The Motivation of Catholics and Protestants

Those who know my research interests know that I long have sought to understand the differences of those affiliated with different religious traditions, particularly within Christianity. I’m working on a manuscript right now about such issues and have recently been absorbed by some ideas related to this topic advocated by Adam Cohen, a researcher at Arizona State University.

According to Cohen, the most commonly noted emphasis of religion deals with the subjective experiences of members. For example, many have suggested that the most important dimensions of religion concern individuals’ beliefs, commitments, and emotions. Most research conducted witin the psychology of religion emphasizes these dimensions, as reflected in research on concepts such as religious commitment and intrinsic religiousness, and how such components of religiousness relate to important life outcomes such as emotional well-being and physical health (also individualistic variables). However, it might be the case that this paradigm is unduly influenced by Protestant Christianity, which emphasizes the personal and experiential, as this is the prevailing religious tradition that long has dominanted the United States.

In contrast, other religions are not so concerned with individuals’ subjective experiences. For instance, Cohen notes that Jews, Hindus, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants (for example, Lutherans and Episcopalians) are not religions of belief “assent,” but rather are religions of “descent.” In other words, people affiliated with these latter groups tend to be more influenced by social connections and motivations, often times belonging to a religion because of historical or familial reasons. Thinking of religion solely in terms of beliefs, commitments, and emotions does not square nicely with these religions, as they believe that faith is grounded more in tradition, ritual, and universal connection with the past and members worldwide.

Given that Protestant, perhaps especially Evangelical Protestant, religions encourage more of a focus on subjective experience, it should not be too surprising that religious commitment is associated with better well-being outcomes for members (whereas commitment tends to be associated with worse well-being for Catholics). However, if it is true that Catholic and Mainline Protesant groups encourage more of a focus on social values, one might expect that more religiousness would be related to better social outcomes for members. The data I’ve collected over the years suggests that this is not the case. In fact, to me, it seems that Evangelical groups have become very adept at promoting better subjective experiences as well as better social outcomes, whereas Catholic and Mainline groups do not seem to generate the authentic commitment necessary to promote much effect in any domain that I have studied. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Evangelical groups are growing so quickly, whereas membership rates are declining substantially for Catholic and Mainline churches.

Some of these ideas may depend a lot on the global context in which faith is practiced, however. The United States is a very individualistic culture. As such, it fits nicely with the individualistic emphasis of Evangelical religion. This might be important to note because people may be particularly likely to flourish within a faith if their broad values and beliefs fit with the values and beliefs encouraged by their religion. In contrast, it might be the case that  socially-grounded religions might better match the values of a more interdependent culture. Consequently, perhaps the Catholic faith might function better in South America, Africa, or Asia, where there also is more of a focus on community and tradition.

On the other hand, it might also be the case that authentic experiences within a religion are universal prerequisites for a meaningful, life-altering faith. Some people believe that individuals across the world have universal needs. In this case, it wouldn’t matter in which part of the world lived. Rather, the primary consideration in determining how much a religion affected someone would be the religions themselves and how much they influenced people on the inside.


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