I’m Not a Joiner. Was I Born That Way?

When I was writing my series on Americans’ declining interest in organized religion, I laid my cards on the table: I will always define myself as Jewish, but I have little desire to go to temple. When I started my reporting, I was somewhat ambivalent about my lack of traditional observance as an adult. I went to temple growing up and I’m proud of my heritage and the values I consider to be Jewish. I believe it’s important to pass those values along to my children, but I was concerned that without the structure of regular in-person worship, intergenerational transmission would be more difficult.

After the series published, many readers reached out to me with kind offers to take me and my family to shul, and spoke warmly about their welcoming Jewish communities. While I was quite moved by their generous offers, these entreaties had an unintended effect: They strengthened my resolve about raising my kids with Jewish rituals at home, but without being part of a traditional faith community. If my girls want to be more observant when they’re older, they’ll have enough background in Judaism to make that choice — a choice I’d support.

There are a lot of reasons for this reaction, but the most deep-rooted may be that I’m not a joiner. I’ve always had the Groucho Marx approach to group activities, which is to say, I don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member. I’m often skeptical of institutions, their exclusionary tactics and their hidden agendas, which makes me a good journalist (and arguably a good Jew, because we love to question everything).

I also have an aversion to being told what to do by my peers, which is why I’ve dropped out of every book club I’ve ever joined after a single meeting. Once a book becomes an assignment, reading it starts feeling like a chore, rather than a pleasure. I’m lucky enough to have many strong family, friend and workplace relationships that I’ve built up over the years, and many obligations through my children’s schools, so I’ve never felt that I have an unmet need for social interaction.

I’ve wondered whether this disinclination to join has something to do with my somewhat introverted personality. Or is it my upbringing? I come from a long line of suspicious cranks. Or was it cultural? After all, belonging to groups of all kinds has declined over time for Americans. In 2011, Pew Research reported that “75 percent of Americans are active in one kind of group or another.” In 2019, Pew reported that 57 percent of Americans “participate in some type of community group or organization.” A few readers of my series also asked whether there was some sort of intrinsic quality that makes people joiners or not, and I wanted to find out.

After looking at the research and talking to research psychologists, I’d bet that my lack of desire to join groups is probably a combination of all those things: personality, identity, family environment and the wider culture, but with one surprising (to me, at least) twist. Religiosity, specifically, could have a minor genetic component to it.

According to Zachary Hohman, an associate professor of psychological sciences at Texas Tech University who studies group behavior, there are multiple motivations for joining groups, but uncertainty — “not really knowing who you are, where you belong in your society” — plays a major role. The more uncertain you are about your sense of self, the more likely you are to join a group, which can give you guidance on “what to think, how to feel and how to behave,” Hohman told me when I called him in August. Teenagers and young adults may be particularly enthusiastic about joining groups because their sense of self is more in flux — which may partly explain the enduring popularity of Greek life at American universities.

There is something particular about people who join religious groups, though, Mohsen Joshanloo, an associate professor of psychology at Keimyung University in South Korea, told me via email. Joshanloo studies the “Big 5” personality traits — neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness — and their relationship to religiosity. According to Joshanloo, at the population level, agreeableness (one’s level of caring and cooperation) and conscientiousness (one’s level of responsibility) have a weak but positive correlation with religiosity.

On an individual level, Joshanloo’s research has found that a person’s level of openness, which is their curiosity and acceptance of new ideas, corresponds with their future religiosity — “an increase in openness is associated with a decrease in religiosity after approximately a decade,” Joshanloo explained.

That said, the largest predictor of someone’s religiosity has to do with his or her environment: “The social context we’re born into or find ourselves in has a greater influence,” Joshanloo said. Joshanloo and Jochen Gebauer, a professor at the University of Mannheim, analyzed data about religiosity from 166 countries taken from the Gallup World Poll. They found “that about 96 percent of people in Saudi Arabia say religion is very important in their daily lives, compared to only 22 percent of people in Norway. Many would agree that a child born in Saudi Arabia today is more likely to be religious after two decades than a child born in Norway, regardless of their personality traits,” Joshanloo said.

In his estimation, though, while environment counts for 60 percent to 70 percent of religiosity, there is some evidence that genetics help explain why some people are more inclined to join religious groups. He pointed to a 2021 review by Christian Kandler, a professor at the University of Bremen, of the literature on nature versus nurture in religiousness, concluding that “genes do not play a big role in whether or not someone is affiliated to a specific religion, but they contribute to individual differences in the extent of people’s religious beliefs and behavior.” Kandler’s meta-analysis is part of a field called behavioral genetics, and some of the study designs compare siblings, including twins, to evaluate different traits’ level of heritability.

Kandler presents findings that genetic factors account for 39 percent of what he calls “externalized religiousness,” which is going to services and performing daily religious practices. That’s compared to 28 percent for “internalized religiousness,” which is the “extent of religious beliefs, values and daily guidance.” Those percentages might sound high, but it’s food for thought.

That one’s level of religiosity is more about nurture than nature makes intuitive sense to me. I was raised by two secular, ethnically Jewish parents, in a relatively irreligious suburb, and I’m part of a generation that drove the rise of religious “nones.” It would have been somewhat unusual for someone like me to regularly participate in traditional worship as an adult, and looking at the trends I examined this year, including in my conversations with many of you, it’s clear to me that the decline in American religiosity will continue, very likely at its current pace.

My lack of desire to join other groups might be because of my bad personality or my strong sense of self — it depends on how you look at it. All the same I don’t think I’m going to be getting additional book club invites any time soon.

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