Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religiosity

The Religion of Brickyard Gary & the Religion of MLK

Poor Gary.  We all know these guys, and yes, they are always guys.   They find the busiest hub of campus at the busiest time of day.  They pace around in boring suits, Bible in hand, and spew hellfire all over the place.  This hateful man would condemn just about anything that moved.  And his hate was contagious.  If I sat there long enough, I’d also be fuming, but not at the girls who made Gary a little too excited and Gary’s god angry.

It takes a heart as deep as MLK to not be angry at Gary.  MLK was able to respond to tremendous rage and fear with love.  Watch him and you’ll begin to feel how extraordinary this is.  And it cannot be denied that religion played an essential role in this response.

Since my goal is to parse and understand the helpful parts of religion, the enormous rift between Gary and MLK seems like an appropriate gap to explore.  Really, to spend any time with religion, and in this world, requires coming up against this difference.

The difference could be described by their different pictures of God or people or salvation, but that explanation is more of a description.  I want to know why.  Why does religion stoke some people’s fear and other’s love?

In the forties and fifties there was a slew of research linking religiosity and prejudice.  Study after study showed that regular churchgoers were more intolerant of minority groups.  This challenged deeply held assumptions, so they’d do another study and only strengthen the connection.

I don’t say this to condemn religiosity or going to church.  Christopher Hitchens and the other three horsemen do a good enough job of that (with up-to-date stats which tell the same story).

So, studies are linking religion and prejudice, but at the same time people saw religion leveraging tremendous positive change for the civil rights movement.  This dissonance, the same difference between Gary and MLK, led psychologists such as W. C. Wilson and G. W. Allport, to search for a deeper cause.

They did so by developing a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity.

The intrinsically religious see religion as valuable unto itself.  Instead of religion serving another motivation, religion provides the master motivation.  In other words, the intrinsically religious try to order their life by their creed, not the other way around.

The extrinsically religious go to church with another end in mind (although likely subconscious).  It may be making that new business connection or finding a spouse.  Or it could be psychological security, solace or self-justification.

These two positions lead people to approach religion in dramatically different ways.  And the distinction revealed a deeper connection than the simple correlation between religion and prejudice.  It was not the religious who were intolerant, it was the extrinsically religious.

This study is old and contains many issues.  Normally I try to stay a little more contemporary.  But the contemporary studies I read keep referring to this distinction.

It’s one of many standards that parse the different people that are too easily grouped together under the same umbrella of religious.  Other standards include the wider difference between liberal and conservative mindsets.  Or more specifically, distinguishing between prayers of gratitude and prayers of petition (i.e. God please give me…).  Turns out, petitions are detrimental to your health.

Each of these distinctions help nuance our understanding of religion and spirituality.  More importantly, they shift our focus from people’s behavior to the worldviews that motivate those actions.  Allport himself was hesitant to say that intrinsic/extrinsic religiosity actually caused prejudice.  Instead, underlying personalities cause the link: “a life that is dependent on the supports of extrinsic religion is likely to be dependent on the supports of prejudice.”

As I am trying to grasp what spirituality is and why it is helpful, these distinctions are incredibly illuminating.  More important they help us occupy each other’s worldview.  Understanding is an antidote for viral hate.  If I can grasp Gary’s mindset, even just a little bit, then there will be a little less hate on the planet.  To me, that seems intrinsically useful.

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