Research sheds light on the cultural and psychological correlates of religion

Psychology is one of the foremost scientific methods for understanding the phenomenon of organized religion and its cognitive, emotional, moral and social dimensions. To explore how these psychological elements map onto and mediate the subjective religious experience, an international team of researchers investigated consistencies and differences within and across cultures from 14 different countries.

Previous theoretical work has highlighted four main religious dimensions: believing, bonding, behaving and belonging. These four dimensions can be understood psychologically as, respectively, the cognitive (e.g., beliefs about transcendence, truth-seeking, existential questions), emotional (e.g., connection with transcendence and community through religious ritual), moral (e.g., norms, ideals, self-control and a values hierarchy) and social (e.g., insertion into community, continuity of tradition, collective identity) aspects of the religious experience.

The authors of the present study created a 12-point questionnaire (3 questions per dimension) to capture this experience among the 3, 218 participants from Belgium, Costa Rica, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, the USA, Turkey and Taiwan.

The results allow for some interesting conclusions regarding how different religions are experienced generally. All four dimensions correlated with religiosity, spirituality, and fundamentalism, with spirituality being more related to believing (cognitive) and bonding (emotional) aspects, and fundamentalism more strongly related to believing, behaving (moral) and belonging (social) dimensions.

Additionally, monotheistic religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam and Christianity) generally showed greater intercorrelation between the dimensions than non-monotheistic (e.g., Buddhism) traditions. Furthermore, in secularized Western European countries, believing and bonding were more prominent than behaving and belonging, while in religious Catholic countries, believing was higher than bonding or behaving.

The authors additionally tested each of the religious dimensions against (the Big Five) personality traits, and found that, for example, all religious measures were positively associated with agreeableness, conscientiousness, need for closure, order-related social-cognitive orientations, and high right-wing authoritarianism.

The authors note several limitations, providing an excellent framework for future research, including more comprehensive measures, better defined (and behaviorally distinct) dimensions, and more diverse populations (most of the participants were young, well educated adults, and many cultures were underrepresented).

The research, while preliminary, is a step forward in understanding how personality traits and psychological elements like cognition, morality and sociality correspond to religious dimensions like belief in transcendence, moral codes, and rituality, as well as political ideologies like fundamentalism. It also extends a body of research endeavoring to provide scientific explanations for the subjective religious experience.

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