith also teaches that individuals have different inborn tendencies (“gifts”), need an anchor during turbulent times, and are influenced by their community.
In fact, if anything, science has given me another path to pursue matters of faith. If science and religion are two windows to understanding the universe, my life would be darkened without the light of them both.
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