How religious are adults?

As for the prevalence of religion in adults, despite a serious lack of research, there are some proposed trends. Among all of the major studies of religiosity among adults, females tend to be more religious than males. This may be due to a difference in the physiological development between men and women, or to the compatibility of the adult life with a religious attitude.

While data appear to be incomplete and often inconsistent, the major finding seems to be that religiousness and religious maturity increase with age. Many studies challenge the stereotype that college educated people lose their faith or become less religious. Although longitudinal studies are difficult, and the cohort effect is very salient when dealing with studies of religion, much more research is needed to fully understand the role of religion throughout the adult life.

Intrinsically Religious vs. Extrinsically Religious

A turning point in the psychology of religion came in the 1960s when Allport as well as Allen and Spilka developed the idea of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientation. Intrinsic religious orientation describes those for whom religion has become an important internal construct that trumps or oversees other aspects of life, such as economic or social needs. Religion is less intertwined with the internal mentality of those who are extrinsically religious. Instead, they are more involved in the outward aspects of religion, such as attending church or performing religious rituals. An extrinsically religious individual might only be interested in attending church for social reasons, or perhaps because he or she believes that attending church will lower cholesterol levels. Some people might not fit neatly into one of these two categories, but instead find themselves involved in religion both intrinsically and extrinsically (indiscriminately proreligious) or neither intrinsically nor extrinsically (indiscriminately antireligious).

Other psychologists believe that the intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations can be explained with the concept of a “closed cognitive style.” Those with this dogmatic, black and white mentality tend not to make tenuous distinctions and are said to be indiscriminately proreligious or antireligious because they will agree or disagree with religion across the board.

As opposed to religious conversion, the development of religion in an individual across time is a longer process. Some studies suggest that as people become older, they will become more intrinsically religious. Outward behavior that appears to be extrinsically motivated in youngsters often looks the same in an adult but develops an internal intrinsic fortitude. These studies show an increase in religious integration in older adults, which could be evidence of increased intrinsic attitudes or alternatively of an obvious psychological inevitability to become more familiar and frequent with religion with age.

Religious Experience in Adults

Experience is at the core of all of our knowledge and understanding. After all is said and done about one’s empirical understanding of the world, they are still left with only their personal experience as a basis for any beliefs. Because experience is idiosyncratic, or relative and unique to the individual, it is important to understand the psychological influences that influence personal experience in religion. Studies show that thirty-nine percent of people have felt contact with the dead, and thirty-two percent claim to have felt the presence of a force that they feel is powerful and greater than them. Religious people are more likely to report these experiences, which leads researchers to believe that one’s religious affiliation plays a hand in what experiences people are subjected to.

Some say religiousness may influence experience, and others say that experience may influence religion in a person. For example, a religious person may come across an event in his or her life and then use this experience as confirmation of his or her religion. This would be an example of religiousness influencing experience. Alternatively, a person might come across a certain experience that instigates them to become religious or more religious. Since both of these situations occur, it may be best to think of a dynamic relationship between experience in religion; often times religion influences experience, and vice versa. To explain the nature of religion’s impact on experience, psychologists have developed several theories.

The Origins of Religious Experience

The common core thesis proposes that both religious and nonreligious persons have the same sort of inner experiences but then filter these experiences through either a religious lens or a nonreligious lens. Religious people will outwardly explain their experiences using religious language, whereas nonreligious people will use alternative methods of explanation, however the common core thesis suggests that the inner experiences themselves are similar between the two groups.

In accompaniment to the common core thesis, the constructivist thesis proposes that inner experiences are dependent on the acquired religious or nonreligious language that people have at their disposal before entering into conscious awareness. This theory suggests that there is no core, or “pure,” experience that is not in some way dependent on or emerging from the language or concepts held by people.

Some cognitive psychologists use the concept of religion-as-schema to explain the emergence of religious experience within an individual. These psychologists use the term schema to represent a cognitive knowledge structure that exists within a person’s mind that is organized from past knowledge and experience. While religion at large is not a single schema, individual religions would represent various schemas. Some psychologists claim these schemas work closely with people’s lower level or unconscious cognitive processing to produce conscious understanding of experiences. An experience may have the initial form of “raw data,” which a schema will then sort out and make sense of in terms of its schematic structure, be it a religious one or otherwise.

Some social psychologists put forth the cognitive-arousal theory. This theory claims that the social context surrounding a person’s experience will greatly influence the final internal interpretation of the experience. One study showed that those unwittingly injected with epinephrine, a drug that increases heart rate and concentration, will differ their story of experience based on the type of social cues made available to them. Still, one should be cautious of applying these results to the psychology of religion because these experiments study misattribution caused by social cues. Moreover, religious experience oftentimes occurs in isolation or induced by nonsocial factors such as drugs or music.

Other psychologists have proposed that attachment theory, which is used elsewhere in psychology to explain issues of dependency, is helpful in explaining the sorts of religious experiences people encounter. This construct is more often used to explain the emotional side of religious experience. Those with high levels of attachment see God as comforting and loving. Some even claim to fall in love with God. Attachment theorists see behavior such as glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, as childish attachment to God. These theorists use mental models to explain an individual’s level of attachment, which they believe to be determined early in life.

Religious orientation, discussed earlier, plays a role in the amount of religious experience a person encounters. For this purpose, religious experience is measured with an instrument called the Religious Experience Episodes Measure (REEM). Subjects rate how accurately various qualitative descriptions of experience reflect their own experiences. Based on these results, it appears those who are intrinsically religious have the most religious experience, while extrinsic and indiscriminately proreligious people have less. Indiscriminately antireligious people score the lowest on the REEM. This indicates that the level of internalization of a person’s religion is in correspondence with their amount of religious experience.

Situational factors also play a hand in the religiousness of an individual’s experience. One study showed that suggesting a subject think of cartoons while in an isolation tank resulted in a lower amount of self-reported religious experience than those who had been suggested to think of religious figures. Furthermore, being in a state of deindividuation, or psychologically imbedded in a group of people, tends to alleviate a person’s sense of responsibility and leads to increased religious behavior such as profuse outward performances, including glossolalic speech.

Religion, Attitude, and Behavior

Social psychologists have shown that reported attitudes do not always translate to performed behavior. For this reason, behavioral studies in the psychology of religion are important. However, very few data exist from behavioral research in the area. The two most famous studies of behavior in relation to religion are a “Good Samaritan” study and an obedience to authority study. Both studies, although incongruent in their results, show the importance of behavioral research in the study of religion.

In the “Good Samaritan” study, researchers reenacted the story of the same name from the Bible in which two prominent religious figureheads passed up an opportunity to aid a person in need of medical attention. Researchers sent forty seminary students across campus to give a speech. Half of the students were to speak of the “Good Samaritan” story, while the other half were to talk of a morally irrelevant subject. Also, a third of the students in each group were sent in a prompt rush, another third were sent in a moderate rush, and another third were sent in no rush. Along the way to give their speech, an actor crouched in a doorway and appeared to be ill. The researchers predicted that the students with the story of the importance of being a “Good Samaritan” would stop to help the victim more often than those who were not immediately mindful of the moral issue. Instead, the data showed that the more hurried the rush, the more unlikely the student was to stop and assist the victim. This study is significant because it exposes the difference between the attitude of the subjects and their actual behavior.

Another study put subjects in a position where they were to choose between harming another person by shock or disobeying orders from the experimenter. Of course, the person who was to be harmed was a confederate of the study and was under no actual threat. The researchers predicted that religious moderates would be less likely to follow orders and the strong believers and strong nonbelievers would be less likely to shock the victim. Instead, the researchers found the opposite to be true. Strong believers and nonbelievers were more likely to obediently shock the victim, whereas the religious moderates were more likely to disobey the experimenter in favor of not harming the victim. Perhaps the subjects who were more religious or nonreligious were more intrinsic than the religious moderates. This would be consistent with the previously explained concept of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientation. Another way to interpret the data is that the subject disobedience correlates with independent decision-making. Those who are more likely to obey the experimenter might be more concerned with conforming to social desires, or in this case the desire to follow the orders of the experimenter.

The inconsistencies between these two studies illustrate that more research is needed in the behavioral realm of the psychology of religion before an assessment can be made as to whether religion truly predicts behavior. For now, consider the possibility that in some cases of transcendent and intrinsic religiosity, religion can predict behavior. But in those who are not as willing to intrinsically dedicate themselves to a religion, other psychological influences come in to play.


Hood, Ralph W., Jr., Spilka, Bernard, Hunsberger, Bruce, & Corsuch, Richard. The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford, 1996
Paloutzian. Invitation to the Psychology of Religion (2nd ed.) Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 1996

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.