Investigating the Psychology of the Religious

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).


My references

Allen, David; Weeks, Kelly and Moffat, Karen (2005) Turnover Intentions and Voluntary Turnover: The Moderating Roles of Self-Monitoring, Locus of Control, Proactive Personality, and Risk Aversion.

Allport, Gordon (1950) The Individual and His Religion. Macmillan Publishing

Ryan, ME and Francis, AJ (2012) Locus of control beliefs mediate the relationship between religious functioning and psychological health


Further reading

Kahoe, Richard (1977) Intrinsic religion and authoritarianism: a differentiated relationship

Murk, D.A. & Addleman, J.A. (1992). Relations among moral reasoning, locus of control, and demographic variables among college students


10 thoughts on “Investigating the Psychology of the Religious”

    1. I’m not sure “intrinsic atheist” means anything in the same way “intrinsic theist” would. When you talk about an intrinsic theist you are talking of a person who has internalised God as a source of motivation (these may be the people who feel God is encouraging them to do exactly what they always wanted to do, but that’s a cynical digression). I’m not sure what idea you would internalise to be an intrinsic atheist. Perhaps intrinsic humanist would make more sense.

      1. Fair point, I was thinking along the lines that an intrinsic atheist is some one who empowers himself by shaking off religious prejudice and to seek answers for him- or herself.

        1. I’m not an expert (obviously). In terminology, making “atheism” an active thing seems to make the motivation “shaking off the religious prejudice”. That gives the impression of internalising the motivation of going directly against religious ideas (e.g. the Church says “oppress”, and that is why I say “Liberate”).
          I know that’s not the meaning you’re going for, and perhaps I’m the only person that would see the term “intrinsic atheism” that way.

  1. Sure there is: the “universe.” Of course, people have just substituted “god” with the word “universe” but they do so from a position of “there are no gods.”

  2. Off the top of my head, possibilities for an externalized locus for atheists would be determinism (no fee will), and social loci such as oppressive government, economy, or corporations.

    1. It is true that atheists could have social convention as a locus of control. But that’s not an atheist locus of control (alternatively, having God as a locus of control as a religious person is inherent).
      Having determinism as a locus of control would be weird, because it shouldn’t inform your decisions… Interesting.

      1. Yes, but the religious have god as a locus of control outside of the social ones. i.e.: even if the world is holding you down, at least there’s god, and he’ll make everything right. So it is atheist in that you’re cutting god out of the picture.

        And determinism, it’s like being a cog in a machine. You can only be as good as the environment you’re lucky enough to exist in. The locus would then be the world around you.

  3. […] I’ve posted a few times about the idea of doing research that hasn’t been done yet. I had a look at why science hasn’t investigated whether locally produced honey cures hayfever, pondered the look at comparing the locus of control of the religious and irreligious and then, as the previously mentioned investigation became increasingly complicated, I looked at people using religion to empower themselves against them using it to disempower (not a word) themselves. […]

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