Belief and Personality

An Empathic Understanding

We like to think our beliefs are well-reasoned, tested, and honed by experience.  That’d be nice.  But obviously culture plays a huge role in our beliefs.  If you need convincing, just look at the predominance of Christians in the US, Hindus in India, and secularists in Scandinavia.  But culture can’t account for it all, otherwise we wouldn’t get such diversity in the same culture.  The psychology of religion points to personality as a major predictor of belief.  While it doesn’t account for the entirety of belief, personality does offer an empathetic way to engage others without trying to “fix” them.

In her latest book, Diana Butler Bass, has described how Christianity is moving out of the age of “belief.”  The idea that believing the “right” set of things makes God like you, is passé if not outright ridiculous.   She points to this fundamental stance of the church as one of the primary reasons why membership is plummeting.  There’s no deepening spiritual journey there, no sense of what to do after you believe those “right” things, except go and try to get other people to think the same thing.  Pretty dull really.  No wonder membership is dropping.

There was a time when I tried to believe those things.  For the sake of experimenting, and a cute girl, I tried on the beliefs of Christianity: “Jesus died for me” and all its accoutrements.  They wouldn’t stick, and it wasn’t for lack of trying (she was really cute).  As I reflect on that whole experiment, I still wonder why they do stick for people.  Is it upbringing, some positive childhood memory or loyalty to family and culture, or a means to provide security against the existential ambiguity of living: why do we believe the things we do?

My last post was about the personality traits of atheism.  That research is situated in a much larger project in the psychology of religion to find the relationships between belief and personality.  That project is pursued with the idea that perhaps we are wired to believe certain things: perhaps our personality dictates belief.

Vassilis Saroglou, a French psychologist and director of the Centre for Psychology of Religion, is one of the loudest voices in this conversation.  His work specifically focuses on what personality traits lead to belief [1].

Personality and belief are both incredibly complex, so be wary of any direct causal explanation.  While the relationship is not crisp and direct, there are some strong correlations.  Both Agreeableness and Conscientiousness are positively associated with religious belief.  Of course this doesn’t mean all curmudgeons are atheists or that all religious people are polite.

Instead Agreeableness (taken from the Big Five personality traits) is described as “pro-social.”  So those people you’ve worked with who are more concerned with harmony in the group than achieving the goal of the group: they’re Agreeable.  It’s no surprise therefore that Agreeableness also correlates with a religiosity that is emphasizes relationships and a view of God as protective and loving.

When we think of conscientious people, we typically imagine those friends who are constantly trying to do what’s right.  Personality theory uses this trait to describe those who are emphasize orderliness and self-control.  This way of viewing the world likely makes them attracted to religious beliefs which emphasize a meaning and order to life and a transcendent set of values.

Both of these traits were reliably correlated with religiosity.  So someone who is concerned with social harmony and has a strong pull towards orderliness and self-control is likely to be religious.  Again, this is no guarantee.

Another interesting correlation emerged between Openness to Experience (another one of the five) and what Saroglou termed spirituality.  Being open to experience predicted a type of religiosity that was more self-reflective.  As expected, a low openness to experience was strongly correlated with fundamentalism.  So being open to change on a general level also means being more open to adapt one’s worldview based on new evidence and experiences.

Not too shocking, but what I find so compelling about these studies is their capacity to neutralize the often toxic conversation around belief.  How often are we caught in arguments about beliefs?  If not religious beliefs, then surely we fall into bitter debates around politics.  How would these conversations change if we saw different beliefs as products of personality instead of ignorance, malice, or fear.  I have a hard time demonizing friends who are shy for being shy.  What if I saw my Christian or atheists friends in the same light?  Dare I say my conservative friends?

Personality is not a guaranteed predictor of belief.  Like a watershed, our personalities are channeled by culture and refined by monumental experiences.  Our culture is built around demonizing others for their “wrong” beliefs.  This demonization happens every night on Fox news and the Daily Show.  Since this vitriolic culture is shaping and forming our beliefs, it is no wonder that any dialogue across difference (if it happens at all!) has become so toxic.

I think Diana Butler Bass is right: the age of belief is passing.  I hope it is, because I’m not sure how much longer we as a culture can live under the divisiveness this emphasis on “right-belief” causes.  Instead of believing the right or wrong thing, I believe there is a way of living that emphasizes values which transcend the schism of belief.  Empathy and health are my values.  And by understanding different beliefs as a product of personality I find myself better able to empathize and love those with whom I disagree without trying to “fix” that difference.

1- Other interesting correlations:
  • Religiousness is negatively related to: humorousness, sexuality, sensuality, and eroticism
  • Religiousness is positively related to: conservatism, honesty, and humility