Extrinsic, Intrinsic and Quest forms of faith…

Posted by on Oct 14, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

OK, so this topic might not sound compelling. What’s this about extrinsic, intrinsic and quest forms of faith, and does it have any relevance? Actually, I think it does. It helps to explain why faith works it way out one way in some people, and so very differently in others.

But let me be a little more systematic. It’s a topic I explore in my recently published book When Faith Turns Ugly (Paternoster, 2016). I start by talking about some of the pioneering work done by Gordon Allport in the field of personality theory, and do so in a chapter which explores Freud’s accusation that religious faith is essentially illusionary. Here is the section from the book (pages 59-62 if you want to follow it up)…

American psychologist Gordon Allport (1897-1967) was a pioneer in the field of personality theory and of trait theory in particular. He differentiated between internal and external forces at work within an individual, calling these forces genotypes and phenotypes. Your genotype is an internal force and refers to the way in which you retain information and use it to interact with the world. Your phenotype is an external force and denotes the way in which you relate to your surroundings and to forces external to you as an individual. According to Allport, the interaction between these forces (your genotype and phenotype) shapes behaviour, and forms the basis for the individual traits which differentiate people from each other.

Allport uses these basic observations to help develop his views on religion where he distinguishes between extrinsic and intrinsic religious orientations.[i]

Those with an extrinsic religious orientation view religion as a means to an end, and will often use it to achieve non-religious goals. The motivation is frequently selfish and is about what the individual can get as a result of their religious affiliation. In the era of Christendom when the Christian faith dominated the social landscape, extrinsic religious motivation was common. People had a great deal to gain by their religious membership, and a church reference would often bolster a job application or help to ensure the success of a request to rent a property.

We now live in a post-Christendom era where there is usually little to gain by being associated with the Christian faith (indeed, the reverse is now often true), so extrinsic religious motivation is currently less common. Interestingly, Allport found a correlation between extrinsic religious motivation and prejudice.[ii] Perhaps this is why in the era of Christendom the church often found itself on the side of oppressors, whilst in a post Christendom era it is more likely to speak with a prophetic voice.

Allport contrasts an extrinsic orientation with an intrinsic one, and claims that those with an intrinsic religious orientation view their religion as an end in itself. The person sincerely believes their creed and seeks to live in the light of it. Their faith is usually the most important part of their life, and is seen as a valid end in itself. In other words, the adherent is not seeking to gain anything from their religion. Their reward is in faithfully following its teaching. Allport found that an intrinsic religious orientation is negatively related to prejudice – though more nuanced presentations of this view point out that it depends on what the religion actually teaches about an issue. So if the religion is prejudiced against a particular group or behaviour, an intrinsic follower is likely to demonstrate that same quality.

Whilst differentiating between extrinsic and intrinsic religious motivations has dominated the landscape for the last half century, the concept is now usually expanded to include Batson’s concept of a quest religious orientation.[iii]

Those with a quest religious orientation view religion neither as a means or an ends but as a quest for truth. While they recognise that truth may never be found, questions are considered important and the quest for truth remains open ended. By definition quest religious orientations are not related to prejudice as they require an open questing, rather than a prejudiced unwillingness to explore.

As with all trait theories, we need to recognise the danger of reductionism (it is never really as simple as that) and that pure traits rarely exist. In other words, we should think of dominant traits, rather than exclusive traits. Even those with an essentially intrinsic orientation will at times be driven by extrinsic concerns, as for example when a dedicated and sincere church family decides to leave their local church because they are concerned that it is not meeting the spiritual needs of their teenager. Their desire to have their adolescent embrace the faith turns them into consumers, carefully comparing the strengths of different church youth programmes. If it had only been up to the parents, they would probably have stayed, but faced with the likelihood of their son or daughter rejecting the faith, different priorities start to dominate.

Likewise, we should not assume that those who are essentially extrinsically orientated have no personal convictions, and both intrinsically and extrinsically orientated people are sometimes driven by a quest to seek a deeper level of truth.

The average church congregation is made up of people of all three of these religious orientations, and the interaction between them can prove stretching. I am part of the evangelical community, and recognise that evangelicals are usually comfortable with those of an intrinsic orientation, but often battle to understand those guided by a questing disposition. Their quest for truth is often misunderstood as evangelicals often assume they have already found it, and struggle to accept that the quest needs to continue.

Ironically, in their passionate desire for church growth evangelicals often pander to those with an extrinsic motivation – the religious consumers of our age who will only attend a church if the music, youth programme and facility is to their liking. They are then perplexed that the faith of those recruited seems to be shallow, and easily abandoned.

What has this to do with faith as an illusion? Perhaps it alerts us that there are various religious motivations. Freud over generalizes, and misses the range and complexity of the religious quest.

In addition, in our search for life serving faith it is helpful for us to speak words of encouragement to certain religious motivations. Intrinsic faith is commendable. It is genuine and heartfelt. It is deeply enriched when accompanied by an ongoing quest for deeper levels of truth. Rather than being dismissive of those who continue to ask questions, we should embrace them as followers of the one who described himself not only as the way and the life, but also as the truth.[iv] The search for truth eventually leads to the insight that truth is best found in relationship – primarily relationship with Jesus in whom, to cite the apostle Paul, ‘all things hold together’.[v] Rather than dismissing those who continue to question as lacking belief, we should recognise that for those of a quest orientation, questioning is part of the essence of faithful belief.

This is often shown in the differing attitude to the Bible adopted by those of an intrinsic and quest orientation. For the intrinsic, the Bible says it, and that settles it. Our task is to find a way to faithfully implement its teaching. Clearly this will not do for those of a quest orientation. They will want to know why the text says what it does, and will keep probing the motivation behind it. They are unlikely to give the Bible their unquestioning allegiance, but equally, they will not dismiss it out of hand. They will interrogate and investigate it. Interestingly, new insights into the biblical text are therefore more likely to be found by those of a quest orientation than by those who are intrinsically motivated.

Whilst it is will be clear that I am the least enthusiastic about extrinsic forms of faith, those with this orientation also have their role to play. They help to ground us in the reality of day to day life. Their concern is usually pragmatic. ‘Does it work and will it help me?’ is their bottom line. These are realistic questions, and should not be overlooked.

[i] G.W. Allport, The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation (New York: Macmillan, 1950); G.W. Allport, “Religion and Prejudice,” The Crane Review 2, (1959); G.W. Allport and M.J. Ross, “Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5, (1967).

[ii] Allport, The Individual and His Religion: A Psychological Interpretation; Allport, “Religion and Prejudice.”; Allport and Ross, “Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice.”

[iii] See C. Daniel Batson, Patricia Schoenrade, and W. Larry Ventis, Religion and the Individual: A Social-Psychological Perspective, Revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 161-177. Some feel the concepts are in need of re-evaluation. See Bart Neyrinck and others, “Updating Allport’s and Batson’s Framework of Religious Orientations: A Reevaluation from the Perspective of Self-Determination Theory and Wulff’s Social Cognitive Model,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 3 (2010).

[iv] John 14:6.

[v] Colossians 1:17.

Well, what do you think? Do you see these different forms of faith at play in your church community? And do you sometimes see people misunderstanding each other as a result?

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. Brian, thanks for the insightful article. Do you have anything that expands on the theological foundation for each of the three orientations? Would love to see what you have.


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