I’ve brought this project onboard to my main site:
But don’t worry, the search continues! Please keep following me there.
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.
Bad things happen to everyone: from failed projects to lost jobs; broken bones to cancer; loved ones die. This was Buddha’s first noble truth: life is dukkha or suffering. But, we respond to suffering in a variety of ways. For religious believers these tragic events can make or break their faith. In times of tragedy, some find comfort in their faith. Others, unable to reconcile a good God doing bad things, reject their faith. And, there is a spectrum of responses in-between. But, what makes us react these different ways?
A couple of years ago, a dear childhood friend lost his little brother. His brother, otherwise perfectly healthy, dropped dead one day while playing baseball. For me, this loss of a young, vibrant life is the epitome of tragedy. Afterwards, my friend’s mother fell into a deep depression that remains unresolved. But, my friend admirably carries both his grief and his faith. This question, of how we react to tragedy, is not mere intellectual curiosity. It bears deep implications for how we live. This means that any study into the cause of our responses is facing a monumental task.
New research out of Seattle Pacific University looks at how our “cognitive flexibility” impacts our response. Cognitive flexibility is a way of describing the scope of our awareness. If you can imagine many different ways to cope with a situation then you likely have high cognitive flexibility. If I can’t imagine your point of view, then I need to do a little more cognitive stretching.
Trauma, understandably, has a negative effect on cognitive flexibility. A variety of studies have described the black-and-white, absolutistic, thinking common in people with PTSD. While major life events can affect our cognitive flexibility, this flexibility can also impact our lives. Other research shows that a high cognitive flexibility makes it easier to handle disagreements in relationships and to forgive others.
So, if cognitive flexibility helps us forgive others, then it would make sense that it also helps people forgive God after a hurricane wrecks their home. But, whether it is correlated or causal isn’t so clear. Russell McCann and Marcia Webb, Clinical Psychologists from SPU, set out to disentangle the complex knot of how traumatic events affect our view of God.
They gave their participants three surveys. The first measured the presence of PTSD symptoms: intrusive memories of the trauma,; numbness or avoidance; or hyperarousal- being jumpy or easily startled. It’s important to remember that they simply measured symptoms not the nature of the trauma itself.
The second survey measured cognitive flexibility. And they finally measured how people relate to God with the aptly (and humorously) named “Suffering with God Scale.” From this third survey McCann and Webb found two primary ways people react to God after a traumatic event: they either “endure” or they “struggle” with God.
“Enduring” is sticking with your faith through the difficulty. It was measured with statements like “My faith is strengthened through hard times.” “Struggling” on the other hand, means taking God to task or abandoning the schmuck altogether. Struggling was rated by people’s anger towards God or difficulty forgiving.
After taking these three measures, they ran a variety of statistical analyses to look for any relationships. A couple of relationships emerged, but even these relationships were not clean and crisp.
As expected, the more traumatic symptoms people had, the more likely they were to struggle with God. But, those with higher cognitive flexibility struggled less. So, regardless of flexibility, tragedies will likely make you angry with God, but the more flexible you are, the less pissed you’ll be at God after a crisis.
There seemed to be a threshold in how cognitive flexibility affected enduring. Low flexibility led one to stick with God less as traumatic symptoms increase. But, people with medium and high flexibility endured more. So if you can imagine alternatives and handle paradox you are more likely to find comfort in your faith in spite of tragedies.
In many ways this study simply confirmed expectations: tragedies led us to question God and the more imaginative we are, the less likely we are to be shook by those tragedies. But, when I think of my friend and his mother, the results feel unsatisfying. Am I simply to say “oh, she’s just depressed because of low cognitive flexibility.” Forget anger towards God, I’d have some rightly earned anger coming at me!
In the light of real suffering the results feel a bit trivial. But, I imagine this is because the question is so personal and so complex. We want a simply solution, but the Gordian Knot of suffering is too tangled for easy answers.
Trauma is too multifaceted to be measured by a single standard. You may be able to trace symptoms, as this study did, but this doesn’t distinguish between the variety of trauma. Losing a loved one, being sexually assaulted and handling the terror of war are all incredibly different traumas. No doubt, each event will affect how we see the sacred, but these effects will be dramatically different, even if the symptoms are similar.
How we relate to the sacred, is also a very complex relationship. Struggle could mean the intense spiritual crucible of doubt that challenges and transforms ideas of the sacred. Or, it could simply mean being pissed at God. Enduring could mean the persistence of Mother Teresa’s belief during a dark night of the soul, or the simple steady acceptance that doesn’t engage doubt. This study completely leaves out atheists, whose response to suffering must be taken into account.
The knot of suffering is made of many threads. And they are tangled beyond any simple solution. Even though McCann and Webb didn’t find a clear and clean relationship, they slightly loosened the problem and showed how one thread, cognitive flexibility, is bound up in the mess. While the results may not be the easy answer we crave, every small unraveling of the knot is helpful.
“The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.” -Thomas Berry
In my search to understand spirituality, empathy keeps showing up, but always on the periphery. It’s never center stage, not the way compassion is. Compassion is like empathy’s big famous brother. But I’m beginning to think that empathy is the quiet, unspoken genuis.
Okay, that’s an unfair set-up. As though compassion was a brazen profiteer, an Edison to the Telsa- empathy. But I do wonder why empathy is overlooked, maybe it is more difficult than the simple kindness that we easily label as compassion.
Heinz Kohut, a psychologist from the early 20th c., transformed my understanding of empathy. Indeed, his understanding of empathy seemed to transform as he sought to understand why therapy is effective.
It’s not interpretation: I think we can all agree on this. Knowing why we feel anxious doesn’t make the anxiety go away. Kindness is nice. It soothes anxiety. But, it too doesn’t really heal. Hypnosis would be a convenient cure and a bit magical. But, it isn’t generally effective. All of these are helpful, but none seem to be the essence of what cures.
So, what cures? Kohut’s answer was empathy. This insight transformed the field of psychoanalysis, and continues to guide practice today.
We think of empathy as walking a mile in another’s shoes. It’s a great idea for resolving conflicts. Less poetically, but more deeply, it is our attempt to appreciate another’s subjective experience. This is hard to do, impossible to do perfectly. But, my imagination really starts to buzz when Kohut moves beyond this normal understanding to describe empathy as a psychological nutriment. Like oxygen, empathy is vital.
Before Kohut I never really thought about psyche food. I knew what my brain liked: sleep, it really likes sleep, and vegetables. Whiskey seemed to make it hurt. But the mind, that was different. My mind seemed to like interesting ideas, new experiences, laughter and good stories. But these all just seemed like nice things. I never thought about them as vital, as though my mind’s well-being depended on them.*
I believe this view of empathy challenges all of our typical assumptions about who we are and how the world functions. My imagination wants to take off into the stratosphere of speculation, dreaming of interconnectedness. The post-modern world is a lonely place, with everyone lost in their own personal worlds. I like to dream of empathy bridging these gaps.
As much as I love meta-physical speculation, we don’t have to escape into imagination to find wonder. Wonder is on the ground.
For example, recent research shows that animals have empathy too! That’s more wonderful than anything I could dream up. Connor Wood wrote a great article reviewing this research. The best part is that they weren’t studying primates or even dogs. Those would be an easy sell. But rats? I loved Fievel and Ratatouille, but rats aren’t exactly endearing creatures. Yet, this research suggests that they also have empathy.
So, empathy is like oxygen for the psyche. And, even “low” mammals show empathy. These two insights leads me to believe that empathy has something to do with spirituality. I resist a specific definition, but spirituality has to do with the health of our minds, with how we relate to each other and the world, and who we are and what this world is. Empathy and its vital role in our well-being (and perhaps rats well-being too!) speaks to all of these questions. What it says is still open for interpretation. But, I’d bet that empathy may end up just as important as it’s big buddy compassion.
*I’m not trying to draw a sharp distinction between mind and brain. But, I do think that empathy is primarily experienced as a mental phenomenon.
On the brink of election season, it’s sometimes easy to imagine that liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. But does this mean that they also pray differently? Past research has shown that personality is directly linked with both political worldview and religiosity. This connection is examined more closely by new research on how liberals and conservatives pray. They differ, but not as we might expect.
Since political views are a piece of our personalities, it should come as no surprise that each political party has a general personality type. At risk of caricaturing each, research has described the conservative personality as emphasizing rules and order. Beneath this desire for order is a picture of people and the world as untrustworthy. To adopt Christian language, we’re talking about sin and the fallen world. This paradigm has been described as generally concerned with protection: the world is dangerous and we need protection.
Liberals, on the other hand, hold a worldview concerned with providing. If given the right resources, like education and health, then humans are good and trustworthy. Holding people in high esteem, the liberal personality is oriented towards providing the resources that nurture growth.
Understandably, these distinct worldviews shape what each party wants from the government. If the world is dangerous then the government’s main role is to protect us, sometimes from ourselves! If humans are generally trustworthy then the government’s job is to provide the resources we need to thrive. (Perhaps political debates would be more fruitful as philosophical discussions on human nature.)
Given these different views on the world, it’s not such a leap to think that each party would also pray differently. Indeed, past research has explored the link between religious and political worldviews. When asked what human life would be like without God, conservatives pictured “social chaos and unbridled impulse,” while liberals described an “empty world without texture, energy, or resources.” (McAdams & Albaugh 2008). These distinct personalities are like colored lenses that shade whatever we look at. But do they also affect our behavior?
A team of psychologists led by Dan McAdams, an expert in personality studies, recently explored how prayer is affected by these distinct political worldviews. Given the different concerns of each party, it makes sense that they would pray in different ways. But how these differences manifested was not so predictable.
Their sample group consisted of middle-aged Christians from the Chicago area. All participants were active in both church and politics and there was relative diversity among gender and race. The study itself consisted of a two hour interview with each participant followed by a packet of self-report questionnaires. Both the interview style and the self-report measures had been previously validated as robust measures.
During the interview participants were asked a variety of questions about their prayers. These questions ranged from when they pray to descriptions of what they pray for and examples of how. The transcripts from these interviews were then coded to measure five themes: protection; provision; forgiveness; thanksgiving/praise; and guidance. Beyond protection and provision, these other themes were adapted from past studies describing five types of Christian prayer.
Contrary to expectation, the research found that liberals were just as likely as conservatives to pray for protection. Liberals, however, asked God to provide for them and others more often than conservatives. While prayers for protection were equally spread, conservatives ended up being more likely to pray for guidance, forgiveness and to give thanks.
Since past studies have emphasized protection as the orienting value for conservatives, these results come as something of a surprise. But McAdams and his colleagues note that the data still fits each party’s typical personality. The liberal worldview is humanistic: people are pretty swell and deserve to be able to grow. Just as they work for resources from the government, they are also more likely to seek provisions from God: “Please give us the resources we need, God, and we’ll take it from there.”
The conservative paradigm, on the other hand, has a lower opinion of humans, but a brighter view of the rules that keep us under control. Therefore, the emphasis in prayer on guidance and forgiveness while exalting God makes sense.
Some of the differences in style of prayer could be attributed to different denominations, a factor McAdams didn’t control for. But this would only delay the explanation, since denominations are probably just as determined by personality as political parties. So it would seem that the same traits that dictate our political preferences also affect how Christians pray and what they pray for.
These results are especially interesting given recent studies linking health with different types of prayer. Prayers of petition were generally shown to be detrimental, while prayers of gratitude had mostly positive effects. In McAdams’ study we see a more nuanced spectrum of what one might petition for and how prayers of thanksgiving might be framed. As is expected with these sorts of qualitative studies, subtle nuances can make a not-so-subtle difference.
Exploring these nuances will likely give a fuller picture of “healthy prayer.” Regardless of future exploration, this study further supports the connection between personality and religiosity. So, just as liberals and conservatives will vote for different policy, they will also pray for different worlds.