The Psychology of Belief, Part 8: Quest

I've got to admit that this series has been kinda random, but here is what I was hoping to argue…

There is a certain configuration of religion that is highly explosive. Last week I tried to paint what that configuration looks like:

1.) Certainty: A feeling that what is right vs. wrong or moral vs. immoral is a FACT that is obvious to everyone and universally binding.
2.) Ingroup: The creation of an ingroup and an outgroup.
3.) Infrahumanization: Viewing the outgroup as less intelligent, honest, or righteous because they disagree with the ingroup.
4.) Victimization: A victim mentality justifying aggression (overt or psychological) toward the outgroup.

This configuration of forces is like dry brush out here in West Texas. Just a small spark and you get a conflagration.

Sam Harris (see first post in this series) notes these problems and should get some credit for bringing that discussion to the fore. But Harris goes on to suggest that religious moderates, people with a different religious configuration, have little to say to religious fundamentalists. I disagree. In the last three posts I've outlined a different way of approaching faith. Thus, I think a religious moderate can say a lot to a religious fundamentalist in order to attenuate the fundamentalist's strong certainty and ingroup/outgroup mentality.

Specifically, in the last few posts I've highlighted the following as a contrast to the "explosive" configuration listed above:

1.) Pragmatic belief: We don't act from certainty, but from the best information we have on hand.
2.) Religious Experience: We only get "hints" and "guesses" about God's activity and will in the world. Thus, we act humbly.
3.) Discernment: We cannot interpret our own religious experience. To do so would lead to deviance. We must intermingle our story with both Scripture and the larger community.
4.) Agreement: We seek to find expanding circles of agreement, thus reducing ingroup/outgroup tensions.

This list brings me back to psychology (where I feel a lot more comfortable).

In my area of research, the psychology of religion, the holy grail is to find a way to capture the "optimal" religious life. That is, a life that manifests the best of faith: Love of humanity, high ethical standards, deep spirituality. The difficulty for researchers like me is how to measure these things. Why would we want to measure these things? Well, because people differ on these dimensions. Not all religious people are humane, not all are ethical, and not all are spiritual. But many are. Psychologists would like to identify (i.e., measure) these differences because we would like to know how each "type" of person is produced. Does family matter? Does church matter? Does theology matter? The point being that, if we could find the correlates of optimal or dysfunctional faith, our efforts at spiritual formation might be more empirically informed.

But, to date, we don't yet know how to assess "optimal" religious functioning. All we have are partial measurements assessing a piece of the religious life. Relevant to this series is a religious variable known as "Quest."

Introduced in the 1970s by the psychologist Daniel Batson (see Batson, Schoenrade, & Ventis, 1993, for a review), I've worked some with the Quest construct (Beck, R., Baker, L., Robbins, M., & Dow, S. 2001. A second look at Quest Motivation: Is Quest multidimensional or unidimensional? Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29, 148-157; Beck, R. & Jessup, R. 2004. The multidimensional nature of Quest motivation. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 32, 283-294.). Specifically, Batson has suggested that a religious person high on Quest motives should, in Batson’s words, be “involve[d] [in] honestly facing existential questions in all their complexity, while at the same time resisting clear-cut, pat answers.” More specifically, Quest involves three related features: 1.) Readiness to face existential questions, 2.) openness to change, and 3.) a positive view of doubt.

In short, a religious person high on Quest motives sees faith as, well, a "quest." A journey. That is, they have not already "arrived." Faith is a process, a work in progress. The feature of Quest I've been most intrigued with in my own research is this "positive view of doubt." In my papers I typically call it "tentativeness."

What is interesting to me is that religious people high on "tentativeness" generally report better relationship with God and are more altruistic. Fascinating isn't it? Why would doubt produce such great stuff?

I think, after all these posts, we see why. Doubt and tentativeness open us up to both God and others. It means that the answers await us and the adventure of faith is in full swing. We don't own the truth right now, so we don't have to protect it. We don't have to build a fortress separating Us from Them. Rather, we leave the fortress behind, journeying forth on our glorious communal adventure to seek the face of God.

This is our quest.

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2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 8: Quest”

  1. This is great Richard. Certainty, Ingroup, Infrahumanization, and Victimization. Yes, you are right. I've seen it, I've experienced it. And thanks for giving us the positive side too. This word needs to get out.

  2. Just reviewing this old series, and it is great. I'm particularly intrigued by the connection between tentativeness
    and altruism. Since this is your hobby and not your profession (right?), I'd like to ask if you can point me toward any research distinguishing the psychology of certitude from the psychology of commitment, and any research in the philosophy of religion that draws distinctions between various objects of belief.

    On the distinction between commitment and uncertainty: I think a person can be uncertain but highly committed to something, uncertain and not highly committed, certain and highly committed and certain but not highly committed. These different configurations seem to be worth exploring to me. My own intuition is that the "holy grail" of good religiosity involves uncertainty and high commitment (to worthy objects), but that this combination is difficult to achieve. I suspect that certainty and commitment would tend to correlate to each other, making the religious quest for a state of uncertain commitment a psychological struggle; but in that, it seems like a worthy struggle at the very core of the journey of faith and the journey to reason (scientists/natural philosophers, after all, have their own commitments amid uncertainty.)

    On the distinction between objects of belief, an example might illustrate what I have in mind. I imagine that being highly committed to/certain of in-group division markers, such as procedures to determine eligibility to receive the eucharist, would tend to correlate to infrahumanization of outgroup members, while high commitment and certainty about a universal ethical standard (the importance of love, for example), would correlate to general altruism. Those correlations would be unsurprising, but for that reason they would help illustrate why distinctions between objects of commitment/certainty are vitally important.

    If you want to jump from psychology to philosophy and so bind these together, you could always look at Lakatos’ concepts of core and auxiliary hypotheses within science, and so give the elements of peoples’ belief systems the measure of dignity that we sometimes accord to science/ natural philosophy. IE: a person may have high commitment to the universal value of loving behavior, and lower commitment to something like eucharistic regulations, and this could be used core characterize their core and auxilliary beliefs differently. This would be more about making theoretical application and extensions of the data than direct research, but has its own role to play in de-objectifying the objects of psychological research.

    So if I can beg your indulgence in these borderlands between your work and hobby: is any of this remotely interesting from a psychological research perspective, and remotely close to the boundaries of the field in its current state?

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