Monday, August 13, 2007

Religiosity and personality: How are they correlated?   posted by agnostic @ 8/13/2007 01:01:00 AM

Bad news for atheists: individuals low in religiosity are more likely to have a "slacker" personality. And worse news: this is true even among intellectually gifted people. First, a disclaimer that I consider myself an atheist, though I would never use that term.* So no guff about having an agenda. Also, though obvious, it needs to be said that correlations don't tell you about particular individuals -- if you're a nose-to-the-grindstone atheist, then great. My purpose here is to describe correlations of interest to students of psychology or religion, as well as to deflate some of the smug -- and in this case false -- stereotypes that some atheists have about religious people.

In the interest of time (that is, to save me time), I'll be quoting most of the results since the authors provide enough exposition already. Throughout, the quoted article is McCullough et al. (2003).

Beginning with a review of the Eysenckian work done:**

Cross-sectional studies using Eysenck's P-E-N model (e.g., Eysenck, 1991) indicate that religiousness, as measured by a variety of indicators including frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of private prayer, and positive attitudes toward religion, is inversely related to Eysenckian Psychoticism (e.g., Francis, 1997; Francis & Bolger, 1997; Francis, Lewis, Brown, Philipchalk, & Lester, 1995; Lewis & Maltby, 1995, 1996; Maltby, 1997, 1999; Maltby, Talley, Cooper, & Leslie, 1995; Robinson, 1990; Smith, 1996; Svensen, White, & Caird, 1992; Wilde & Joseph, 1997) but essentially uncorrelated with Extraversion or Neuroticism. Indeed, the basic finding that religiousness is negatively related to Eysenckian Psychoticism (i.e., sex-adjusted correlations in the neighborhood of -.30) (e.g., Francis et al., 1995) and essentially uncorrelated with Eysenckian Neuroticism and Extraversion has been replicated with children, adolescents, adults, and older adults from around the world.

And then a review of the Big Five work done:

Several recent studies have employed measures of the constructs in the Big Five, or five-factor personality taxonomy (e.g., John & Srivastava, 1999; McCrae & Costa, 1999), to examine the association of religiousness and personality. Kosek (1999), MacDonald (2000), and Taylor and MacDonald (1999) found that measures of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were positively associated with measures of religious involvement and intrinsic religious orientation. These results are not surprising in light of the robust link between Eysenckian Psychoticism and religiousness because Eysenckian Psychoticism appears to be a conflation of Big Five Conscientiousness and Agreeableness (Costa & McCrae, 1995).

The authors' original contribution used data from the Terman Longitudinal Study to examine the relationship between religiosity in early adulthood and personality traits in adolescence. The latter were judged by teachers and parents, not self-reported. It's also worth noting that the students in this study were selected to have an IQ of at least 135, a point to which we return. Of the 1528 students in the TLS, the authors looked at 492 of them (280 male) for whom the relevant data was obtainable. Their findings:

Conscientiousness (beta = .14) was also a significant predictor of [early adulthood] religiousness, suggesting that for each standard unit increase in adolescents' Conscientiousness, their religiousness in [early adulthood] increased by .14 standard units.

And although other personality traits did correlate with religiosity:

Table 1 shows that children who were rated as Open to Experience (r = .11), Conscientious (r = .20), and Agreeable (r = .15) in adolescence went on to be slightly more religious 19 years later, p less than .05. In addition, adolescents who became highly religious reported having had relatively strong religious upbringings, r = .43, p less than .001.

These did not remain after their correlation with Conscientiousness was accounted for:

In part, the Openness-religiousness association may simply reflect the variance that Openness shares with the rest of the Big Five -- and Conscientiousness in particular -- in this sample. Measures of Openness and Conscientiousness were related at r = .43, which is not surprising because participants' traits were being evaluated within an achievement setting (i.e., they were rated by their teachers as well as parents), which might cause children who are more conscientious about their studies and assignments also to appear more open to experience (i.e., higher in intellect). Indeed, when we controlled for the intercorrelations among the Big Five through multiple regression, Openness and Agreeableness did not retain significant unique associations with religiousness, but Conscientiousness did.

So that's the reality. Atheists like the author of the following comment will no longer be able to assume they are more conscientious (original emphasis):

Personally, I trust atheists the most. I think they're more likely to keep their word than some Christians who think they're automatically going to Heaven solely because they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I think atheists, in general, are more conscientious about their actions because they don't want to face negative consequences in the here-and-now.

As anyone knows, that attitude is not exceptional among those who wear the atheist label. Nor can they move the goalposts and suggest that, yes, this may hold in general, but since atheists are smart, we don't need religion to make ourselves more conscientious -- "Only retards need a written rule system for how to behave," as brainiacs can rely on their superior common sense to behave diligently. But the TLS data contradict this self-satisfied pap as well: even among MENSA-level people, religiosity correlates positively with Conscientiousness. To be blunt, it's time for atheists to stop patting themselves on the back about how conscientious they are, since as a group they score lower than more religious people.

On a related note, I'm getting pretty sick of atheists congratulating themselves for having low divorce rates or infidelity rates. Steve Sailer has suggested that one reason why Massachussetts citizens have lower divorce rates is that they marry much later in life, so that would-be homewreckers take one look at their wrinkled, sagging skin and say, "Yeah, no thanks." Inductivist showed from GSS data that atheists commit less adultery, but I posited the same reason that Steve would have: for a variety of reasons, they're just not attractive enough to would-be homewreckers, sheer age being the most obvious one (just look at the putz in the article linked to in the beginning of this paragraph). And because infidelity correlates with Psychoticism or low Agreeableness and low Conscientiousness, we expect atheists to cheat more -- ceteris paribus, but in real life things aren't equal and thus most atheists are not put to the same tests of temptation.

In closing, although I'd like for religiosity to hold no relation to Conscientiousness, the real world does not care what I'd like. (On a side note, it's odd how frequently atheists fall victim to the moralistic fallacy in this way, given how many of them profess a belief in a universe indifferent to their desires.) Religious nutballs who paint atheists as deformed scoundrels are wrong, but merely not being a wretch hardly merits all the more-ethical-than-thou braggadocio coming from the other side. The data are in, and it's high time that some atheists lose the vainglory.

* "Atheist" understandably makes a person think of a permanent student activist who works in a used bookstore and argues with his co-workers over which progressive rock album is the best.

** If you want the full references to what McCullough et al. (2003) quote, it shouldn't be difficult to look it up on Google -- how many articles on religion and personality could the given authors publish in a given year? If that doesn't work, then email me. I just don't want to waste space listing out all their references.


McCullough, M., J. Tsang, & S. Brion (2003). Personality traits in adolescence as predictors of religiousness in early adulthood: Findings from the Terman Longitudinal Study. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 29, 980-91.

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