One of the biggest difficulties in studying the religious mind is the inconsistency of results from study to study. One will show a high correlation between closed-mindedness and religiosity, and another will yield insignificant results. (It’s noteworthy that there are no studies demonstrating a negative correlation between the two.) Various “negative” personality traits have been linked to high religiosity:
..dogmatism (Francis, 2001, for review), authoritarianism (Duck & Hunsberger, 1999;Leak & Randall, 1995), risk avoidance (Miller & Hoffmann, 1995), low spontaneous humor creation (Saroglou, in press; Saroglou & Jaspard, 2001), low openness to experience (Saroglou, 2002b, for review), stereotypical thinking (Watson et al., 1999),non-proscribed prejudice (Batson et al., 1993;Duck & Hunsberger, 1999), in-group favouritism (Burris & Jackson, 1999; Jackson & Hunsberger, 1999), values emphasizing the need for reduction of uncertainty (values of conformity, tradition and security) and low importance attributed to the values emphasizing openness to change (values of self-direction and stimulation) (Beyond dogmatism: The need for closure as related to religion. Saroglou, Vassilis; Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Vol 5(2), Jul, 2002. pp. 183-194.)
Even so, there’s been a pesky inconsistency to the whole thing. Something has been missing from our understanding of the religious mind. While it’s certainly true that many religious people tend strongly towards these characteristics, the significant number of exceptions to the rule demands an explanation. Why are some people drawn strongly to religion even though they’re not typically closed minded?
Enter the Need for Closure. This psychological trait is defined in five parts, as follows:
(1) ‘desire definite order and structure in their lives and abhor unconstrained chaos and disorder’ (preference for order);
(2) ‘would experience as aversive situations devoid of closure’ (discomfort with ambiguity);
(3) desire a secure or stable knowledge, that means ‘a knowledge that can be relied across circumstances and is unchallenged by exceptions or disagreements’(preference for predictability);
(4) ‘do not desire that their knowledge is confronted by alternative opinions or inconsistent evidence’ (close-mindedness); and
(5) feel ‘an urgency of striving for closure in judgment and decision-making’(decisiveness) (Webster & Kruglanski, 1994, p. 1050).
One of the first indications that we’re on the right track is that Need for Closure is negatively associated with Need for Cognition. That is, people who are drawn towards active critical thought and problem solving are unlikely to like “set in stone” answers. They tend to dislike dogma and prefer to pursue evidence until and unless they reach a suitable conclusion.
Second, people with high Need for Closure tend strongly to prefer any answer to no answer, so much so that there is a subconscious tendency to view someone who claims to have an answer more favorably from the start than someone who is undecided or open-minded. This tends to make them biased towards accepting claims from people with dogmatic opinions. Maybe that’s why some people can be part of dogmatic religions without scoring high on dogmatism scales.
Perhaps even more important than these correlations is the difference in kind between dogmatism and Need for Closure. While dogmatism is a cognitive process, Need for Closure is a motivational framework. That is, it addresses what a person wants as opposed to how they think.
Of particular interest to me is how this relates to some of the problems associated with the Right Wing Authoritarian scale (RWA) developed by Robert Altemeyer. It has been criticized for painting with too broad a brush and failing to predict personality types consistently. Perhaps with the inclusion of items from the NFCS (Need for Closure Scale), it can be refined and improved.
There’s another interesting twist to this. People who describe themselves as “highly spiritual” but “not religious” tend to score very low on the Need for Closure scale. This gives strong support for the idea that there really are two distinct kinds of religious people, and the difference is what they want out of religion. One group wants solid answers now, and the other group is more interested in the journey, and may even take pleasure from the uncertainty along the way.
What’s it all mean? Well, it could be a roadmap for more effective communication with theists. If we give up the notion that they’re all just being dogmatic and hardheaded, we might open up new avenues of communication by addressing what they get out of religion as opposed to why they believe it. Once again, it appears that logic and reason are just not good approaches to “deconverting” the religious. It’s all about emotion and emotional desires.