On Religion and Personality

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know my self-study in psychology has taken me some very interesting places. Self-actualization. Creativity, perception, mysticism. Various topics in humanistic and existential psychotherapy. Religion, too, has been a part of these discussions; although, I admit, I’ve never been particularly interested in religion as a course of study. And so I spent a long time ignoring it. Or avoiding it. Thinking it superfluous to my more serious studies in being and becoming.

The irony here, I am learning, is that religion is probably where I should have been looking all along. Not in the sense of institutionalized religion, divine, or revelatory experiences, but in the connections between religion and personality. Or, more specifically, in what it means to have a religious disposition. What both A. H. Maslow and William James describe in uncannily similar terms as a kind of reverence for life. An orientation to the world which is not just harmonious, but energizing, grateful, soulful, and associated with living according to the highest values and virtues. Indeed, for both James and Maslow, the development of a religious disposition is a kind of ultimate in development. Self-actualization or becoming.

But this is really nothing new. And the impetus for this post has nothing to do with rehashing Maslow’s thoughts on religion and self-actualization. (I’ve done that a few too many times methinks.) Rather, I’d like to move in a different direction, one that was inspired by my reading of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (extremely highly recommended) and present an alternative interpretation of what it means to have a religious disposition

I am going to suggest something now which may be completely wrong and for which I have no evidence beyond my own speculation and the validity of my inner experiences. And it is this: our religious attitudes precede, or provide the foundation for, our other personality traits. They are primary, which, means our personalities may very well be hierarchical. Like I said, I could be wrong. But my intuition tells me there is at least a kernel of truth in what I just wrote.

The thought came to me this morning as I was reading James over coffee. He sets out to define religious attitude as an orientation toward an underlying universal order or primal truth. He doesn’t abandon the concept of divine encounter, but he expands it to suggest, I think, that being able to sense ourselves as part of a greater whole–whether that whole is defined as nature, God, the cosmos, etc.–is enough to constitute a religious attitude, or disposition. He takes great pains to distinguish situational behavior, or what amount to peripheral-type personality traits, from total attitudes, which are, by his definition, religious:

To get at [total attitudes] you must go beyond the foreground of existence and reach down to that curious sense of the whole residual cosmos as an everlasting presence, intimate or alien, terrible or amusing, lovable or odious, which in some degree every one possesses. This sense of the world’s presence, appealing as it does to our individual temperament, makes us either strenuous or careless, devout or blasphemous, gloomy or exultant, about life at large. – William James

My instinctive reaction to this passage and the lengthier discussion that follows: to keep replacing the word total with primary. So I stopped myself and reflected on this idea for awhile. Is it enough to say that our foundational beliefs shape our personality? Or that the unconscious is made up of archetypes (which James seems to indicate here), which shape our personality? Or—as my gut seems to be telling me—is there a core, or primary, set of personality traits, which then results in the development of secondary traits? For example, are the Big Five, possibly, made up of secondary traits? Is it possible there is a series of measurable attitudes that precede them or even cause them? It is, indeed, one thing to suggest that people who hold a religious attitude toward life are more likely to be conscientious and agreeable (I am making this up for the sake of example.), but it’s another to suggest that conscientiousness and agreeableness likely proceed from that attitude, itself made up measurable characteristics. 

I hadn’t thought of this before. But my own experience tells me—and very significantly—that it’s possible to develop a religious attitude over time, and in so doing, to watch our other, more peripheral attitudes change as our core orientation changes.

Interestingly, James suggests the same about emotions. Religious-type emotions, for him, have a solemnity, a heft, which is neither positive nor negative, though he seems to suggest they emanate from somewhere deeper. That they’re totalizing, soulful, or core, experiences. I have to ask myself again, is the development of a religious attitude toward life tantamount to a kind of self-actualization or becoming? Or is there something of a religious attitude that precedes all of this and makes the highest levels of being attainable for some people? (I have no doubt perception plays a very large role here, as well.)

At the moment, I’m apt to suggest the latter. This is a question to which I would very much like an answer.

16 thoughts on “On Religion and Personality

  1. If you are only defining “religious” as a reverence for life, I wouldn’t drag the religious category into it. At least to me, religious experience involves interaction with the wholly/holy other — that which is not me. This would affect and shape the personality too, not just one’s internal states. Without the encounter with the Holy Other, you only have a model of human psychological development.

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    1. I find it fascinating that James, even more than Maslow, set out to define “religious attitude” as an orientation toward an underlying universal order or primal truth. He doesn’t abandon the concept of Holy Other or miraculous encounter, but he expands it to suggest, I think, that being able to sense ourselves as part of a greater whole–whether that whole is defined as nature, god, cosmos, etc.–is enough to constitute a religious attitude, or disposition, that may provide the basis for our other attitudes. Now that I read your comment, I realize I could have been clearer on that point…Thank you for commenting.

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  2. The Varieties of Religious Experience is a wonderful book I have not read enough times, it needs to be reread often. And that I don’t fully understand. But I love that James looks to shake up our attitudes to God/religious experience. Who can really have a final say on that? A book like this keeps us on our toes.

    What are your thoughts on pantheism?

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    1. It is a great book. And what you say about it is interesting. I’m only partway through it, and it’s taking me an inordinate amount of time to read each chapter. I read a page or a paragraph and then I have to stop and reflect for 10 minutes before carrying on. I understand why it needs to continuously be reread.

      As for pantheism, I am very attracted to the idea that God is the universe, that God is “underneath” all living things. I believe that and, to a degree, I believe I can sense it. When in nature, for example, I have before had the the very powerful feeling that I am encountering God. But I also think that, for better or worse, my Western mind is so conditioned to monotheistic religion that I do find it challenging to identify with pantheism wholeheartedly. I actually just bought a Bible and started reading it. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, but I felt an inner urging to to do so. And I wonder if, given my current attitudes and experience, I might find better ways to assimilate some of these ideas. What are your thoughts?

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      1. I tend towards pantheism. I’m not steeped in philosophy or theology. But I get that feeling too, like you do in nature, for me it’s that it’s all somehow connected. I really like the line from Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman, “I and this mystery, here we stand.” That short line says a lot to me.

        I picked up a King James Bible about a year ago. I’m still making my way through it. I just think the concept of God is too vital to be already settled. But I generally shy away from religion. Though I think the poets have a lot to say about this feeling.

        Thanks for your post. I think it’s really important to talk about this.

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      2. I identify with the transcendentalists more than pretty much any other generation of American authors. Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau all gave incredible insight into that feeling. And I think you’re right: the concept of God/religion is far from settled and ideally, I think, should be based on an individual’s primary experience (i.e., that “feeling”).

        I appreciate having conversations like this, too, because it helps me clarify my own thinking and examine these issues from a different perspective. Thank you.

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  3. This is a fascinating read. I’m not sure if I understood your question… Whether religious attitude precedes our core characteristics?

    I remember reading Adler, and he wrote that starting from childhood we already give a meaning to life, based on the story we tell ourselves. The key often lies in that first memory one remembers. He thought of it as indicative of what informs one’s consciousness. And this meaning we give to life is pretty broad based… very close to that idea of religious attitude, in my opinion. One such meaning could be “there is no meaning to life,” “life is suffering”, “life is unsafe”, “life is love,” and so forth. A higher truth that orders and integrates our life experiences . As we grow older we will act out that meaning we have established from a young age in various ways.

    “But my own experience tells me—and very significantly—that it’s possible to develop a religious attitude over time.” How does one go about doing that? (asking for a friend, of course )

    As always, I enjoyed your musings. They’re very thought-provoking.

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    1. Thank you for the comment, Gabriela. Yes, that’s the question. Which comes first, religious attitude or other personality characteristics?

      And the primary or religious-type orientation I am talking about is very similar to what Adler suggests. An interesting point of departure, though, and a point on which Maslow and James seem to agree: “religious attitude” is positive. It’s not a general, or even mildly negative, orientation like “life is unsafe,” or “life is meaningless.” But, in order to be classified as religious, it must be defined by a positive sense of belongingness. A sense of one’s place in the world–nature, cosmic order, God, etc.–which results in feelings of harmony, reverence, exuberance for life.

      As for why I think it’s possible to develop this kind of attitude over time (I’m relying both on personal experience and on some of Rollo May’s writings here): I think it’s a process of changing one’s “place” in the order we perceive. And it can be a long process. It might start by making small changes, like adopting an exercise routine, waking up to and learning to respect our body’s cues, limits, and understanding how good it can feel to be active and in sync with ourselves. It then becomes easier to make increasingly bigger, more impactful changes based on that feeling of being in sync with our own needs and desires. I, personally, am a big believer in doing one thing at a time–in being present. One can only love in the present. And one can only really experience anything of the depth, beauty, and miracle of life in the present. But the biggest thing, for me, was spending time in nature. Not just hiking through the woods, but studying the trees, really looking at and interacting with all the creatures around me. There has been, for me, no more eye-opening experience than that. Once you see the life in another creature–really see that they’re just like you–it is, I think, impossible for your core orientation not to change. And for it not to become more religious (in an overwhelmingly positive sense). It’s maybe a move from feeling the world is unsafe to experiencing life as welcoming, from passive to active involvement in one’s life and environment. And I can’t imagine that, once one has successfully changed/developed that kind of core orientation, one wouldn’t also change in measures of agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, neuroticism. Seems inevitable to me.

      Thank you again for the thoughtful comment and for asking such thought-provoking questions. Happy you enjoyed the post. Also, thank you for reminding me of Adler. He is now at the top of my reading list.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, absolutely! I get that the religious attitude must be positive. I was only wondering whether the seeds for the presence or absence of that attitude are planted in what Adler referred to as this self-ascribed meaning to life.

        On the other hand, I keep thinking that major religions are based on the premise that “life is suffering”. This is a negative attitude, yet ultimately it can be very liberating when one accepts that external events are outside of one’s control and bad things will continue happening in the world, to loved ones, to oneself. It also increases manifold one’s compassion and empathy, and therefore the sense of connection to a world in pain.

        I love your thoughts on changing one’s attitude to life and becoming more attuned to one’s environment. It sounds far more pragmatic than this elusive talk on mindfulness. To my surprise, the impact of nature on our attitude and well-being came as a very late revelation to me (just in these last few months). All is not lost, but I wonder how many people lack this awareness too.

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      2. Yes, I think that attitude stems from a self-ascribed meaning to life. I also think Karen Horney described something similar in her neurotic types–insofar as we all have a central, or primary, orientation to the world, from which our other characteristics stem. (After chatting with you yesterday, I ordered books by both authors. Looking forward to reading them.)

        For me, the notion that life is suffering is a bit too negative; although, it isn’t wrong. So much of our suffering comes, I think, from having unrealistic attitudes about life. We expect the world to be kind. We often imagine that if we do all the “right” things, we’ll remain safe and happy. That, of course, isn’t so. And so, to envision life as suffering can be a liberation from these kinds of false beliefs.

        But I want to tell you a story: One of the most powerful sights I have ever seen, in my whole life, was in a field in the Serengeti. (I made a trip to Tanzania a few years ago.) It was a field full of wildebeest with a great lion laying right in the middle of it, a half-eaten carcass strewn behind him. The wildebeest were going about their business, feeding, resting, etc. And the lion laid on the grass among them contentedly, full. This was not suffering. In fact, despite the struggle and the violence that had obviously taken place only moments before, this scene was the opposite of suffering. It was one of the most miraculous things I’d ever seen.

        Nature is full of conflict. Nature is a constant cycle of birth and death. But it is also cause to rejoice. It is our limited understanding that makes all of life suffering. Our notions of what should and should not be that often cause us more pain than necessary. Anyway, it’s being in nature that makes me think that way. Nature is full of what we call tragedy, but that tragedy is part of the miracle. And I believe I encounter the miraculous in nature all the time. Thoreau had it right when he said, “I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” It is by the lightness of our spirit that we know we are part of a mystery that is, to my mind, inherently loving.

        Also, I imagine a great many, if not most, people do not experience the miracles of nature. But I think it’s great that you’re discovering them. It actually took me a awhile to get there, too.

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