Science in Christian Perspective


The Contribution of Gordon Allport (1897-1967) to the Psychology of Religion*

Graduate School of Psychology Fuller Theological Seminary Pasadena, California

From: JASA 23 (September 1971): 99-104.

Since the time of William James, there have been very few renowned psychologists who studied the psychology of religion. Gordon Allport wrote extensively in this area and felt that the religious sentiment was an important aspect of personality structure. A summary of his contributions to the field is given here. First, Allport emphasized the unique meaning of religion in his study of the growth and development of faith in the individual. As in his personality theory, he prefers the study of the meaning of religion to the individual, rather than a comparison of one person's religion to another's. Next, Allport studied the meaning of religious maturity and compared intrinsic with extrinsic faith. The intrinsic, or mature, person values religion for its own sake, while the extrinsic, or immature person, values religion for what it can do for him. He found that the extrinsically oriented persons were more inclined to be racially prejudiced than those who were intrinsically oriented. Lastly, Allport contributed two important scales to the measurement of religion. His study of values compares the relative importance of religion in the life of a person while his religious orientation scale measures the extrinsic-intrinsic dimension. Both of these have provoked much research. The relative importance of Allport to contemporary concerns is also noted.

1967 was a fateful year for the science of psychology. At least four of its outstanding leaders died: George A. Kelly, Wolfgang Kohler, Kenneth W. Spence, and Gordon W. Allport. While Kelly had written on "Sin and Psychotherapy" (1962), only Allport among this group had a sustained interest in the psychology of religion. Kelly's (1955) major concern had been with the model of the scientist for personality functioning. Kohler (1959) was best known for his demonstration of insight as it applied to Gestalt theory. Spence (1956) was concerned with the extension of Hullian's learning theory. Allport, however, while primarily known for his interest in personality theory (1937, 1950, 1955, 1960, 1961, and 1968), was also interested in the psychology of religion. Although Pettigrew (1969) in his obituary of Allport mentions this interest only in passing, an examination of Allport's bibliography reveals that he wrote two books (1950, 1960) and ten articles (1944, 1946a, 1948b, 1952a, 1959, 1960, 1963, 1966, 1967a, 1967b), on the subject. In addition, he discusses religion in at least sixteen other publications (1931, 1937a, 1937b, 1940, 1942, 1946h, 1948a, 1952b, 1954, 1955, 1960a, 1961a, 1961b, 1964, 1966a, 1966b).

Since Allport was a renowned psychologist and since he made a significant contribution to the psychology of religion, a summary of his ideas seems appropriate. This essay will concern itself with this task.

Biographical Data

Allport was a distinguished academician. He taught psychology at Harvard from 1924-1966, except for four years during which he was at Dartmouth. According to his autobiography, he probably taught the first course on personality in the United States at Harvard in 1924. He became known as the dean of American personality theorists. He was chairman of Harvard's department of psychology for a time and was president of the American Psychological Association in 1939.

Little is known about Allport's own religious experience. He refers to his home as one characterized by "plain Protestant piety and hard work" and his mother as one who ". . . brought to her sons an eager sense of philosophical questioning and the importance of searching for ultimate religious answers" (1968, p. 379). He was very active in social service during college and perceived himself as replacing the doctrines of his childhood with "some sort of humanitarian religion" (1968, p. 380). He taught in Constantinople the year after receiving his bachelor's degree in the then equivalent of today's Peace Corps. Several years later he reacted to this "essentially Unitarian position" (1968, p. 380) because he perceived it exalted his own intelligence. lIe felt this was a "cheap" way out of the dilemma. Although we do not know where this insight led him, he does indicate the direction his faith took by writing, "Humility and some mysticism, I felt, were indispensable to me; otherwise I would be victimized by my own arrogance" (1968, p. 380). Like William James before him, he appeared to embrace a most meaningful private faith. Although he does not report it of himself, it is known that he was an active member of the Episcopal church.

In his autobiography he speaks of his persistent concern with studying "personality, which is composed chiefly of generic attitudes, values and sentiments. Therefore, the prejudice-complex, the religious sentiment, the phenomenological ego, and one's philosophy of life are important subterritories to explore in individual lives" (italics mine) (1968, p. 402). As he said earlier, (1950), in the preface of The Individual and his Religion, ". . . I have undertaken the task of discovering the place of religion in the life economy of the individual" (p. vi). A final quote illustrates his viewpoint regarding the positive contribution of religion to personality development. He says

... I am seeking to trace the full course of religious development in the normally mature and productive personality. I am dealing with the psychology, not with the psychopathology of religion . . . . Many personalities attain a religious view of life without suffering arrested development and without self-deception (1950, p. viii).

Allport's contributions: (1) the growth and development of religion in the individual; (2) the definition of religous maturity; (3) the measurement of religious dimensions.

With the above comments in mind, I propose to discuss the contribution of Allport to three areas of the psychology of religion. They are: 1) the growth and development of religion in the individual; 2) the definition of religious maturity; and 3) the measurement of religious dimensions.

The Growth and Development of Religion in the Individual

Each person's religious faith is unique according to Allport. In spite of the fact that certain people are called by the same denominational name and repeat the same creed, religion means something different to each one of them. Allport treats religion as he does personality traits. It is possible to call two people "sincere" just as it is possible to call two people "Christian", but the labels are conveniences which obscure uniqueness. Real events are idiographic (individual) rather than nomothetic (group). In the final analysis, proper study is of the individual. As Allport said,

there are as many varieties of religious experience as there are religiously inclined mortals upon the earth (1950, p. 27).

Therefore, it is more appropriate to examine diaries, listen to private prayers, read personal statements of faith than to compare persons by adding up answers to yes-no tests. Allport pioneered in advocating the use of "personal documents" (1942) for understanding persons.

With regard to development, Allport suggested each person's faith has been shaped by "1) his bodily needs, 2) his temperament 3) his psychogenic interests and values, 4) his pursuit of rational explanation, and 5) his response to surrounding culture" (1950, p. 9).

This is to say that each of these variables help determine the unique faith a person comes to have. There are common roots of religion. Yet, as has been said, no two people's faith is alike-each is unique. The laws of understanding are idingraphic, or individual. A person's faith is part of his unique adjustment to life and his response to the various forces mentioned above. It has its own inner laws within the economy of his life. Pruyser (1960) suggested that this emphasis no the ways religion functions in the individual life was the psychoanalytic contribution to the psychology of religion. He does not mention Allport's theorizing; however, it is obvious that Allport's ideas parallel the psychoanalytic emphasis. It may have been difficult for Pruyser to recognize Allport's value because of Allport's consistent criticism of the psychoanalytic model as based too much on unconscious motivations and infantile habit patterns. Allport preferred to think of man as determined by conscious thoughts and as outgrowing his childhood motives. To these we now turn in discussing Allport's contribution to a definition of religious maturity.

A Definition of Religious Maturity

Religious maturity is based on two processes Ailport suggests are inherent in normal development. The first is "functional autonomy" (1937). The second is "propriate striving" (1955). Both are integrally related to the above discussion of the roots of religion and conscious determination.

Allport (1937) insisted adult motives could not be reduced to or explained in terms of childhood needs. While all behavior is dynamic (motivated, caused), it becomes free from its early sources in growth and maturation. Instead of being a habit that is carried over from childish dependency, the mature religions sentiment is motivated by adult, conscious values. He admits early conscience is a function of the fear of punishment. Further, childhood views of God do resemble a projected father image. Yet, mature conscience is guilty not for the things it has done against parental wishes, but for things it ought to do for the sake of values it holds dear. Mature faith is seen as the search for meaning beyond all self-seeking. Thus, he suggests an attribute of mature religion is the "derivative yet dynamic nature of the mature sentiment" (Allport, 1950, p. 63). As he states,

Immature religion, whether in adult or child, is largely concerned with magical thinking, self-justification, and creature comfort. Thus it betrays its sustaining motives still to be the drives and desires of the body. By contrast, mature religion is less of a servant, and more of a master, in the economy of life. No longer goaded and steered exclusively by impulse, fears, and wishes, it tends rather to control and direct these motives toward a goal that is no longer determined by mere self interest (Allport, 1950, p. 63).

This is "functional autonomy".

"Propriate striving" is the ego-involved, intentional, conscious, self-actualizing basis for mature behavior. Mature behavior is "pulled" from the future, rather than "pushed" from the past. The character of the "pull" in mature behavior is what is referred to by the term "proprium". This is that integrating force of personality which orients behavior toward those events that make long-range, lifetime, self-determining goals come true.

Allport was aware that human effort has its limits and science its inadequacies. He implied that the values men strive for must be seen as coming from a transcendent source for them to be worthwhile. He likewise, indicated that life requires all men to go beyond verifiable evidence and seek solutions to the enigmas of life. Thus he does not see religion as "a prelogical prelude to empirical and scientific thinking" (1950, p. 18). Rather it is a legitimate part of experience in all generations. Like C. Jung, Allport senses that at a certain point in life all men seek answers to questions regarding the meaning and destiny of life. Many men find these answers in religion. He suggested that "living in harmony with a unifying philosophy of life" was a characteristic of the mature personality (Allport, 1961).

More than any of his predecessors in the field, Allport made a place for reason, He acknowledged the positive contribution of doubt (1950) and indicated a characteristic of mature faith was that it was "well differentiated", i.e., critically articulated and conceived. He said the mature religious sentiment was "ordinarily fashioned in the workshop of doubt" (Allport, 1950, p. 73). He thought the belief changes that occur during the college years (Allport, 1948) were part of a necessary developmental process which lead to maturity. Thus religion was much more than a feeling. It was a striving toward rational conceptualization of the crises of life in order that meaning might be found. As he stated, a mature "individual knows with precision his attitude toward the chief phases of theoretical doctrine and the principal issues in the moral spheres (Allport, 1950, p. 58).

This self-actualizing dynamic makes religion serve self motives. Bertocci (1940) criticized this view of motivation because it did not allow for entirely new motives (such as would come from revelation or insight) to become a part of man's behavior. Allpnrt (1940) maintained that man's self enhancing dynamics were continuous with past experience. At the same time they functioned free from these determinants and became directed toward the realization of one's self. The self was continually being reconstructed throughout life. The critical issue for the psychology of religion remains the one toward which Bertocci (1940) wrote, namely, does man discover the self he wants to be? If so, how does this occur? If not, can he be given a new sell toward which to strive, as in revelation?

Suffice it to say, the mature religious sentiment for Allport becomes ego involving and the degree to which it becomes the "master motive" is a measure of its maturity. He suggests words like "integral", "comprehensive", and "heuristic" for this dimension. The more mature a person's faith, the more his life and behavior will be subsumed under it and interpreted in light of it.

One of the areas in which Allport has been most interested has been the relationship between prejudice and religion (1954, 1966, and 1967). He was puzzled by the research finding that there was a positive correlation between attending church and being racially prejudiced. He reasoned that religion's emphasis on the brotherhood of man should remove, rather than cause, prejudice. He found that in reality those who attended with great frequency and those who did not attend at all were least prejudiced. Those who attended irregularly were the most prejudiced. The earlier reports obscured his curvilinear relationship. He and Ross (1967) began to search for the experiential and motivational variables to explain this phenomenon. They conceived of differing levels of religious maturity termed Extrinsic and Intrinsic. They reasoned that the immature faith was Extrinsic in its orientation in that it used religion for its own ends and was directed toward security, status, and selfjustification. In addition, the Extrinsically oriented person took the creed lightly and never really gave up selfish interests. Mature religion would be Intrinsic, they continued. This meant a faith in which the person internalized the creed, and lived his religion. Further, religion became the master motive for those Intrinsically motivated. They did not use religion-they lived it.

Among a sample of religious persons, Allport and Ross (1967) found that the more Extrinsic an individual's religious orientation, the more prejudiced he was. Thus a measure of religious maturity helped to explain the relations between religion and prejudice.

The Measurement of Religion

The last major contribution Allport made to the psychology of religion was in constructing scales for measuring religion. Hall and Lindxey (1957) feel that one of the weaknesses of Allport's theorizing is that he generated little research. This may reflect a prejudice against the subject of religion on their part because Allport has stimulated much research with his Study of Values (Allport, Vernon, Lindzey, 1960) and his Religious Orientation Scales (Allport and Ross, 1967).

The Study of Values was first published in 1931 with P. E. Vernon. A third edition in 1960 included revisions authored by C. Lindzey. This is a forty-five item, forced choice scale in which a person's preferences for types of activity are measured. These preferences are theoretically related to six master motives or dominant values in life. The rationale for these values came from E. Spranger, Types of Man (1928), with whom Allport studied in Germany in 1923. Spranger suggested there were six types of man. They are described as follows:

Theoretical: Characterized by a dominant interest in the discovery of truth and by an empirical, critical, rational, "intellectual" approach.
Economic: Emphasizing useful and practical values; conforming closely to the prevailing stereotype of the "average American businessman."
Aesthetic: Placing the highest value an form and barmnny; judging and enjoying each unique experience from the standpoint of its grace, symmetry, or fitness. Social: Originally defined as love of people, this category has been more narrowly limited in later revisions of the test to cover only altruism and philanthropy.
Political: Primarily interested in personal power, influence, and renown; not necessarily limited to the field of politics.
Religious: Mystical, concerned with the unity of all experience, and seeking to comprehend the cosmos as a whole. (Anastasi, 1968, p. 488).

Of interest is the evidence that Allport agreed with Spranger who put the importance of striving to know God and to find a unified view of life alongside striving for knowledge, beauty, power, riches, and service. It has been said that the test is a beautiful blend of American empiricism and European rationalism, His efforts toward empirically measuring the relative strength of the religious value have resulted in a scale which has been widely used in research (Hundlely, 1965). The Study of Values (1931, 1951, 1960) has been found to be related to occupational choice (Mowardi, 1952), college course of study (Sternberg, 1953), perceptual recognition of value oriented words (Postman, Bruner, McCinnies, 1948), denominational affiliation (Pyron, 1961), and longitudinal consistency of values (Bender, 1958; Kelly, 1955). According to Hunt (1968), the person who scores high on the "Religious" scale is an activist who approaches religion intellectually and rationally. Further, he endorses traditional forms of religious institutions and seeks to apply religious principles in daily life. That social science should consider this a positive value to be measured is due in large measure to the genius of Allport.

One of the areas in which Aliport has been most interested has been the relationship between prejudice and religion.

Of equal importance has been Allport's distinction of the Extrinsic-intrinsic dimension in religion and his subsequent attempts to measure it via the Religious Orientation Scale (Allport and Ross, 1967). This distinction was previously noted in the discussion of religious maturity and prejudice. Two of Allport's students (Wilson, 1960, and Feagin, 1964) developed scales to measure these Extrinsic-Intrinsic approaches to religion. Allport and Ross' (1967) Religious Orientation Scale was based on a larger norm group and is a refinement of these earlier measures. It is a set of twenty statements which measure the degree to which a person agrees or believes certain ideas about religion. It assesses the extent to which a person values religion because of what it does for him, or because of its worth in and of itself. The scale distinguishes between the utilitarian and the absolute value of one's faith. As may be remembered, Allport (1961) suggests that life is integrated and behavior is directed toward others by mature faith. This is Intrinsic, as opposed to Extrinsic religion. The latter is characterized by the fragmented, selfish use of religion. It has been hypothesized and demonstrated that a relationship exists between Extrinsic religion and the tendency to be prejudiced (Wilson, 1960; Feagin, 1964; Allport and Ross, 1967; Tisdale, 1966, and Tisdale, 1967).

While the Religious Orientation Scale has not been standardized, it has generated much research and has become an integral part of theorizing about the meaning of religious commitment (King, 1967; Corsuch, 1966). Among similar distinctions now being discussed is that of consensual versus committed religious faith (Allen and Spilka, 1967).

Allport's contribution is important because it is grounded in a theory of personality which includes a positive place for religion in its definition of individual maturity.

One of the incidental findings of the Allport and Ross (1967) research is interesting. It was not possible to tell by some subjects' scores on the Religious Orienta tion Scale whether these persons had an Extrinsic or Intrinsic attitude toward their faith. The scale is constructed in such a manner that one is expected to agree with certain items and disagree with others. The relative number of Extrinsic or Intrinsic items with which one agrees supposedly measures the emphasis on one or the other orientation. However, certain subjects agreed with all the items. For example, they said they went to church because their neighbors would see them (an Extrinsic item) and because they found the meaning of their lives there (an Intrinsic item). These people Allport and Ross (1967) called the Indiscriminately Pro Religious. They endorse religion for any and all reasons. This was seen to be a cognitive syle reflecting excessive width in categorizing and undifferentiated thinking. The Indiscriminately Pro Religious were found to be more prejudiced than either Extrinsic or Intrinsic Religious persons. This phenomenon is now being researched as an important variable in its own right.

Dittes (1969) suggests that the psychology of religion is still in a primitive stage of development. He calls for theory and research in four areas:

1) The definition of religion and a delineation of religions units and variables for study. 2) The relationship between religions behavior and social attitudes. 3) The interrelation of religion and personality characteristics. 4) The development and function of religious belief.

Gordon Allport made a contribution to most, if not all, of these areas. Mention has been made of his theory about the unique growth of the religious sentiment in the individual which pertains to area four. Further, his delineation of the dimensions of religious maturity and its function in personality integration pertains to area three. Again, his studies of religion and prejudice pertain to area two. Only area one, the definition of religion has not mentioned. Yet, even here, Allport contributed to the field. He defined the religious sentiment as,
a disposition, built up through experience, to respond favorably, and in certain habitual ways, to conceptual objects and principles that the individual regards as permanent or central in the nature of things (1950, p. 56).

The Indiscriminately Pro Religious were found to be more prejudiced than either Extrinsic or Intrinsic Religious persons.

This definition is one of the most adequate contemporary statements of the William James (1902, 1958) tradition which emphasizes individual experience. It is consistent with Allport's general emphases in personality theory.

Truly, Allport left a legacy which will stimulate the field for years to come. As Pettigrew (1969, p. 6) said,

As a young science, American psychology has not had many men whose renown exceeds the confines of the
discipline. But Gordon Allport was such a man to whom the profession can point with pride. For his professional colleagues, he widened the perceived alternatives open to the field. For the public he made psychology applicable to the problems of his time . . . . He was recognized in his lifetime as a great psychologist and will certainly be remembered.

Few in the psychology of religion would disagree with this assessment.


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*This paper was delivered to the Faculty Fellowship of Fuller Theological Seminary in June, 1970.