Each semester, the CSHB offers events to develop and empower researchers (students and faculty alike!). Last semester, we had the honor of hosting Dr. Sarah Schnitker, who presented her research and a workshop on tips for succeeding in research. Details about these events, including recordings and slides for her research presentation, are available in the Events tab. Below, the CSHB Student Worker shares her take on one of these events. You’ll see from her reflections that attending and engaging was worth her time. I wanted to share her reflections now because, in a few weeks, we will be hosting our spring speaker, who will present on engaging in multidisciplinary research. You can find details about this presentation on the Events tab. Read on, and I hope to see you on February 9th at our next event!
– Dr. Smith, Director of the Center for the Study of Human Behavior
How Religiousness and Spirituality Both Facilitate and Undermine the Development of Virtues
As a senior at California Baptist University studying psychology with a personal interest in the intersection of faith and science, I was thrilled to attend Dr. Schnitker’s presentation titled How Religiousness and Spirituality Both Facilitate and Undermine the Development of Virtues. The faith and science intersection is diverse with many dimensions to consider such as worldview, sociocultural context, and biology. Personally, I gravitate towards gaining a deeper understanding of the intangible realm of human cognition, morals, and virtue through the lens of the Bible, while using modern science as a tool to elaborate my applications.
I will admit that at times this quest has appeared to be almost impossible. How can one scientifically measure the physically unseen elements like morals and virtues? My time at California Baptist University and the growth in my relationship with Jesus Christ have nourished my desire to leverage science and Scripture to understand important questions in our world. The more I trust the Lord to guide my steps, the more my eyes are opened to the possibilities in research to search for truth, using wisdom and tools provided by God to better understand what is plain and what is hidden in this world. This perspective, consistent with many scholars and Christians, is one that says science and Christianity are fundamentally compatible.
This compatibility was evident in Dr. Schnitker’s recent presentation for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior (CSHB). Students and faculty listened and engaged with research focused on the science of virtue and character development, a topic of intrinsic value for the Christian. In her research, Dr. Schnitker explores how religion and spirituality can encourage or inhibit virtue development. I was struck by the overlap of her research and the mission statement of the CSHB to use empirical tools available through research to enhance our ability to make a difference in our local and global communities.
In what follows, I want to highlight what caught my attention most, and what is inspiring my own developing research questions.
Theological and Theoretical Framework
Dr. Schnitker introduced a conceptual framework for understanding the virtue of patience within a New Testament Christian context. This introduction set the foundation for her research as patience was a key virtue addressed in most of the studies. Developed in collaboration with colleagues and theologians at Fuller Seminary, this framework understands patience as a passive experience (Makrothumia) and active expression of strength (Hypomone). These are both significant in that they provide Christians with a cornerstone regarding how we are to practice and develop virtues such as patience. Romans 2:4 illuminates Makrothumia, as we see God’s kindness and forbearance towards sinful mankind. God’s passive expression of patience is the epitome of how we are called to practice and reflect long-suffering during challenges and towards those who might have wronged us. Hypomone can be further understood as one’s active role in persevering despite excruciating circumstances. This is seen in Ephesians 6:18 as Paul exhorts the church in Ephesus to practice an active form of patience despite dealing with persecution, slavery, and spiritual warfare. Dr. Schnitker emphasized that Makrothumia and Hypomone work in harmony throughout her research and can transform aspects of virtues that are stoic or indifferent into distinctly relational virtues such as active and passive suffering with and for the sake of others.
Expanding upon the New Testament understanding of patience and virtue theory in philosophy, Dr. Schnitker aims to answer questions such as “To what extent are virtues innate or learned?”, “What is the role of the individual or broader society as the source of virtue?”, and “How does one’s worldview system shape their understanding of virtue?”. This framework brought to my attention the call to action that Christians have in nourishing and developing virtues in ourselves and others. In a culture that encourages individuality the concept of imitation can be perceived in a negative light, commonly associated with being unoriginal or fake. God calls us to imitate his character, but we can also imitate and practice the virtues seen in our church leaders and communities. Considering this, Christian scientists can strive to use faith as a foundation to pursue practicing and stewarding virtue as image bearers of God seen in Psalm 86:15 “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
A significant amount of Dr. Schnitker’s research involves Christian samples and ecological contexts. Therefore, this conceptualization proves to be useful when measuring the involvement of spirituality in virtue development as a major aspect of Christian doctrine involves suffering individually, but also for the sake of loving others. Across the world and especially in Western society rapid advances in technology and medicine have broadly outdated patience and at times can diminish the beauty that can be discovered in learning how to suffer well amidst certain situations. Not every type of suffering has a quick fix nor should it necessarily, but these advances have made it possible to prolong eminent suffering and even numb self-awareness of virtues such as patience, among others.
The second conceptual framework that Dr. Schnitker uses in her research concerns the aspect of Characteristic Adaptations, a component of personality theory. Characteristic adaptations include emotion regulation strategies, such as cognitive reappraisal, internal motivations, attachments, and schemas which provide habitual patterns to engage in the world. These characteristic adaptations contribute to virtue development across personality spectrums and traits such as grit and bravery.
I was especially interested in the second aspect, Narrative Identity which provides holistic and transcendent value to psychological and religious or spiritual experiences. This can be useful in gaining knowledge about a wide range of virtues but is notable in the virtue of patience, as suffering and patience are usually not mutually exclusive. Not only does narrative identity assist researchers in collecting significant data, but on an individual level it addresses the question of “why” involved in suffering and even personal choices. Dr. Schnitker’s framework then highlighted three components of religiousness and spirituality that support patience cultivation among other virtues such as generosity or gratitude.
1. Spiritual Transcendence- The Personal Spiritual Experience
2. Religious Meaning- Theological or Doctrinal Understanding and Perceptions
3. Spiritual Practices- Specifics such as Prayer, Meditation, or Fasting
These components involve the specific integration of religious and spiritual elements that have the potential to facilitate or undermine virtues- whether they be in a psychological or religious context. These three aspects are crucial in discerning the individual differences among a wide range of religious and spiritual beliefs or practices. I gathered personal inspiration from these specific components as I have an interest in one day exploring the effects of religiousness and spirituality in the facilitation of treatment or potential aggregation of anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. My prayer is for wisdom to use scientific observations as such in a way that can help me provide epistemic value to complicated areas of human suffering while encouraging the development of virtues despite the challenges.
In the following paragraphs, I want to provide an overview highlighting the studies Dr. Schnitker presented. You can watch the full presentation on the CSHB website for more specifics regarding the seven individual studies, but my goal here is to provide you with key takeaways and significant implications gathered from her three research questions.
- Is Change in Religiousness and Spirituality Associated with Change in Virtues?
Studies one and two focused on the potential change in virtue based on intrinsic religiousness or spirituality. These short-term longitudinal studies and quantitative results indicated that increases in religious belief or spiritual motivations were predictors of positive change in intrapsychic well-being, prosocial virtue development, patience, self-control, and generosity (Schnitker et al., 2014; Schnitker et al., 2020). The first study examined the role of religious conversion at a Christian summer camp and its potential to foster virtue growth. The second study focused on change in motivations affected by prosocial, spiritual, and fitness contexts. Upon examining marathon runners who raised money for a charity, her data indicated that change in fitness motivations did not correlate with change in virtue, but a change in prosocial and spiritual factors led to more patience, self-control, and generosity during the participants fundraiser experience (Schnitker et al., 2020). These data indicate that change in religiousness and spirituality foster a significant role in the facilitation of virtue change as these components showed the largest effect sizes for virtue growth both short and long term.
- Do Virtue Building Activities Differ when Practiced as Secular versus Spiritual Undertakings?
Studies three, four, and five used experimental measures to examine the potential differences in virtue building if activities are practiced in either a spiritual or secular context (e.g., prayer vs gratitude journaling or non-theistic meditation). Overall, the results highlighted the positive effects of religiousness specifically; and how activities framed in contexts of prayer or spiritual growth, but not their secular equivalents, contributed to increased gratitude, positive effect, and patience development (Schnitker & Richardson, 2019). However, the effect was strongest for patience as two of the three studies demonstrated that the spiritual and religious components had no effect on increased generosity, development of self-control, or emotion regulation (Greenway et al., 2018; Schnitker et al., 2021). This particularly stood out to me, as I would have hypothesized that spiritual practices would not only have increased patience but also facilitated the growth of other virtues with an emphasis on generosity. Data from all three studies supported the notion that virtue-building activities and their outcomes differ when the activity is practiced in either a spiritual or secular context. Although religious and spiritual undertakings were significant facilitators of patience development, these data indicate that virtues such as generosity were not cultivated from the religious and spiritual context.
- How do Processes that Relate Spiritually and Virtues Unfold in Daily Life?
Studies six and seven used intensive sampling methodology to understand how the processes related to virtue development and spirituality evolve in daily life and goal pursuit. Patience was found to be a key facilitator fostering an adaptive goal-pursuit cycle and predicted higher amounts of progress and success rates among different goals, as well as increased meaning (Thomas & Schnitker, 2017). This study emphasized that patience should not always be perceived as being inactive or passive, rather it serves as a positive facilitator in completing a variety of goals based on the situation or reason for waiting. The last study examined the role of Ramadan in a Muslim American population. This was particularly significant, as most of the literature has been concentrated on white Christians living in the United States. The findings supported the theory that religious or spiritual practice and sacred events such as Ramadan can serve as a natural intervention for virtue development in daily life, as the participants’ were found to have individually grown in spiritual connectedness, self-control, and patience. Data collected from this group of studies supported the understanding that daily life routines and goal setting can be facilitated by active patience (Hypomone) and religious contexts that assign higher-order meaning.
What do these questions and findings mean for you as an individual, a student, or as a current researcher? Maybe you had an existing theoretical understanding of virtues and their individual value but never considered the role that religiousness or spirituality could have in facilitating or undermining their development. Have you considered the implications involved in only approaching or understanding virtue with a purely individualistic mindset? Humans are relational beings that embody a wide-ranging set of personality traits, worldviews, and beliefs. If we are to further understand how and why virtues develop, we need to look at meaningful ecological contexts, and how diverse religious and spiritual practices can potentially strengthen or compromise growth and well-being. Future research should aim to identify specific aspects of religiousness and spirituality within types of religious services, prayers, and community engagement. This will build upon existing research and help make causal inferences on their relationship to change in virtues. It is important to consider one’s personal religious and spiritual beliefs as we strive to help others build character adaptations that serve as a bolster for virtue development, as well as the narrative identities that assign value and meaning. My personal knowledge regarding the eminent coaction between science and faith was enlivened by the empirical and holistic approach Dr. Schnitker used to measure the unseen and intangible aspects of human life. In what ways did these findings challenge or support your individual stance on using science as a tool to not just gather significant data, but to serve as a catalyst in living out a true and prosperous Christian life?
An implication to consider is learning how to incorporate a scientific and philosophical understanding of virtue within heavy contexts such as suffering. How can we holistically approach the development of virtues with theological and scientific integrity? Christians can strive to accomplish this by using the truth of scripture to guide their scientific inquiries and to foster empathy during times of suffering, conflict, or disagreement. The world will proclaim that suffering is unfair and while this does hold significance in societal discourse, within a Biblical context we see a different meaning. Suffering is inevitable in the world, as humanity has fallen away from the nature of God. Despite this, we can hold fast to hope, and instead of trying to eradicate difficulty, we can integrate science to help demonstrate the personal and societal value found in virtues. Individuals will always be a distinguished source of gathering meaning, but we cannot limit our understanding to that level as human flourishing is usually seen best among prosocial contexts. Virtue holds intrinsic value, and a multi-dimensional understanding can help us learn to love God, others, and ourselves better in light of the Gospel. 1 Corinthians 13:4 speaks of love as the greatest of all and proclaims, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast and is not proud.” We can see here that being virtuous is more than just a specific trait but rather an approach to life serving as a vessel to cultivate love demonstrated and bring glory to God.
Greenway, T. S., Schnitker, S. A., & Shepherd, A. M. (2018). Can prayer increase charitable giving? examining the effects of intercessory prayer, moral intuitions, and theological orientation on generous behavior. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 28(1), 3–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508619.2017.1406790
Schnitker, S. A., & Richardson, K. L. (2019). Framing gratitude journaling as prayer amplifies its hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, but not health, benefits. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14(4), 427–439. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1460690
Schnitker, S. A., Felke, T. J., Barrett, J. L., & Emmons, R. A. (2014). Longitudinal Study of religious and spiritual transformation in adolescents attending Young Life Summer Camp: Assessing the epistemic, intrapsychic, and moral sociability functions of conversion. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(2), 83–93. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035359
Schnitker, S., Shubert, J., Houltberg, B., & Fernandez, N. (2020). Bidirectional associations across time between entitativity, positive affect, generosity, and religiousness in adolescents training with a religiously affiliated charity Marathon Team. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 686. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17030686
Schnitker, S. A., Shubert, J., Ratchford, J. L., Lumpkin, M., & Houltberg, B. J. (2021). Mixed results on the efficacy of the character me smartphone app to improve self-control, patience, and emotional regulation competencies in adolescents. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.586713
Thomas, R. M., & Schnitker, S. A. (2017). Modeling the effects of within-person characteristics and goal-level attributes on personal project pursuit over time. Journal of Research in Personality, 69, 206–217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2016.06.012