Temperament and a Religious Perspective

The conditions that contribute to a commitment to a formal religion are multiple and the balance among them varies with the historical era, culture, age, and family beliefs. Thus there is no single answer to the question of what determines a religious commitment that is valid across time and society. However it is possible to discover some contributing conditions within a particular time/culture warp. Youth in contemporary America are establishing their philosophy at a time when there is no consensus on the meaning of life or its origin. Further, the political commitment to egalitarianism has made individual accomplishment an urgently felt imperative, especially among the middle-class. This ethic prevents white, Christian youth from deriving a feeling of virtue simply by rehearsing their membership in these social categories. This combination of factors, uncommon in history, creates high levels of uncertainty in many adolescents. As a result, youth who possess a temperamental bias that renders them vulnerable to frequent feelings of tension and worry will be motivated to find activities or belief systems that might mute their private angst. A religious commitment is one effective strategy for it provides a partial answer to the meaning of daily responsibilities and assures each believer of their essential value when disappointment, loss, or frustration occur.

Our laboratory has been studying two distinct groups of children with different temperaments (Kagan, 1994; Kagan and Snidman, 2004). One group, called high reactive, and comprising about 20 percent of healthy, middle-class, white samples, appear to be born with a low threshold of excitability in the amygdala and its projections. These children display extreme levels of motor activity and crying to unfamiliar events at four months of age, high levels of distress and avoidance to unfamiliar people and objects at one and two years of age, and are more likely than others to be timid and socially anxious during the school years. The complementary group, called low reactive and comprising about 40 percent of the same demographic profile, display minimal motor activity and crying to unfamiliar objects at four months, low levels of fear in the second year, and a sociable, spontaneous style during the school years (Kagan, 1994; Kagan and Snidman, 2004). These facts imply that, other things equal, adolescents who were high reactive as infants would be more likely to adopt a religious commitment than those who were low reactive. This intuition led us to include a series of questions on religion in our recent interview of these participants in their homes when they were between 15 and 16 years old. The youth were asked whether they thought a spiritual force made any contribution to life, whether they attended religious services and how regularly, whether attendance made them feel “good,” whether they prayed regularly, and whether they had had any experience that persuaded them to believe that God might exist. They also reported the religion of their parents and the regularity of their attendance at religious services.

Each adolescent was classified as religious if they attended religious services regularly, awarded some power to a spiritual force, (even if they accepted the validity of some scientific positions on the origins of the universe and life), and prayed regularly. 33 percent were religious. The remaining two-thirds of the youth who did meet these criteria were classified as nonreligious. The sample described here consisted of 84 youth (40 had been high reactive as infants, 20 females, and 44 had been low reactive, 22 females). The distributions of family religions were similar for both temperamental groups; 42 percent of the families were Catholic, 35 percent Protestant, 17 percent Jewish, and 6 percent denied any religion.

The hypothesis that motivated the inquiry was affirmed for 47 percent of the high reactive youth were classified as religious compared with 20 percent of the low reactives (chi square (1) = 6.1, p < .05). Although the religious adolescents were more likely to have grown up in religious homes, there was no significant difference in parental religious commitment between high and low reactives. However, 18 percent of high reactives, but not one low reactive, were more religious than their parents.

The interviewer, a woman with no prior knowledge about the adolescent, also asked questions probing each youth’s major worries. One half of high reactives reported serious concerns with unfamiliar situations, especially meeting strangers, crowds, and not knowing the future. By contrast, one-half of the low reactives named failure in school, on the athletic field, or on stage as a performer as their primary source of worry. This fact is in accord with our belief that high reactives are especially vulnerable to experience uncertainty when unexpected events occur or are anticipated, and they are not certain they can cope with the event. Such experiences can provoke a bout of depression. It is relevant that six of the adolescents had developed a depression requiring psychiatric care. None of the six were religious and four of the six had been high reactive infants who denied any religious faith.

Finally, we gathered EEG evidence on about two-thirds of this sample several weeks after the home interview and four years earlier. One of the measures was the ratio of power in the beta band over the power in the alpha band while the adolescent was sitting quietly with eyes open. Higher ratios imply a higher level of cortical arousal; lower ratios imply lower cortical arousal. Among the high reactives, those who were religious had lower ratios than the non-religious (chi square (1) = 3.8, p< .05). This result implies that the religious, high reactives were less apprehensive in the laboratory situation.

There are at least two different ways to interpret these data. It is possible that a religious commitment alleviates the more intense levels of uncertainty characteristic of high reactive youth. On the other hand, over 80 percent of the religious youth lived in religious families and it is possible that these homes provided a more coherent and secure context for development. Hence, these adolescents are less likely to become depressed or show high levels of cortical arousal. Because a high reactive temperament is under partial genetic control it remains possible that one or both parents of high reactive youth possessed the same temperamental bias and that state motivated a religious commitment in one or both parents. At the least, this evidence implies that temperamental processes participate in the complex relations among family settings, social class, and nationality that promote a religious outlook in American youth.


  • Kagan, J. (1994) Galen’s Prophecy. New York: Basic Books
  • Kagan, J.& Snidman, N. (2004). The long shadow of temperament. Cambridge:MA Harvard University Press

This research was supported by a grant from the Metanexus Institute.

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