I recently read an article by Robert Winston, a British writer and television presenter, exploring the implications of evolution for religion and asking whether our earliest ancestors gained some competitive advantage from their shared religious feelings. Winston’s stuff was just okay, I thought; it was something else that caught my attention.
The article cites the work of Gordon Allport, a Harvard psychologist working in the 1950s, who proposed that one of two kinds of commitment motivate religious believers, either extrinsic or intrinsic religiosity. Winston anatomizes this bipedal scheme as follows: a person who is extrinsically committed, it is argued,
goes to church or synagogue as a means to an end—for what they can get out of it. They might go to church to be seen, because it is the social norm in their society, conferring respectability or social advancement. Going to church (or synagogue) becomes a social convention.
Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a central and personal experience.
I’d encountered this distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic religious experience before, and it made quite a bit of sense to me then. This time I wasn’t so satisfied. It seems to me that Allport’s dichotomy only becomes visible in a Protestant context, a spiritual regime in which participation in a socially embedded religious community unceremoniously (ha!) cleaves from—and takes backseat to—personal spiritual experience; the Protestant prefers the prayer closet to the parish, and it turns out that the prayer closet is the only place you can see the difference. Because the distinction between inner and outer forms of spirituality is a Protestant construct, it rather naturally privileges the former in all sorts of predictable ways: Allport, unsurprisingly, finds that extrinsic religiosity corresponds with higher levels of prejudice, while Winston suggests that extrinsic behavior is associated with increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety.
I’ve found that I can’t map my own religious experience onto the intrinsic/extrinsic topography, either. Mormonism, I’ve argued elsewhere, elevates the collective above the individual—or, better, integrates the individual into the collective. Thus our most sacred forms of worship are “outer observances,” groups of Saints worshiping together in forms governed by convention, and our most sacred doctrines install the individual into a sociality. What I gain from my association with groups of Saints large and small is, precisely, a central plank of my personal spirituality; the extrinsic nourishes the intrinsic. (I’ll confess a tempermental bias here, too: I try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain a vibrant inner spiritual life through personal prayer and devotion, but it’s family and ward observances that really orient and infuse my life with spiritual meaning.)
So does Mormonism suggest its own taxonomy of religious experience? Can we harvest from Mosiah 18, for example, a distinction between “coming into the fold of God” and “being called his people”—that is, between religious experience that binds us to God and experience that binds us to the Saints? Or perhaps into Section 46 we can read a distinction between the gifts of God administered by the priesthood, and those administered by the Spirit? Maybe a three- or four- or five-part anatomy works better? Or does Mormon monism assert itself again, unifying all varieties of religious experience into one glorious whole?
What kinds of religious experience organize your life, and why?