Religious Commitment & Intellectual Humility
Most definitions of intellectual humility emphasize having an awareness of one’s intellectual limits and weaknesses. Does this preclude living by conviction or making the decision to firmly hold beliefs? This presentation will discuss how intellectual humility relates to concepts such as confidence and conformity when it comes to personal convictions. The emphasis will be on religious commitments, and how they relate to intellectual humility. The research literature will be reviewed, which consists mostly of studies that have examined how intellectual humility about one’s religious beliefs predicts a variety of social outcomes. The presentation will then review new longitudinal data on how religious beliefs, experiences, and activities predict change in levels of intellectual humility over time.
Okay to get us started off, I would like to ask you to think about your opinions on these following topics. And I want you to notice what the initial thoughts are that come into your mind and also how your body feels, how you react when you see these topics. Okay, does anyone see a topic here that they could have an emotional reaction to when they think about? [audience laughing]
Right, anyone see a topic that they feel strongly about? So the reason I’m starting off with this is because I wanna focus our attention on the concept of conviction. Conviction is a strongly held belief or opinion. And so, my topic today is going to be focusing on religious commitments, religious convictions. But I just wanna make clear that we have convictions in all kinds of areas in our lives. And for a person of faith, certainly, all of these areas may be influenced by our faith in terms of how we think about them, how we feel about them. But the questions that we’re asking about whether religious commitment is in conflict with intellectual humility? We could really ask that question about conviction in any area of life, whether it’s a life philosophy or some other belief or opinion that we hold strongly.
So let’s start off with some definitions. Pete made the great point that when we’re talking about research on humility or, in this case, intellectual humility, it’s good to be clear about how are we defining it? How are we operationalizing it? And so this is always a good place to start. So here you can see the definition that I’ve been working with in terms of intellectual humility. So this definition of intellectual humility assumes that a person has some level of acknowledgement awareness of his or her limits when it comes to cognitive faculties. Realizing that cognitive faculties are not perfect, therefore my knowledge is not going to be always perfect.
And then with that, that there’s a certain level of acceptance so the person does not feel threatened by that awareness of the fact that his or her knowledge is not perfect all the time. And so we can think about this, we’ve been talking a lot about definitions on humility, in general, versus intellectual humility. We can think of this as a form of humility that relates to a persons knowledge. So to a person’s belief, opinions and ideas so you can see how it connects back to that list of topics that we started off with and we can see in those areas where you have beliefs, opinions and ideas that are really important to you, those are the areas where it’s most interesting, I think, to study this concept of intellectual humility.
And so, we’re at a conference on the topic of humility, I assume that you therefore think humility is important because you’re here. So I just wanna make clear that I’m working from the assumption that intellectual humility is a good thing. And there are two overarching reasons for that, I won’t spend a lot of time on this.
But one is that I believe intellectual humility helps people get closer to the truth. If you can acknowledge that your knowledge, your beliefs, your opinions may not be perfect that puts your in a position to be able to be open to new information to adding to the information that you have, to be able to realize areas that you maybe have been wrong or biased in order to get yourself closer to the truth. And that, even on a systematic level, is how the scientific community works as well. We do research in order to either confirm or disconfirm prior research in order to get to a closer conceptualization of what reality is.
So this works on various levels. And then it also has a lot of benefits for interpersonal interactions. And Pete did a great job on setting this up so I don’t have to spend much time on it. But in terms of if you realize that you may not be right all the time, you’re gonna be a better listener. You’re going to respect others more even when you continue to disagree with them. And so that has a lot of benefits for relationships for communities, for working together, for engaging in fruitful discussions and public discourse.
And the research has shown, as Pete was mentioning that people who, that when you view people as being more intellectually humble you’re, they’re more approachable, they’re more likable, you’re more likely to forgive them. And so it benefits relationships as well. So, I am going to get to this topic of religion and religious commitments. And I don’t mean to exclude from that spirituality, I’m just using religion for short because it’s a mouthful to focus on both.
But the definition that I’m using for religion and spirituality is that it’s really a broad range of beliefs and attitudes and behaviors that individuals use to connect with a sacred or the divine and their lives. And that could either be within an institutional context like a church or religious organization or outside of their own individual level. And I’m not going to define all of this right now but I want you to at least see how I operationalize that and the research that I’m going to mention. You can see the various beliefs and behaviors and spiritual experiences that I’ve used in my recent research, and so we’ll come back to that.
But you can see here kind of what the range is that I have been looking at recently. So, does religious commitment conflict with intellectual humility? You can see this image here, and in all of my years of teaching and presenting, it’s never been so easy to find images that represent religious individuals being closed-minded. And there’s this one, there’s many more. And I think the fact that there’s so many images and cartoons available out there, speaks to the fact that there is some kind of social perception that religious commitment is in conflict in some way with being intellectually humble.
And I think that we can look at history, we can look at incidences across the world where there may be religious adherence who are trying to force their beliefs on others. Not only a huge socio-political conflict but also in daily life it can be difficult for people to be open to realizing that maybe the belief system that they have is not the only way and to be tolerant of people who don’t share their beliefs. And that, perhaps, is because of the great benefit that we derive from religious beliefs and religious commitments. If you think about the ways that people are benefited by their faith in terms of it bringing meaning to life or giving them a way to cope with fear of death or a way to feel a peace about loved ones who have passed on.
That is a lot that you derive from this set of belief systems which can make it very difficult to think about the idea of being wrong or to think about being open to other possibilities. And so in those ways it’s possible that maybe religion forms a barrier to intellectual humility. But on the other hand, it could also be that people use religion as an excuse to engage in socio-political aggression or to be less tolerant and less open to people they perceive as others in their lives, people who don’t share their beliefs. And perhaps those behaviors really are in conflict with what is taught their religious belief system which might be focusing on loving others and actually being humble. And so I think there’s even a theoretical foundation from which to say that religion may promote intellectual humility. There are a number of theologians who have focused on the fact that humility a I’m not going to be able to say it. Humility about your beliefs and ideas that that actually comes from being in relation to an all-knowing God.
So, seeing yourself as a limited being in relation to a perfect creator that that then brings you into the position to be humble about your own knowledge and your values. ‘Scuse me. And in addition to that, I would just mention that models a faith development have sometimes focused on spiritual maturity actually being related to more openness towards others and a greater appreciation for mystery and paradox and things that might be associated with intellectual humility. And so, I think that we could have hypotheses in either direction, right?
That religious commitment could maybe be a barrier, from a barrier to intellectual humility or it could actually form a foundation for it and promote it. So that brings us back to the central question that I want to focus on is, does committing to a religious belief system does that make a person less likely to be intellectually humble?
Or is there a way that people can have convictions and firmly held beliefs while at the same time realizing that their cognitions are not perfect, that they might be wrong, that there are other ways of thinking? And so, is there a way to navigate that potential tension between having a commitment to a belief and yet also realizing that there are other viewpoints and appreciating those other viewpoints? So let me just mention a little bit about previous research and I’m gonna try to not go into too much detail on this because none of, hardly any of the research out there has focused on the link between intellectual humility, in general, and people’s religious beliefs or commitments.
The work that has been conducted has focused mostly on people’s religious intellectual humility, so the extent to which people are humble about their religious beliefs specifically and how that relates to a variety of social outcomes. And so I still think that that’s relevant and so I’ll mention a few of those studies. And I think if we’re focusing on religious intellectual humility as a concept that we can’t overlook research conducted with the quest scale.
The quest approach to religion was introduced as an addition to the intrinsic versus extrinsic religiosity distinction. And the quest approach to religion is defined as an open-ended questioning approach to religion. There is a measure that assesses the quest approach to religion. And even though it wasn’t defined as a measure of intellectual humility or religious intellectual humility, if you look the scales that are included in that measure: a readiness to face existential questions without reducing their complexity, ability to be self-critical about your perceptions and to view religious doubts as positive, an openness to change and this is change, in particular, about your religious beliefs.
You could think of this as a way of, as a way of being humble about your religious beliefs. And what the research that has been conducted with this scale, for the most part, has shown is that a quest approach to religion is associated with what they’ve termed, universal compassion. So being open towards others, being more tolerant of others, and seeking to help others even those who violate your own values. So what was found with the intrinsic approach to religion is that it was associated with helping others who were less like yourself.
But the quest approach has been found in some research to be associated with helping others, even those who violate your own norms, of being tolerant for those who are high in quest. Some other studies have kind of replicated this with a similar idea but with scales that are focusing specifically on religious intellectual humility. And the two studies that I have up here use the cultural humility scale but adapted that to be specific to religion, and found both among college, Christian college students and Christian pastors, that humility about their religious beliefs was associated with more tolerance toward non-Christian groups and towards Atheists.
And that was based on, I think it was a four-item measure focused on to what extent do you feel warmth towards the other groups, to what extent would you be supportive of these other groups having a large building in your community, to what extent do you believe these other groups can attain salvation, and those types of items, I’m blanking on the fourth item right now. But basically a sense of positivity, oh, to what extent can they be good Americans.
And so, among both groups they found that religious intellectual humility was associated with more positive thoughts and feelings towards other religions and towards Atheists by Christians. Then this study was used also to develop a scale of religious intellectual humility, and these researchers looked at strength of religious belief that people had and how that related to their religious intellectual humility.
And what they found was a curvilinear relationship in the sense that low levels of religious intellectual humility were associated with both strong religious belief but also strong anti-religious belief. And what they did in this study was they gave people up ad newspaper articles that were either arguing for or against a religious value. And then they examined how the participants responded to those articles.
And what they found was for individuals who were religious, that those who were low in religious intellectual humility, had much stronger reactions to those opinions of others, so the other individuals expressing a religious idea. And that was the case whether it was an agreement or disagreement with their own views but if it agreed with them then they had a more positive strong reaction than those that disagreed with your views had a more strong negative reaction towards it. So basically, the higher level of religious intellectual humility was associated with less strong reactions towards others expressing their religious views.
And this study focused on what was based on the idea that people who hold their religious ideals dear might have a harder time forgiving those who have offended or hurt them when it comes to a religious topic. And so they looked at participants’ religious intellectual humility and found that when they had been hurt or offended by another person, if they were more intellectually humble towards that other person’s religious views they were more likely to forgive that person for the hurt or offense that had occurred.
And this could be controlled for general levels of humility so it’s nice to see that your intellectual humility about religion has something unique to offer that is distinct from just being a humble person in general when it comes to these concepts. And then this is the last I’ll mention on religious intellectual humility, it focused on a community sample of individuals and asked them to imagine that they were participants in a religious small group. And for half of the participants, they had them assigned to imagine a small group that was religiously ideologically homogeneous, so like-minded in their thinking.
And for the other half, they assigned them to imagine that they were part of a religious small group that was diverse so that people had different ways of interpreting Scripture and different religious values. And what they found is that for the most part, when people imagined being part of a diverse small group that they gained less of a sense of belonging and less of a sense of meaning from participating in that group than when they participated in a group that was homogeneous. But they found that that was moderated by people’s levels of religious intellectual humility to the extent that those who are high in religious intellectual humility barely experience a difference in the way that they experience either the diverse or the homogeneous small group.
So another way of saying that is that individuals who as high in religious intellectual humility gained almost as much of a sense of belonging and actually as much of a sense of meaning from a diverse small group as they would have from a homogeneous small group. So all of these studies are cross-sectional in nature so we can speak to causality or even directionality in the way that these variables are functioning, but what they seem to suggest is that higher levels of religious intellectual humility are associated with a host of positive social outcomes like being more tolerant, open towards others, being more likely to forgive them, being able to make social connections with them, deriving meaning and belonging from interactions from them and so forth.
The only study that I was able to locate that actually looked at general intellectual humility, not specific to one’s religious beliefs, and related that to a religious or spiritual variable was actually a study on the topic of awe but they had included some variables that related to general intellectual humility and what they found was that when they asked people to recall previous spiritual experiences and what they did was ask them to think about a time that they had strong feelings of spirituality and connection to the divine.
And then when they assessed their levels of humility, they found that this recalling spiritual experiences actually increased their spiritual humility which was defined as feeling small and humble in relation to God. But it had no impact on their general levels of intellectual humility, so they had defined that as a willingness to change their beliefs when confronted with conflicting information. And so, here’s some initial suggestion that perhaps priming people with spiritual thoughts and memories does not have an impact either way on their levels of intellectual humility. So let’s shift to some newer research.
I’m going to start by showing you the measure that I used on intellectual humility just so that we can think on a theoretical basis would we expect intellectual humility as assessed here to be associated with higher or lower, but the question is here is that in conflict with religious commitment. This is a measure that I developed with my colleague Steve Rouse. But in the last few years, there’s really been quite a few measures developed on the topic of intellectual humility. Some general like this one, some specific like the ones focusing on religious intellectual humility that we just reviewed some research on.
But this measure is made up of four subscales, and they can be added together for one overall score for intellectual humility, or the subscales can be used individually as well. So I just wanna show you what the items are so that you can think, okay if individuals can answer these questions, if this is indicating their level of intellectual humility, would I expect that to be associated with lower levels of religious commitment?
Or would I expect that religious commitment would be associated with lower levels of intellectual humility? So any item that has an asterisks is reverse coded, meaning that if you agree with that item you would actually get a lower score for intellectual humility. If it doesn’t have an asterisks, then if you agree with that that would increase your score for intellectual humility. So the first subscale here is the question would be for individuals who have religious commitments, would they be less likely to take a non-defensive approach when people disagree with them? Or are they going to feel defensive and personally attacked when people disagree with their beliefs and opinion, and opinions and values?
Or is it possible for them to have intellectual disagreements without feeling defensive? For this next subscale, it’s about openness to considering other viewpoints. And really the question here is, would people who have religious commitments be willing to change their beliefs when warranted, right? So not just willy-nilly, but if they receive new information would they be willing to change their beliefs? Or individuals who have made religious commitments, not going to be open to revising their viewpoints, right?
Commitment means something, does that mean they’re going to be less likely to move away from their beliefs and values? For this subscale, and really here it’s labeled respect for others’ viewpoints, I think that’s a little bit of a misnomer because it’s not so much about respecting the viewpoints of others as it is about respecting the idea that everyone has a right to their own viewpoints and being about to respect other people even when you disagree with their viewpoints.
So this is not in conflict with the idea that you might say that viewpoints have merit on their own basis, not based on who holds those viewpoints. But can you then still acknowledge and appreciate that everyone has their own way of thinking that you might disagree, and can you still respect other people when that’s the case? And then the final subscale is focusing on individuals when they not only have confidence in their beliefs, but does that sometimes reach a level of overconfidence where they’re no longer open to learning or considering other perspectives?
And so you could ask people who have made religious commitments, for example, if people believe they received truth, with a capital T, from God, does that mean that that’s gonna bring them kind of to a level of overconfidence about those beliefs? So these are the list of subscales. What do you think? Do you think that people who have made religious commitments would necessarily score lower when it comes to intellectual humility?
Do you think there’s anything in the way that this is defined or measured that would seem that that would be in conflict? Well, I’ll give you my opinion about it, so that you can kind of see where I’m coming from and what my hypotheses are, and then we’ll look at some data about it. But what I think on this topic is that being intellectually humble really is associated with having an appreciation for the tentative nature of personal knowledge. But I don’t think that that means that your can’t make Truth claims all together. But I think the emphasis has to be on valuing Truth rather than valuing yourself as a knower, because of that definition of intellectual humility being about realizing that your own knowledge or your own cognitive faculties, your own decision making or judgment or perception is not always going to be perfect.
And so I don’t think that that means that you can’t make commitments. I think making commitments, including religious commitments, could in fact go hand in hand with a desire to get closer to the Truth. Which means that you would be open to refining and developing and changing your ideas and opinions as you get new information. And I actually really like the way that this is expressed in the affirmation statement of the university where I teach.
That Truth, having nothing to fear from investigation, should be pursued relentlessly in every discipline. So the idea that if we’re not afraid, if we really trust and believe in the truth and realize that we could be wrong then we are gonna be on that path to seeking greater Truth. Especially if you think that truth-seeking is a lifelong process. My opinion is that’s not going to be in conflict with still making commitments to beliefs and values for the time being that can go hand in hand with openness, to change in growth as well.
Okay, so I’m gonna start off with a little bit of data that, on some variables, approximate this idea of conviction and then we’ll look at the religiosity skills specifically. So I had some data from two studies, one with adults in the general population and one with college students, where I assessed their levels of intellectual humility. And all of this research is controlling for social desirability tendencies. And what it showed was that intellectual humility is associated with greater tolerance towards others so that’s not a huge surprise.
The idea that people who are more intellectually humble are also going to be more open-minded towards others, less judgmental towards people who disagree with them, ideologically. But that did not mean that they were more likely to conform to others. So intellectual humility was not related either linearly or curvilinear, curvilinearly with conformity. So the idea that you’re going to adjust your beliefs or behaviors to standards set by other people. And then, in addition, one of the studies that showed no relationship, intellectual humility showed no relationship to social confidence.
And in the other, there was actually a positive relationship there that people who are more intellectually humble were actually higher in terms of their confidence in social settings, and confidence while they were interacting with other people. And so I use this to point out that just because intellectual humility is associated with greater tolerance towards others, that does not necessarily mean that people are more likely to give in or conform when it comes to their viewpoints or to be less confident in their own viewpoints, those things seem to be able to go together quite nicely.
So let’s look at some of the religious variables that I had examined, and the data that I’m going to be sharing with you now is from a sample of 100 adults who participated in completing measures twice, three years apart. And at the first time point, the average age was 40, and so then three years later that would have been three years older. And half of these participants identified as Christian. The other half of these participants, a small number of them, belonged to other religions. There’s also a group of Atheists, Agnostics, and then there was a certain portion of the participants who did not identify what their religious affiliation was.
And the analysis that I conducted were hierarchical linear regressions where I was looking at whether people’s religious beliefs and behaviors, the ones that I had up on the slide before, measured at one point were able to predict these people’s levels of intellectual humility three years later when I controlled for their previous or their pre-existing levels of intellectual humility measured at that first time point.
And then I also controlled for gender and age and social desirability. And what you can see here is a list of religious variables and all but one of the religious variables I was examining actually showed a negative link to intellectual humility over that time period. And they’re kind of listed in terms of the strength of the relationship. So you can see, for example, religious participation showed the strongest negative link. And in this case, six point eight percent of the variance in people’s levels of intellectual humility was influenced by their degree of religious participation. And religious participation was defined as church attendance, spending time in prayer, it was all frequencies. So frequency of reading about, thinking about, and talking about religious issues. Religious belief salience was the extent to which people integrated religion into their entire lives and found importance that they were religious.
Religious fundamentalism had a very particular definition in terms of how it was assessed here. And it was not actually specific to Christian fundamentalism but it was a way of measuring fundamentalism within any type of belief system. And then the last three measures that are included here were part of the spiritual transcendence scale and so were included as assessments that may be more common among non-theistic religious individuals. But spiritual universality is that idea of the unity of all of life and the interconnectedness of life. Prayer fulfillment, that scale was focused mostly on the sense of reaching kind of this different plain, or different experience during times of prayer or meditation and deriving joy from that.
And then spiritual connectedness was a idea of feeling connected and a sense of responsibility for others in your community as well as others across generations, so those who have gone before and passed away. And that was the only measure that I used that showed no relationship to levels of intellectual humility. So the initial question is, well, so is this indicating then that people who have made religious commitments are actually less intellectually humble? Well, there was an interesting little twist because when I included right-wing authoritarianism as a control variable in addition to the control variables that I had already mentioned before, suddenly most of these relationships disappeared.
So four out of the five religious predictors that I had used where no longer significantly related to levels of intellectual humility when controlling for right-wing authoritarianism. And so the suggestion here is that it may actually be this right-wing authoritarianism that is accounting for the links to lower levels of intellectual humility rather than these religious predictors that you see listed. And so right-wing authoritarianism is defined as an emphasis on authoritarianism submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism.
So people who score high for right-wing authoritarianism tend to condone unjust and illegal acts committed by governments, so Colonel Jessup actually is probably a pretty good picture of this concept if we want to just take that video as an example of this. But also, being in favor of harsher sentences and punishments for crimes and individuals who score on this, high on this also tend to have a higher regard for their in-group and be prejudiced toward out-group members. So people who don’t belong to part of their group.
And so it’s important to make clear though that right-wing authoritarianism is not either in structure or in content to religious or spiritual in nature. But research has shown that there is some kind of connection in the sense that certain forms of religion tend to be reinforced by, and tend to reinforce, right-wing authoritarianism. And so individuals who are high in right-wing authoritarianism tend to go to church, pray and read Scripture more than the average population. They tend to submit to family and religious authorities in their lives.
They tend to report having experienced very little doubt when it comes to their faith or religious beliefs throughout their lives. And some of them report that it’s actually their religious training that has caused them to submit to authority and also to have more hostile feelings toward out-group members, people who they maybe consider to be sinners, those who don’t conform to their ideas and beliefs about what proper behavior is.
And so the question that is, because people are right-wing authoritarians are high in religious beliefs and behaviors and because they might also be closed-minded which kind of fits with this idea that they accept information from authority without questioning it, does that mean that all religious individuals are therefore lower in intellectual humility? And you can see how that conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow, right? Because right-wing authoritarianism is not found exclusively in religious groups, and it’s also not really religious in its nature itself.
And so people who do research in the field of psychology and religion often will differentiate when they’re studying religious groups between the contents of a religious belief system, so the orthodoxy. And then the style or the structure of that belief system, which could be things like intrinsic versus extrinsic versus quest type of religion, or maybe taking a more authoritarian type of approach towards religion.
So it’s interesting to see that even religious fundamentalism, which has sometimes been defined as kind of like a closed-minded approach to religion was no longer predictive of lower levels of intellectual humility after factoring out the variance attributable to right-wing authoritarianism. So after including this as a control variable, the only predictor of religious predictor that was still relevant to levels of intellectual humility was religious participation and that accounted for only two point three percent of the variance in intellectual humility.
So still a negative link, but a much smaller one. So I had mentioned before that the intellectual humility scale could be used individually as well, so I’m just gonna go through this really quickly to show you that when I looked at the different, the four different aspects of intellectual humility that it was really only independence between intellect and ego that declined on the basis of religious participation. So perhaps individuals who are high in terms of participating in religion, maybe they find themselves to be religious minorities and therefore find themselves maybe defending their religion more, maybe that gives them a more defensive stance towards their beliefs, I don’t know, that’s just one theory.
So based on these data at least, it seems that the answer is mostly no, religious commitment is not really in conflict with intellectual humility. There was a small negative link there, but again, two point three percent of the variance. It seems like most of the variance and intellectual humility is accounted for non, accounted for by non-religious variables.
And so, what I wanna mention is that previous research on religion has found when it has looked at the links between religion and prejudice that depending on the way you define, and what aspects of religion you’re considering, that sometimes it’s associated with more prejudice and sometimes it’s associated with less prejudice.
And so Alport said, “The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes prejudice and it unmakes prejudice.” And I suspect that maybe something similar is the case for intellectual humility. That there might be aspects of religion that are associated with less intellectual humility, but that there might be other aspects of religion that could be associated with a higher levels of intellectual humility.
So I think as research moves forward, in addition to understanding the barriers, it might be interesting to look at what aspects of religion could potentially be associated with higher levels of intellectual humility. And I already mentioned the ideas of the faith models and faith development that potentially the religious beliefs and behaviors associated with greater spiritual maturity might be associated with more open-mindedness and more tolerance towards others. And my colleague, Steve Lumely, has pointed out that some practical theologians have emphasized that people’s spiritual maturity is not so much associated with their quantity of religious experience, but really more with the quality of their participation in an authentic religious or spiritual experience, like prayer or worship or Scripture reading.
And so I think if we can examine things like intercultural or inter-ideological worship or intercessory prayer for people who are perceived to be the other or using Scripture as a way to de-center the self. I think those are the types of assessments that maybe get more at the quality and might give us some new insight into whether this is the case in terms of religious both being religious variables being both able to increase and decrease levels of intellectual humility. So, I’m sure I’m out of time, I’m gonna wrap up there. Thank you.