God / the Devil Made Me Do It: Religion and Personal Responsibility

Internal and External Loci of Control in Organized Religion

Monday October 29th. Intensifying rain and strong winds coupled with real feel temperatures hovering around 34 degrees soaked and froze me to the bone as I waited for 45 minutes for a local bus back to downtown Johnstown during Hurricane Sandy following a doctor's appointment in Richland. An elderly woman shopping at a nearby drug store noticed me shivering and trying to move a little to keep circulation in my legs and feet, opened her car window, and offered me a ride downtown.

Against my urban instincts, I accepted, freezing. That ride, however, was not quite the act of kindness the elderly lady perhaps meant it to be. It had a price: it came with a religious sermon designed to "save my soul" which needed saving, apparently, because I'm not evangelical Christian. I of course had the good sense to not inform her that I'm actually a legally ordained Wiccan pastor, something she would never understand much less respect. My re-elect Obama pin on my coat was enough to merit "saving."

Throughout the lecture, I heard her say how "God did this" and "God did that" regarding most of her actions she deemed positive. Naturally she also attributed everything perceived as undesirable to either the devil directly or to some sin she had no means of avoiding.

In forty minutes time, there was not one word of actual, objective, personal responsibility. She didn't decide to give me a ride. She did not decide that the very personal subject of religion had to be THE topic of conversation with a perfect stranger whose main interest at the moment was just surviving the storm as it surged across western Pennsylvania. She wasn't being nosy or imposing. No, GOD did all of that! In her mind, there was no personal responsibility. She couldn't say "I choose to _____" and take ownership of her choices. No, God, she believes, is in total control of everything.

As a well-educated woman raised evangelical, I grew up with her stories, her claims, her deference of control from internal to external. My pursuit of science and bachelors in three social sciences taught me to question this way of thinking. Psychologists refer to this as internal verses external loci (loci is the plural of "locus") of control. It refers to a person's attribution of how/why things happen to them. Are the events in your life a factor of what you yourself did and have power to affect or are they because of something else outside of yourself - like a supernatural being (positive or negative).

With an internal locus of control, you take personal responsibility for your choices, both positive and negative. The internal speech says "I can determine what happens next." Internal loci of control enable us to learn and grow from our choices. When something doesn't work for us, it asks "What can I learn from this? What can I do differently?"

But this woman displayed no personal locus of control about anything and, if anything, has been taught for her entire life that external forces are entirely or almost entirely in charge, that she doesn't have the ability in herself to make intelligent choices. When someone perceives everything as externally in charge, it removes the imperative to change, grow, and learn from one's choices.

External loci of control serve people in power well. When individuals do not take personal responsibility and do not perceive themselves as in charge of their own lives or capable of being in charge of their own lives, they end up deferring to a perceived authority to make these choices for them. This is how so many organized religions have so much power; they have trained their followers to defer their choices to choice "authorities" and removed the internal locus of control from them.

The irony here is that these institutions are also the ones who seem to tout the idea of personal responsibility the most fervently - often as an excuse to not help others. Why do you need to help your hungry neighbor if your neighbor's hunger is due to some personal defect or failure - rather than the Great Recession? Why do you need to intervene when someone needs help when clearly that person did something to put themselves in that position?

This weird combination of attributions means that people have stopped helping one another. It also impairs people from coming up to creative solutions to their problems. When you yourself take personal responsibility, not only are you a better consumer of information, but you often are more charitable, more kind, and more independent than those who defer to some external power or authority.

Contrary to the rhetoric of the right wing religious, this doesn't make you anti religion or anti divinity. Instead, those with the greatest internal loci of control understand that any deity capable of creating the universe would not make you yourself helpless to the control of others. Each of us has the faculties to make good, kind, and intelligent choices. After all, if deity can make pigeons and doves capable of finding their way home during severe storms, deity must have given we humans equal or greater capacities for survival and success -- without deferring our lives to the power of someone else.

Published by Laurel A. Rockefeller

Laurel A. Rockefeller was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska where she received her bachelor of arts from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in writing, psychology, and medieval and Asian history, the o...  View profile