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The personality types of Christians and atheists

Pensive womanAsk any parent: some people are just born a certain way. From their first few months and especially in their teenage years, people’s personalities have a way of shining forth, sometimes in spite of all the parental training in the opposite direction. Personality types have powerful effect on how people perceive and behave in the world. This, theoretically, would include religious beliefs and behaviors. As it turns out, using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), evangelical Protestants tend to be judging, Anglicans are introverts, and Greek Orthodox and atheists share an "ISTJ" personality.

These four letter combinations (like ISTJ) represent a personality type under the Myers-Briggs. Each letter says something about a personality trait. The first letter deals with where people get their energy from, and is either “i” for Introverted or “e” for Extraverted. Introverts rejuvenate by being alone; that is, they get energy from within themselves and usually lose energy from excessive outside stimulation. Extroverts, not surprisingly, are the opposite: they get energy primarily from the outside world (stereotypically by chatting, but this also includes watching TV, listening to music, or receiving sensory input from anywhere outside of them).

The second letter of a Myers-Brigg perrsonality type indicates where people do their mental processing—in other words, where do people get their information to think through problems? An “s” stands for Sensing, and means people emphasize the information from their senses in their processing. They may naturally notice interesting and important physical facts from their experiences, or may prefer a more hands-on as opposed to an abstract approach to problem-solving. On the other side is “n.” “N” stands for Intuition, which means that someone favors abstract thinking over concrete thinking. For instance, rather than looking at the facts of experience, an N will look for abstract patterns above the experience and place the experience within this larger abstract context.

The next letter is about how people reason. A “t,” or Thinking personality, favors logic and formal reason over personal concerns and circumstances. How decisions may affect certain people takes a backseat to logical consistency. F’s, or those with a Feeling personality, prefer the opposite. They prioritize people’s feelings in their decision-making.

Finally, the last letter has do with how people structure their interactions with their environment. A “p,” or Perceiving personality, likes to take life on the fly. Negatively, Perceivers tend to be late and generally unreliable, but positively they are a lot of fun, enjoy life, and make life interesting. Their opposite, “j,” or Judging, takes comfort in structure. Negatively, they tend to live dull, structured and overly organized lives, but positively they are reliable and are capable of achieving tasks that require long-term planning and foresight (notice that Judging does not mean judgmental!).

With this explanation of the MBTI, the results of a series of recent studies about religious belief and personality should start to make some sense. Churchgoing Evangelical Protestants in Ontario showed an unusually high number of Judgers. Specifically, evangelical women had Judging and Feeling personality traits while evangelical men had Sensing and Judging traits when compared to the average Canadian. In other words, both evangelical men and women prefer structure, with men also preferring their sense input over abstractions and women preferring people’s feelings to cold logic.

A study of churchgoing English Anglicans found them to be a rather particular bunch: most had ISFJ personality types, with the added result those with Intuitive, Thinking, or Perceiving personalities experienced lower levels of congregational satisfaction. Put another way, most Anglicans are ISFJs (they get their energy from within themselves, prefer sense data over abstractions, prioritize people’s feelings over logic, and structure their lives), and N’s, T’s, and P’s who are Anglican do not enjoy their church as much as their counterparts.

Another study looked at the personalities of the churchgoing Greek Orthodox in London. Most Greek Orthodox had ISTJ personalities (they get their energy from within themselves, prefer sense data over abstractions, prioritize logic over feelings, and structure their lives). Whereas the Anglicans had an unusually high number of Feelers from their male population, the Greek Orthodox had an unusually number of Thinkers from their female population.

Interestingly enough, online atheists also primarily have ISTJ personalities (with INTJ as a very distant second). So, before drawing any hasty conclusions, both Greek Orthodox and online atheists have a disproportionate number of ISTJs. Why some ISTJs choose Orthodoxy and others choose atheism remains a wide open question. Its answer may involve more than four letters.

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