People who are highly religious or spiritual are slightly less humble about their intellectual abilities on average, according to new research. But the study indicates that authoritarianism is the key factor.

The findings were published in the scientific journal Personality and Individual Differences.

“Intellectual humility is a form of humility related to the way people think. It can be defined as a nonthreatening awareness of one’s intellectual fallibility,” said study author Elizabeth Krumrei-Mancuso, an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University.

“I’m interested in this topic because it is foundational for gaining new knowledge and understanding. That is, people who realize and accept that their knowledge is not perfect will be more likely to discover biases and errors in their thinking, consider other viewpoints, respect those who disagree, and so forth.”

“As such, intellectual humility benefits individuals as well as relationships and society. I was further interested in the links between intellectual humility and religion, given that religion is a pervasive aspect of culture that has been closely tied to the way people view and treat others,” Krumrei-Mancuso told PsyPost.

“For these reasons, I was interested in examining whether it is possible to be intellectually humble and simultaneously deeply committed to religious or spiritual beliefs.”

For the study, 302 U.S. adults completed an online survey via Amazon Mechanical Turk. A hundred of these participants completed another survey three years later.

An analysis of the surveys revealed a small, negative link between religion and intellectual humility. However, a third variable explained much of the observed association.

“It initially seemed that a number of religious and spiritual variables predicted less intellectual humility over time, but these links mostly disappeared when factoring in the construct of right-wing authoritarianism,” Krumrei-Mancuso explained.

“This suggests that religion and spirituality are mostly unrelated to intellectual humility, but that certain sociopolitical attitudes about authority are associated with decreases in intellectual humility. These sociopolitical attitudes include a strong emphasis on obedience to leaders, intolerance of deviance, and conformity to norms.”

Right-wing authoritarianism describes the tendency to submit to political authority and be hostile towards other groups The right-wing authoritarianism scale asks participants how much they agree with statements such as: “It’s always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubts in people’s minds.”

The study found that right-wing authoritarianism accounted for most of — but not all of — the correlation between religion and intellectual humility.

“After controlling right-wing authoritarianism, religious participation was a small negative predictor of future intellectual humility, accounting for 2.2% of the variance in intellectual humility. More specifically, those who report high levels of praying or meditating, reading or watching religious material, thinking and talking about religious issues, and attending religious services also reported less independence of intellect and ego three years later,” Krumrei-Mancuso told PsyPost.

“It’s possible that these individuals reporting high levels of religious participation find themselves within the religious minority in society. If these individuals are frequently defending their religious behaviors to others, this could explain the lower scores of independence between intellect and ego. This relationship can be examined further in future research.”

“In addition, I think it would be interesting to examine aspects of religion and spirituality that may be associated with greater intellectual humility. For example, previous research has indicated that variables such as spiritual maturity, engaging in intercessory prayer for outgroup members, and exposure to religious diversity have each been associated with qualities loosely related to intellectual humility,” Krumrei-Mancuso said.

“It would be interesting to examine whether these religious variables might predict greater intellectual humility. If so, this may provide some ideas for interventions or programming that can be used to encourage greater intellectual humility.”

The study was titled: “Intellectual humility’s links to religion and spirituality and the role of authoritarianism“.