Study: Measuring Aspects of Religious Experience Is Hard

Culture influences how we measure what people think and believe.

Posted Dec 13, 2017

Adrignola CC0 via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Adrignola CC0 via Wikimedia Commons

Religion is an important part of many people’s lives all over the world. Religions serve many roles for people, and those roles are stronger for some people than others. Religions provide a set of moral principles for people to adhere to. They provide a conception of the divine that guides adherents’ spiritual lives. Religious practice also provides a refuge for people who are dealing with difficult situations. Adherents also become part of a social group that can connect them to a broader community.

Gordon Allport took these elements of religion and divided them into types. Elements like the relationship to the divine and the importance of religious beliefs in guiding actions were aspects of what he called intrinsic religiosity. Intrinsic, because they are about the way that religious beliefs affect attitudes and behavior. Elements like feeling better as a result of practicing a religion or being part of a community are aspects of extrinsic religiosity because they relate to benefits of being part of the religion. These extrinsic benefits can be subdivided into those that are primarily personal (feeling peace and happiness through prayer) and those that are primarily social (feeling connected to a community when attending religious services).

Researchers are interested in the influence of these elements of religious experience on people’s behavior. The difficulty is that it can be hard to measure these aspects. Like many topics in social psychology, researchers create scales in which people ask questions about their actions and attitudes. Those scales are used to predict behaviors.

A paper by Adam Cohen and six colleagues in the December 2017 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin demonstrates the difficulty of measuring aspects of religiosity. 

They examined a scale for measuring intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity that is often used in studies. They first analyzed the questions to ensure that these questions really did appear to measure intrinsic religiosity as well as social and personal extrinsic religiosity in a sample of Protestants from the United States. This sample was used because much initial theorizing about religiosity uses popular religions in a culture as a basis for more global theorizing.

Then, they used the same scale on other populations such as Irish Catholics and Turkish Muslims. They round that the questions did not relate to each other as strongly in these other populations as they did in a sample of American Protestants. This finding suggests that it is hard to generalize questions that get at core aspects of religious experience across cultures and across religions. 

To follow up on this difficulty, the researchers looked at another sample of people who took this scale who were all from the United States but were either Protestant, Catholic, or Muslim. These participants were only given the measure of intrinsic religiosity. For this sample, the measure of intrinsic religiosity worked well for adherents of all three religions surveyed. This pattern of results suggests that there may be big differences across cultures in how people view their relationship to religion that may make it difficult to compare people’s behavior around the world using a single measure.

Finally, these scales do predict people’s attitudes. For example, in the study of American Protestant, Catholics, and Muslims, participants were also asked about their “warmth” toward a variety of groups including adherents of other religions, atheists, and gays and lesbians. They found that for American Protestants and Muslims, higher levels of intrinsic religiosity were associated with less warmth toward atheists and gays and lesbians. For American Catholics, intrinsic religiosity was not strongly associated with warmth for either group. These results are consistent with lots of other data that dimensions of religiosity predict attitudes and behaviors.

I like this study because it shows how hard it can be to do research well. A measure developed for one group may not work so well on another group. That means that researchers need to be careful to understand the relationship between what they are studying and who they are studying it on. After all, the conclusion of many research papers talks about what people do in general rather than focusing on the specific population studied.

Indeed, researchers have pointed out that most psychology studies are done on WEIRD populations. WEIRD stands for Western-Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries. A key task for the field of psychology is to figure out how much of what we have learned about WEIRD people applies to people in general.


Cohen, A.B., Mazza, G.L., Johnson, K.A., Enders, C.K., Warner, C.M., Pasek, M.H., & Cook, J.E. (2017). Theorizing and measuring religiosity across cultures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(12), 1724-1736.