Different Forms of Spirituality for Different Personalities

Jim Kennedy

(last modified 12/24/2006)

Research indicates that a person's personality depends on the temperment he or she is born with and on his or her experiences during life, particularly during childhood (Carey, 203; Hammer & Copeland, 1998). Both factors are important in determining personality. The differences in personality may influence what types of spiritual or religious interests a person has.

Several forms of spirituality or religion and their relationship with personality are described below. A person may have varying degrees of each of these personality factors and may be drawn to more than one form of spirituality. There are probably other types of spiritual expression and personality that are not described here. In addition, there also appear to be personality factors that are associated with a philosophy of materialism and tend to make a person uninterested in or skeptical of spirituality.


Keirsey (1998) stated that people with the "intuitive feeling" personality types according to the Myers-Briggs personality model tend to be mystical in outlook. These people aspire

to transcend the material world (and thus gain insight into the essence of things), to transcend the senses (and thus gain knowledge of the soul), to transcend the ego (and thus feel united with all creation), [and] to transcend even time (and thus feel the force of past lives and prophesies). (Keirsey, 1998, p. 145)

People with this mystical personality factor tend to feel an underlying unity in all people and all things, and to seek transcendent experiences that are direct contact with this unity. Their approach to spirituality tends to be based on personal experiences of the transcendent rather than based on institutional authority and doctrine.


For people with an authoritarian personality, establishing and conforming to authority is the main purpose of life. These people tend to form hierarchical organizations that emphasize following rules and have hostile conflicts with those who do not follow their rules or share their values. Authoritarian personalities were initially investigated in an effort to understand the appeal and success of fascist political regimes (Carey, 2003).

Altemyer (1996) argues that fundamentalist religions are religious manifestations of the authoritarian personality. Fundamentalists exist for most of the worlds major religions and believe that their particular set of beliefs and values are the only true religion. They believe that those who follow the rules of their religion have a special relationship with God and that God will punish those do not follow the rules. The Christian Fundamentalist's firm belief in the inerrant authority of the Bible is a typical expression of the authoritarian personality.

Religious terrorists are an extreme form of fundamentalism. It is a small step from believing that God will punish those who do not follow the rules to believing that God wants the select true believers to punish nonbelievers (Stern, 2003).


Some people are attracted to knowledge in the form of memorizing and analyzing writings, history, and theories. This intellectual approach can result in religious pundits with extensive knowledge of the details of religious beliefs and religious history.


Service to others is a common form of spiritual expression in many religions. This is a central theme in the New Testament. Some people are more attracted to this form of spirituality.


Participation in a religious group or spiritual community is a social activity that has great appeal for some people. Extraversion is a well established personality factor that reflects a person's desire to be involved with groups of people. The scientific study of religion tends to focus on the social aspects. Social support and connections from participation in a religous or spiritual group is frequently discussed as an important aspect of spirituality.

Integration and Conflicts

The most successful religious organizations will appeal to all these personality types. The Catholic Church is one of the most conspicuous examples that incorporates mystical, authoritarian, intellectual, service, and social aspects.

However, many people place greater emphasis on one form of spirituality and are not attracted to such diversity. In fact, conflicts are common among people with different personality types and different forms of spirituality.

Conflicts between people with mystical and authoritarian dispositions have occurred throughout history. For example, Christian Fundamentalists often consider the transcendent or miraculous experiences of mystics as delusions or the work of the devil that distracts people from recognizing and obeying the authority of the Bible and church. They consider such experiences to have been necessary in Biblical times to establish the authority of the Bible, but their occurrence in post-Biblical times are a threat to the established authority.

These controversies go back to the beginning of Christianity. The texts selected for inclusion in the New Testament emphasized the authority of the church and its leaders, and were chosen when Christianity was becoming a state religion. Texts that gave greater emphasis to personal spiritual insight and experiences were rejected (Pagels, 2005; Valantasis, 2006). The conflicts between Quakers and Puritans were another example of tensions between those who focused on personal spiritual insight and experience versus those who focused on religion as an external source of authority and rules (Barbour and Frost, 1988).

Perhaps the greatest source of conflict is the apparently pervasive tendency for people to want to feel superior to others and to believe that their spiritual interests are better than others. This seems to occur among all personality types. Fundamentalists who are openly hostile to people with different beliefs and values are the most conspicuous. However, people with mystical tendencies also often feel that they are superior to others because of their personal experiences. They view an interest in mysticism as the highest form of spirituality.

Writers have devoted thousands of pages to discussing and debating what is the highest form of spirituality (e.g., Wilber, 2000). It appears to me that these efforts generally result in hierarchical models that place the writer's particular personality and associated preferences at the top.

An alternative approach is to recognize that different people have different personalities, interests, and values, and that it is not beneficial or meaningful to consider one as intrinsically better than another. Each has value in certain situations and that fact becomes more apparent as one gains broader experience and perspective. This may be a situation where acceptance is more appropriate than judgement.


Altemeyer, B. (1996). The Authoritarian Spector. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barbour, H., and Frost, J.W. (1988). The Quakers. Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press.

Carey, Gregory (2003). Human Genetics for the Social Sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hammer, Dean, and Copeland, Peter (1998). Living with our Genes. New York: Doubleday.

Keirsey, D. (1998). Please Understand Me II. Del Mar, CA: Prometheus Nemesis Book Company

Pagels, E. (2005). Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. New York: Random House.

Stern, J. (2003). Terror in the Name of God. New York: HarperCollins.

Valantasis, R. (2006). Gnosticism and other Vanished Christianities. New York: Doubleday.

Wilber, K. (2000). A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.