February 27, 2006

Personality and Religion

What I refer to here is the effect of personality on one's religious outlook. Is there an effect? Well, we typically don't have a say in our choice of religion when we are born into a particular faith family. So my comments really apply to those who have managed to extricate themselves from the circumstances of their birth and upbringing (be it religious or non-religious) and have later made the decision to join a specific religious persuasion. Hence, they relate mostly to those of us who live in the Western, secular societies that recognize freedom of religion.

So then, what draws a person to 'join' a particular denomination, when there are so many to choose from? You might say it's just chance, dependent on who influenced them. Or for some, it's divine providence, which I think is legitimate to an extent. Yet for many, I think it's their personality. Those who are conservative by nature will be attracted to the traditional churches that avoid change and espouse established values. The more liberal seeker will gravitate towards newer, more exotic faiths that proclaim tolerant views and may not always use the title 'church.'

So what? you may scoff. What does it matter? Maybe not a lot, if you have no interest in such matters. For those of us who do, it indicates how subjective is the religious experience. We may think we joined a church for logical reasons-- but how logical is a religious peruasion? It would also help explain why, in a free society, there are so many flavors of so-called Christianity. And why they(practically) all think that they alone possess 'the true faith.'

And then there's the present reality, where huge numbers of people are born into either of the two main branches of Islam, which by all indications, is a very traditional, conservative faith. There is little apparent tolerance for deviant beliefs within the Islamic cultures-- so one may ask, 'What happens to those with a liberal personality, in such a society?' Good question. Could it be that they are drawn towards the fringe that populate the ranks of the 'jihadists' (the fighters)? I would answer no. In fact, I venture that it's the ultra-conservatives who are most doctrinaire and most amenable to the violent message of the extremists... just as in any religion. By contrast, the tolerant individuals are more likely drawn to education, business, medicine, science, and so on. They are Islamic but adopt a more tolerant interpretation of the faith. From the viewpoint of a western observer, the saddest aspect of an indoctrinated society is that there is no acceptance of dissent. Everyone is expected to conform, and if he or she doesn't, the consequences can be very severe. For it's almost a given that mono-religious societies are highly legalistic-- there's an explicit code of laws and rules, and they are strictly applied. It's this legalism that is the most caustic aspect of all conservative faiths.

In the USA, where one could expect that many believers found their faith by choice, the legalism of the ultra-conservative 'Christians' is a hallmark. They are the ones who would institute the death penalty for a menu of crimes; who would prosecute givers and receivers of abortion; who would like to incarcerate people for all manner of misdemeanors. They never seem to grasp that if you cast the net broadly enough, they themselves stand a likelihood of being caught. These caricatures of Christianity are ideal for the authoritarian personality that wants to impose 'law and order' with as much zeal as any Muslim. The liberal Christian element are not inclined towards worldly power, and are more in line with the 'love thy neighbor' ideal of original Christianity. Naturally, the conservative group condemn the liberal wing as worldly and profligate, and needing severe discipline.

The maddening thing about all this rumination is that the greatest casualty in this phenomenon is (no surprise) truth. I've had first hand experience in this regard. In my own case, I was very conservative in my youth (I know-- I got it all backwards!) and hence, inclined towards legalistic views. That's why it took me over four decades to fumble my way to enlightenment and freedom. I can look back and recall that I had the critical doubts that would have led me to escape... but my personality made me shrink back into familiar views. After finding freedom in the Christ-centered message, I not-unexpectedly tried to liberate my fellow believers. Predictably, those within the church I attended at the time were not interested. In fact, they were threatened and took steps to contain me and my errant views. Well, okay, that wasn't too surprising; so I went back to the friends who had been so important in helping me find freedom-- surely they'd be eager to embrace the next logical step in the process they inaugurated. But, No! Not a chance. They opposed me vigorously, absolutely unable to see the promised land I had entered. How could these scholars read the same texts as me... and come to entirely opposite conclusions?

That question haunted me for some time; until I realized the insidious effect of personality on their views. You see, intelligence has nothing to do with it; even knowledge is inadequate. When persons who are genuine followers of Christ reject new 'light,' it is baffling to the pioneers who forge ahead. Doesn't the Spirit of enlightenment treat all who seek truth equally? But, maybe that's it-- you have to be dedicated to seeking truth... regardless of where it leads. Too often, people are dedicated to a denomination, to a 'school of thought,' etc. They want to conserve their position; new ideas can be risky, they often entail breaks with church friends and family... the costs may be just too high to merit the pursuit of truth. Others become proud of some 'breakthrough' insight they have achieved, and are not willing to let it go, to move on, when new doors open.

In these situations the determining factor is not knowledge, not IQ, but personality. When someone greets a new idea with words like 'I can't buy that,' they are speaking, most often, from their personality. They are right: they can't accept the idea-- it doesn't 'fit' their mental map of reality, doesn't resonate with their emotional profile. At that point, they may never go beyond their self-imposed frontier to 'buy' the idea. Yet, if they are aware of their personal predispositions, it's possible for a person to look further into the idea, to give it a fair hearing, and eventually even come to accept it. In some cases, the unbeliever has no choice-- the truth, like old age, finally makes itself so evident, that the most skeptical person must admit its reality. But in many, perhaps most cases requiring belief, there is always a slight, gray area, that gives the inveterate skeptic the straw of doubt to cling to.

The question that has been pounding in the mind of you, the reader, is something like 'What makes you think your 'new ideas' are superior to the familiar, traditional views?' Fair question. It appears like a circular conundrum; am I not trapped in the same paradigm I describe? Perhaps, to a degree. In my defence, I offer these points. First, I'm aware of the personality pitfall-- therefore, much better able to consider its effect on my outlook. Second, when I find scriptures I can't fully understand, I admit it. I don't try to force an interpretation on some set of verses because that would complete some novel theory. How many lurid prophecies have you heard based on 'solid scripture' taken from that handy wellspring of phantasmagoria, the Book of Revelation? Some pundits recognize and admit that this book is written in symbolism; nevertheless, they expect to decide, themselves, which portions are symbolic, and which can arbitrarily be taken as literal. Or, the other common fallacious technique is to base prophecies on Old Testament 'promises' when, verily, anything in the Mosaic era must be taken as conditional. Third, I am not, repeat not, beholden to any denominational world-view. Consider this: if you take my views to your pastor and ask his evaluation, the first question he will ask is 'Where does this come from?' That is, what organization promotes it? What most pastors (and others) want to do is immediately categorize the idea in some ready-made 'box;' it makes thinking almost unnecessary. Fourth, anything I believe about the Christ-based faith can be backed up by legitimate, rational scriptural study. Sure, they all say that. But check out their 'exegesis,' the methodology used to reach their conclusions. Grabbing a verse here and there, taken out of context and slapped together from an unstated political agenda, is hardly legitimate Bible study. Yet some of the most widely promoted ideas in Christendom have been born this way. And now that they've attained a sufficient mass of adherents, they are simply accepted as stated-- hardly ever examined critically any more.

You see, the 'traditional churches' appeal not just to the conservative personality, but also to the lethargic. After all, the majority must be right... right? If that simplistic logic were true, there would never have been a Protestant Reformation. For those who want to be sure that they are 'saved,' the safest route, with the least strain on the brain, is to hitch your star to a popular wagon. 'There's too many choices out there-- they can't all be right;' so play it safe. Well, hey, maybe you can join several mainstream churches, and hedge your bets! Seekers know it doesn't work that way. Jesus stated plainly: 'broad and smooth is the way that leads to perdition, and many are those who travel it; straight and narrow is the way to eternal life, and few there are who tread it' (paraphrased). Sadly, the modern, Western churches are as populated by the listless as by the merely conservative. The apathy among Christians in striving for truth is as pathetic as it is virulent.

As the insecurity of the 21st century impells many towards religion, it's natural that these seekers will look for an institution that resonates with their inner being. The problem for society is to ensure that these institutions observe mutual respect, and that no personality type dominates. As long as the link between personality and religion remains hidden, we as individuals can be captivated by teachings that stray far from Biblical truth, and led, lemming-like, to dangerous conclusions. As long as that link is merely an interesting phenomenon, society can rest easy. But, it's clear that if a religious faction-- most likely, fundamentalist in nature-- should wrest control of government, we will all have reason to fear. That's why I believe it is important that people of faith, especially Christians, should pause to reflect on how their personality has influenced their choice of religious views. And the next step is to re-evaluate those views and ask if we are honestly seeking God's truths or drifting along in the dogma of our church. The third step for most is to pray for the wisdom and the courage to follow the Holy Spirit... wherever He may lead.

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