(Courtesy of Rob Sica)
Why Do We Believe in God?
by Robert Winston
Many years ago, a team of researchers at the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota decided to put this association to the test. They studied certain fringe religious groups, such as fundamentalist Baptists, Pentecostalists and the snake-handlers of West Virginia, to see if they showed the particular type of psychopathology associated with mental illness. Members of mainstream Protestant churches from a similar social and financial background provided a good control group for comparison. Some of the wilder fundamentalists prayed with what can only be described as great and transcendental ecstasy, but there was no obvious sign of any particular psychopathology among most of the people studied. 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.
A Harvard psychologist named Gordon Allport did some key research in the 1950s on various kinds of human prejudice and came up with a definition of religiosity that is still in use today. He suggested that there were two types of religious commitment - extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic religiosity he defined as religious self-centredness. Such a person goes to church or synagogue as a means to an end - for what they can get out of it. They might go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement. Going to church (or synagogue) becomes a social convention.
Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a central and personal experience. In support of his research, Allport found that prejudice was more common in those individuals who scored highly for extrinsic religion.
The evidence generally is that intrinsic religiosity seems to be associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress, freedom from guilt, better adjustment in society and less depression. On the other hand, extrinsic religious feelings - where religion is used as a way to belong to and prosper within a group - seem to be associated with increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety.
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