COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The desire for independence is the key psychological difference that separates religious and non-religious people, new research suggests.
A study of 558 students and professionals examined how importantly each person rated 15 different fundamental desires and values -- everything from sex to idealism to vengeance.
The biggest difference was that religious people expressed a strong desire for interdependence with others. Those who were not religious, however, showed a stronger need to be self-reliant and independent, said Steven Reiss, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ohio State University.
"The writings of many religions express the desire to become one with God, to merge your self into a greater reality," Reiss said. "People who find that appealing are not likely to put as great a value on independence."
In contrast, independent-minded people "may dislike being in need of anyone, even God."
However, the strong desire for interdependence does not mean that religious people want to be weak or submissive. The results showed that religious people were no different than others in their desire for power, which includes the goals of leadership and dominance.
The study is published in the current issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
For the study, a mix of college students and human service providers were asked to rate themselves as very, somewhat or not religious. In the sample, 137 rated themselves as very religious, 335 as somewhat religious, and 86 people as not religious.
They then took the Reiss Profiles, a test that measures individual differences in 15 fundamental desires and goals. (These 15 desires are curiosity, eating, honor, acceptance, sex, exercise, order, independence, vengeance, social contact, family, status, tranquility, idealism, and power.)
Reiss had found previously that these 15 desires and values guide almost all important behavior. In this study, independence was the one motivating desire of the 15 that stood out the most. "People who score high on independence want to make their own decisions," Reiss said. "They don't normally enjoy having to rely on other people. In contrast, religious people seek strength by relying on the help of others, including God."
Historically, religious dependence on God has been criticized as a sign of weakness, Reiss said. Famous philosophers such as Nietzsche and Marx believed religion taught people to value weakness. More recently, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura was widely quoted as saying "Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people."
However, this research provides evidence that the desire for interdependence is unrelated to any desire for weakness. In their previous research, Reiss and his colleagues found that independence and power are two distinct psychological motives.
"Religious people had a low score for independence, probably reflecting their desire for dependence on God," Reiss said. "But they had average scores for power, implying that they do not seek submission to leaders. So Nietzsche and Marx erred when they argued that religion encouraged people to value political weakness."
The results showed that religious people were also more motivated by honor than non-religious people. In the Reiss Profiles, honor is the desire to be loyal to one's parents, ethnic group and heritage. "The connection between religiousness and the desire for honor may be related to the well-documented tendency people have to embrace the religion and morality of their parents," Reiss said.
Religious people were also more motivated by the desire for family -- raising one's own children -- than the non-religious.
Low desire for vengeance was also associated with religious people, as was a low desire for romance, particularly sex.
However, Reiss noted that the Reiss Profiles are based on motivations, not actions. While religious people may put a lower value on vengeance, that doesn't mean they are less aggressive than non-religious people. "Our findings pertain to how people would like to behave -- what motivates them -- and not how they actually behave," he said.
Reiss said the results of the study held true among students and professionals, men and women, and among different religious denominations.