Intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations

A view from psychology.

I’ve just been reading a fascinating paper by Francis, Robbins and Murray (2010), examining the relationship between psychological type and religious orientation.

The notion of psychological type comes from Carl Jung’s work in the early twentieth century, which forms the basis of psychometric instruments such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the key distinctions made by Jung is the difference between introversion and extraversion, where introverts mostly gain energy from being alone, and are thought and depth oriented, while extraverts gain energy from being with other people, and are action and breadth oriented.

Francis et al. aim to explore whether there is any link between psychological type and religious orientation which, in this case, refers to intrinsic, extrinsic and quest religiosity. Intrinsic and extrinsic orientation (Allport 1966; Allport & Ross 1967) relate to the meaning and value of religion: whether one finds intrinsic value in religion itself, which gives meaning to the rest of one’s life, or religion is valued extrinsically, for its provision of things such as ‘safety, social standing, solace, and social support’ (Francis et al. 2010: 821). Quest religiosity (Batson 1976; Batson & Ventis 1982) is a further orientation, characterised by questioning, complexity and acknowledging doubts.

The findings, based on a sample of 65 people from an Anglican congregation, support the hypothesis that intrinsic religious orientation is linked with introversion, and extrinsic orientation is linked with extraversion. So, ‘introverts and extraverts may tend to go to church for somewhat different reasons’ (p.827).

This study is limited to just one church congregation, and it does not claim that all introverts are intrinsically oriented and all extraverts are extrinsically oriented. The authors emphasise that orientations are not mutually exclusive and different levels of all three are likely to be found in each individual.

My ponderings on this as a non-psychologist aren’t so much to do with introverts and extroverts and who goes to church for which reasons – I’m more intrigued by the question of where and how the line is drawn between intrinsic and extrinsic orientation. When is faith valued in its own right, and when is it valued in a utilitarian way, and what does this mean?

Researching churches in Ghana, I was struck by how practical religion was. People attended church and worshipped God largely as a way of attaining blessings and finding solutions to problems, whether  ill-health, marital discord, financial worries or danger of physical and spiritual evil. This would surely be counted as utilitarian, extrinsically oriented. There seemed to be nothing else, no contrasting intrinsic orientation, where religion was valued for its own sake, separately from everyday circumstances. And yet the spiritual was everywhere, people were intensely religious – every event and every condition had spiritual meaning. I came to the conclusions that, in that context, there was no easy distinction between the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’, and that the practical engagement was not evidence of a utilitarian attitude towards religion, but it was the heart of what religion was all about: the very nature of religion was practical.

I wonder if the UK is very different. What if belonging is not only a utility that people obtain from attending church, but actually what church is all about, not only in terms of belonging to a community of believers, but also finding one’s belonging in God? What if the things the church provides, such as safety and social support, are the same things that are at the heart of a person’s faith and give meaning to the rest of her or his life? Perhaps the line between intrinsic and extrinsic value is not always easy to draw.

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