Religion and spirituality are explosive and highly political topics (especially at the moment), and a lot of emotion gets attached to them. This post isn’t about trying to argue you into affiliating with a particular label, though. Instead, I’d like to zoom out and look at how religion and spirituality in general interact with people’s actions and emotions, and then zoom in to some open questions for you about how that might apply in your life.
I’ve been doing occasional posts lately based on ideas in Peterson’s A Primer in Positive Psychology, and this is another. It’s based on his chapter on institutions which enable positive psychological outcomes.
Extrinsic and intrinsic religiousity
In that chapter, he mentions the key distinction drawn by Gordon Allport back in 1950 between “extrinsic religiosity” and “intrinsic religiosity”. Extrinsic religiosity is most simply defined as religion used as a means to other ends (money, power, social status, security, belonging), while intrinsic religiosity is religion as an end in itself.
A few years later, Allport and his colleagues tried measuring these two orientations (Allport & Ross, 1967). It’s often reported that they found that extrinsically religious people were most likely to be prejudiced, but what’s less well-known is their other finding: intrinsically religious people were least likely to be prejudiced. This is still the case 45 years later.
Now, obviously in late-1960s America the people they were surveying were primarily Christians, and we can’t automatically generalize to other religions or other countries based on that evidence. What I would argue, though, is that every major religion (that is, every religion which is important enough in a society that belonging to it potentially brings external benefits) will end up having an extrinsic and an intrinsic form, just because humans are the way we are.
Let’s take Islam and Buddhism, which in the west, at least, have opposite reputations. Within Islam, the various Sufi movements have worked and still work for peace, tolerance and inclusiveness, while in Sri Lanka, for example, the name of Buddhism has been used to justify persecution and repression.
Every religion has its two sides. There are people for whom religion is a club (in both senses: a group to socialize in and something to hit people with), and people for whom it is the way by which they express, and reinforce, their highest positive values.
Two sides? Or two ends of a spectrum? I believe it’s the latter. I know for a fact (from personal contact) that there are people who have thoroughly internalized their religion in their day-to-day behaviour, who are kind, generous and loving people, and yet will express political views that contradict their personal character because those are the views of their religious institution.
Benefits of religion
And regardless of your internalized commitment or otherwise to the basic teachings of your religion, there are advantages to belonging to a religious group. Young people who are involved with formal religion show, on average, greater emotional self-regulation, less aggression, better academic performance and less likelihood to use drugs and alcohol, and delay their sexual involvement. Adults involved in religion show similar results and also are individually happier and have greater family wellbeing. Religious people are more likely to volunteer in their community, and faith-based organizations are effective in providing social and community services.
This is not to say, of course, that nonreligious people are never like this. Many are, including some who specifically reject supernatural beliefs of any kind. But before we generalize the excesses and failings of televangelists, bigots and know-nothings who loudly proclaim their affiliation to religion, let’s consider that they may not be representative of religion as a whole.
To consider only Christianity, certainly it produced the Crusades and the Inquisition. There’s a long history of institutional Christianity accumulating, defending and abusing wealth, power and privelege. But it also produced dedicated campaigners against slavery and child labour, and for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, racial equality, peace between nations and universal education – campaigners who were motivated by their faith. To look at only one of these two sides (either one) is to walk around with one eye closed.
But what if formal, organized religion isn’t for you, for whatever reason?
Spirituality has become a popular term for the specifically non-institutional and mostly non-dogmatic aspects of faith. Disillusionment with the externals of religion, with the organizations and the people who organize them, has led to a form of faith that takes away those aspects and keeps what is personally meaningful.
I’m someone who has continued, however tenuously, to connect to a faith tradition. Having been burned by religious institutions myself, I can fully appreciate why people leave them entirely, and I think that can be the right decision. To me, though, connection to a tradition with depth in time and breadth across a connected community still has value. It provides a centre and a grounding that can easily be missing from a personal spirituality. At its worst, “spirituality” becomes rootless, a drifting from one experience to another, and because there is nothing making people stay and do the hard work – because there’s nothing to push against – it can end up in a different kind of superficiality and become a way of avoiding growth.
Of course, any setting can provide that. I can hide from growth behind religious jargon and institutional involvement just as easily. But because one of the rules of the new spirituality is that you never criticize how someone is doing it, avoidance of growth is one of the big risks.
Questions and exercises
I’ve been saying a lot of theoretical stuff. Let’s move from the theoretical to the practical and personal.
If you’re a member of a faith tradition:
- What can you find within your tradition – what practices, what approaches, what methods if you like – to strengthen the force of the core teachings of that tradition in your day-to-day life? Do you chant, meditate, pray, perform physical movements, do something every day that connects you to the heart of your faith?
- In what ways do your faith tradition’s institutions currently accumulate, defend and abuse wealth and power? Can you do anything about that?
- What can you learn from talking respectfully and curiously to people in faith traditions other than your own, or to people who have a non-religious spirituality, or to people who explicitly have no faith but practice love and compassion towards others? In what ways are they your cousins and fellow-travelers? Could any of their practices or ways of thinking about things be helpful to you?
If you are “spiritual but not religious”:
- Is there a regular practice that you have that challenges and changes you, that you stick with even when it’s hard, that doesn’t let you take the easy way out and hang on to your issues? Can you work with someone else – perhaps even someone from a faith tradition – who will be hard on you and not let you avoid growth?
- Chances are that your spirituality is something you have a hard time putting into words. Have a go anyway, recognizing that the words are provisional and inadequate, but that you may gain clarity and insight from them regardless. Try to use your own words, not somebody else’s.
- Talk respectfully and curiously to someone who is intrinsically religious and involved in their faith tradition about what that’s like and why they value it, and to someone who is a “good person” but doesn’t hold any supernatural beliefs about why they feel and act as they do. See what you can learn from them.
If you are not a person of faith, but hold strong personal values:
- Are there any practices which might help to strengthen your ability to work out your values in your daily life? What might such practices look like?
- Read about the lives of people of faith who worked for causes you believe in: William Wilberforce, Kate Shepard, Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Dorothy Day. Reflect on what motivated them and how.
- Talk respectfully and curiously to people of faith and to people who hold spiritual beliefs but are not involved in formal religion. Ask yourself and them what they are gaining from their beliefs.
I welcome comments, of course, especially if you’ve done any of the above and want to report on how it went.
Do you want to be amazing? Become an Amazing Member and get immediate access to member-only resources like the How to be Happy ebook.
(I naturally won't pass your email address on to anyone else.)