Religion and personality

Nicholas C. DiDonato


Envision the typical religious believer. What personality traits come to mind? For some people, religious people epitomize ignorance, intolerance, and stubbornness; for others, they personify love, grace, and forgiveness. Of course, simply asking how people perceive a certain group in no way indicates whether they accurately perceived said group. An empirical approach is needed. Taking up this challenge, psychologist Vassilis Sarogloul (Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium) argues that the fundamental personality characteristics of the religious, regardless of culture, are Agreeableness and Conscientiousness.Read More

To make this case, Sarogloul relies on the Big Five Personality test. The Big Five Personality test categorizes someone’s personality into five dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Openness describes someone’s sense of imagination and adventure. Those who score high on Openness possess a curious intellect that enjoys abstractions, while those with low scores prefer the clear, conventional ideas. Conscientiousness measures someone’s self-discipline and ability to plan ahead of time. Extraversion indicates that someone actively engages the outside world, both (and especially) in terms of social interactions and seeking social stimulation. Agreeableness means that someone defaults to a sympathetic or empathetic mode of relating to others, and those with low Agreeableness scores tend towards suspicious, and even hostile, ways of relating. Finally, people with high Neuroticism scores are easily emotionally agitated, while those with low scores are not.

In order to account for religion, Sarogloul measures religion in three dimensions: religiosity, spirituality, and fundamentalism. Rather than conducting an independent survey, Sarogloul opts for a meta-analysis on existing data. That is, he relies on other researchers’ surveys that include at least the Big Five Personality Test and the three dimensions of religion. In all, he draws from 63 studies (71 samples), encompassing 19 countries.

Sarogloul finds that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness positively correlate with religion in all three dimensions. He explains this correlation by saying that Agreeable people invest in religions that emphasize “social harmony,” human relationships, and a caring God, and that Conscientious people seek religions that provide meaning to life and to the world as a whole. As such, Sarogloul believes that personality reveals two main functions of religion: (1) ordering one’s world and so working towards personal stability, and (2) concerning oneself with others’ well being. Importantly, Sarogloul does not see religion and personality type in a simple causal relation, but explicitly acknowledges the importance of context and culture. After all, personal values, social attitudes, and beliefs play a role in one’s religiousness—none of which are reducible to personality.

Furthermore, the spirituality dimension of religion positively correlates with Openness and Extraversion, and the fundamentalism dimension negatively correlates with Openness. As for the religiosity dimension, no factors influenced it other than Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. Neither gender nor age played any role in these or the above findings.

Sarogloul appreciates religion’s cultural contributions in the forms of personal stability and social morality, but warns that, due to its lack of correlation with Extraversion and Openness, it neglects other societal needs such as humor, play, and social change. Those who respond to these neglected needs tend towards non-belief, Sarogloul hypothesizes. Of course, some of the founders of the major world religions (e.g., Buddhism, Christianity, Islam) founded a religion as a social reaction to the status quo. In other words, many religions, at their root, were a social change.

Nevertheless, religious people should still take to heart the finding that they may (no correlation radically differs from negative correlation) lack Extraversion and Openness. After all, it’s hard to think of a religion that would disapprove of improving one’s personality.

For more, see “Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective” in Personality and Social Psychology Review.

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