After I vowed to investigate the psychological differences between religious people and atheists my research threw a spanner in the works: there is more than one type of religious person. To be more specific, there are intrinsically and extrinsically religious people. What this means is that there are people who use the idea of God to empower themselves (intrinsically religious; internal locus of control) and people who allow God to take control of their lives (extrinsically religious people; external locus of control).
According to Allport (1950), intrinsic religion is something that ‘matures’. Most people start with an egocentric, extrinsic religion. Some people who have this type of religious belief will later internalise it and it matures into an autonomous belief which is dynamic (which is to say that it is divorced from its origins). People with intrinsic and extrinsic religions do demonstrably behave differently. Allen, Weeks and Moffat (2005) found that extrinsically religious people would discuss intending to change career paths but not act, whereas intrinsically religious people would act on those desires. Allen, Weeks and Moffat presume this is related to whether God empowers a person (an internalised locus of control) or has power over a person (an externalised locus of control). In essence, this is the difference between a person who will wait for God to act for them and an individual who is willing to act for themselves.
Another way of describing this phenomenon is this: those who believe in God’s plan and those who believe in God’s support. Ryan and Francis (2012) found a difference between these two types of people in terms of physical and psychological health. In their study, Ryan and Francis gave a questionnaire to (predominantly Catholic) Christians in Western Australia. This questionnaire measured their God-based locus of control and correlated it again their health. The health of those who believed highly in God’s plan was lower than that of those who believed in God’s support.
It is conceivable (and therefore something I now plan to add to my research) that atheists have this divide also. An internalised locus of control is easy to explain for an atheist because they have nothing to pin an external locus of control on. Therefore, they are highly likely to internalise their motivation to do good. A teaching colleague of mine, with a MSc in motivational theory, assures me that an internalised locus of control is a better motivator than an externalised locus of control. However, it is also possible to have an external locus of control, even if it doesn’t pin to anything. So, I want to know if there is such a thing as an atheist with an externalised locus of control and, if there is, how that impacts on their health or behaviour.
My original plan to investigate whether religious people have a more externalised locus of control than nonreligious people stands. But my reading has added layers to the question: if, as Allport found, religion matures into an intrinsic belief and motivator then I am likely to find differences across age. If, as Ryan and Francis found, locus of control impacts on health then it is probable that will influence work-quality (which I planned to use as a metric).