Thursday, October 13, 2005

Why matters

One of the reasons I protest the notion that religion automatically leads to societal problems, as posited in the Times of London a few days ago, is that I have seen spiritual practices work on the individual level to spare people from a great deal of personal dysfunction. By my logic, a group of healthy thinkers organized in a society will not have as many problems as one composed of people with more pathological mindsets. And if religion can help people be more sane, its presence in a society will not automatically lead to problems the same way burning coal leads to air pollution. I’m obviously not the first person to feel this way. And an article in the Guardian points out that how one approaches religion may be the big difference between healthy and unhealthy practices.

The article discusses Robert Winston’s latest book, The Story of God. Within it, he discusses the genetic tendency toward faith and morality (noting that the two are not intrinsically linked) and how people have approached those questions over time. The commentary on Gordon Allport’s research back in the 1950s within it gets to the core of my beliefs on this issue. Allport saw two sorts of religiosity in standard practice: intrinsic and extrinsic. The intrinsically religious see their faith as an end in itself. Practicing their beliefs is a central and personal experience that informs how they conduct their lives. The extrinsically religious, however, see religion as a means to an end. They practice because they think it is the right thing to do in order to fit in or advance socially. Allport’s research found that the intrinsically religious were more prone to be well-adjusted. The extrinsically religious were more prejudiced and in a higher state of emotional stress overall.

Follow that with the study performed by the University of Michigan some years ago on ecstatic Christians (old-school fundamentalists and snake-handlers) vs. mainstream Protestants. I turn to the article’s wording to explain it further:
After further analysis, however, there appeared a tendency to what can only be described as mental instability in one particular group. The study was blinded, so that most of the research team involved with questionnaires did not have access to the final data. When they were asked which group they thought would show the most disturbed psychopathology, the whole team identified the snake-handlers. But when the data were revealed, the reverse was true: there was more mental illness among the conventional Protestant churchgoers - the "extrinsically" religious - than among the fervently committed.
It seems clear to me that the extrinsically religious are setting the tone of the dialogue for spiritual expression in public these days. The intrinsically religious would be, I think, far less prone to insist on adding their god’s name to a patriotic pledge and insisting it be recited by people who worship elsewise. They certainly wouldn’t want their central tenets carved into marble and placed in a secular building. That would make it too impersonal as well as imposing on the personal beliefs of others.

That leaves me with two thoughts. First, people shouldn’t blame religion when it’s the motivations behind its practice that make the difference. Second, attempts to appeal to the extrinsically religious from an intrinsic position may need to consider how they are motivated by social pressure. Is it possible for us to encourage a society that looks down on enforced conformity without turning that into the new oppression? I can’t answer that myself. But it needs to be asked, I think, in many places.

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