Do religions have personalities?

Buddhism: Day 12 and 13 

The Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment is a popular tool used by individuals and businesses a like to determine where people fall on a number of personality traits.

Are you more introverted or extroverted? Do you like big ideas or details? Do you to like to plan to improvise?

I’m a fan of the test as it gave me some insight into how I think and how others think (I’m an INTJ if you’re curious).

Businesses like these tests because it allows people to become aware of their own preferences and the preferences of others. As an INTJ, I like rational and well-thought out plans, but an ENFP may be more concerned about managing relationships among people more than having a “rational” plan.

If I were to propose a plan to an ENFP, I might have to alter the way I pitch the plan and ensure I address the ENFP’s concern for maintaining harmony.

In the book, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction, the authors Houston Smith and Philip Novak make the case that Buddhism, like other religions, split because of a difference in opinion on some very fundamental issues.

“First, there is the question of whether people are independent or interdependent. Some people are most aware of their individuality; for them, their freedom and initiative are more important than their ties….On the other side of the fence are those for whom life’s interconnectedness prevails. To them the separateness of people seem tenuous; they seem themselves as supported and vectored by social fields that are as strong as those of physics.”

If you look at the difference between the “Thinking” and the “Feeling” preference in the Myers-Briggs test, Thinking types “like to analyze pros and cons, and then be consistent and logical in deciding” and “won’t let my personal wishes–or other people’s wishes–influence me.”

Feeling types believe they “can make the best decisions by weighing what people care about and the points-of-view of persons involved in a situation.”

The fact that some people are more “scientific” and others are more relationship oriented is not surprising. We can all think of people in our own lives that represent these personality traits.

What’s more interesting is the idea that religions have different personality types, or appeal to certain personality types more than others.

Novak and Smith propose two other questions that account for the split in Buddhism.

“A second question concerns the relation in which human beings stand, not this time to their fellows, but to the universe. Is the universe friendly – on the whole helpful toward creatures? Or is it indifferent, if not hostile….Some see history as a thoroughly human project in which humanity raises itself by its own bootstraps or progress doesn’t happen. For others it is powered by a ‘higher power that makes for good.’”

“A third dividing question is: What is the best part of the human self, its head or its heart? A popular parlor game….Classicists rank thoughts above feelings; romantics do the opposite. The former seek wisdom; the latter, if they have to choose, compassion.”

These divides don’t map out neatly to Myers-Briggs personality elements, but they do appear to be related to personality traits in general

This brings up an interesting question, should we choose a religion that aligns closely with our personality preferences?

Through this project, I’ve been able to get a “taste” of what each religion offers. Stoicism appealed very much to my head, Catholicism to my heart. Judaism emphasized the importance of a collective identity, which exposed my own strong individualist tendencies. Islam appealed to my logical/planning side by emphasizing rules (e.g. prayer) that I should follow to become closer to God. I’m still not sure about Buddhism.

None of these religions match up perfectly with my personality, which would be an unrealistic expectation, but I have to imagine that, if I were to convert or dedicate myself to a single religion or philosophy, I should choose one that aligns fairly closely to the way I naturally think and view the world.

The idea that religions have personality may also explain why many secular types choose not to participate in religion. They may have a particular conception of what religion is, which doesn’t appeal to they way they naturally view and think about the world.

If you are a rational and independent type like I am and your ideas about religion are shaped around the image of a Evangelical Christian Mega-Church whose members seem to be brainwashed, then of course, you will have a negative attitude towards religion (Note: I don’t think they’re brainwashed, but that’s the popular, negative perception of this group).

The downside of this is that you will most likely miss out on the works of great Christian thinkers like Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis, or even ignore other religions that may appeal to your inquisitive and independent nature and ultimately help you live a richer and more meaningful life.

Or consider the scenario in which you grew up with a particular religion that doesn’t match your personality. If you’re the type of person who thrives on developing close relationships with others and likes to identify with a group but your parents raised you as a Zen Buddhist (seems unlikely, but humor me), you might think that other religions are as solitary and inward facing as your own religion. The thought of exploring Judaism may never cross your mind. You may never experience the warmth of group prayer at a mosque. You will miss out on opportunities to learn what other religions have to offer, what other religions could potentially do for your own spiritual growth.

I’m not suggesting that personality alone explains why different religions appeal to different types of people, but I do think that instead of dismissing religion entirely, we should consider maybe we haven’t found the right religion, one that agrees with our natural pre-dispositions.