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Personality and Religiousness in Youth Members of The Family,’ A New Religious Movement
Presented on October 21, 2000, at the
Department of Education and Child Development
The study of members or former members of new religious movements (NRM) can be a task fraught with controversy. Unconventional religious movements, particularly those which confront the mainstream religious or secular mores embedded in a culture or society, may find themselves criticized (and occasionally attacked) by members of longer-standing religious, political, and government institutions (Bainbridge, 1997). Some studies have shown negative effects associated with membership (Enroth, 1987; Walsh, Russell, & Wells, 1995), while others have shown positive to neutral effects on psychological adjustment (Galanter, 1989; Lewis, 1994; Shepherd & Lilliston, 1994). Some authors have implied that only persons with significant personality or psychiatric problems will join or remain in such groups (Day & Peters, 1999; Hexham & Poewe, 1986; Hoffer, 1951).
This study was concerned with just one NRM called The Family (formerly ‘Children of God'). Founded by the late David Brandt Berg in 1967, its most recent census reported over 10,000 active members located in 86 nations. The Family’s practices have tended to be born out of the Jesus People Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, in which American Protestant fundamentalism mixed with a nearly exclusive focus on having a personal relationship with Jesus and an experiential orientation that placed relatively little value on beliefs or practices (Bainbridge, 1997). Wallis (1987) categorized The Family as a "world-rejecting” movement: spawned by socially marginalized persons experiencing anxiety, deprivation, and despair, members of world-rejecting movements have rejected both materialism and the impersonal nature of corporate capitalist society. They seek to change society or to develop an alternative way in which they can live in it. The Family have become much more visible in the United States, coinciding with their return around 1990.
The Family’s theological system shares much in common with many nondenominational, conservative evangelical Christian theologies. The Family doctrine is based on a mixture of Christian fundamentalism and extra-biblical teachings, most usually in the form of MO Letters (Father Moses’ epistles, periodically sent out to Family communes which delineated the group’s proscribed behavior, doctrine, and organization) which are given equal weight to Scripture (Millikan, 1994). The Family therefore upholds the concept of "progressive revelation" the Bible is considered to be God’s Word yet additional clarification, insights, and plans may be made known in the present (Melton, 1994a). They proclaim a coming apocalyptic period which will be ushered in by the Millennium. Some of their basic tenets of faith include the belief that a rise of the Antichrist is imminent and that negative world events are signs of the impending Great Tribulation.
While some Family beliefs and practices lie outside the circle of what is considered essential to Christianity, some core and others peripheral, (Gomes, 1995), many are not unique to The Family. The Family of today, in fact, is less radical and more analogous to many conventional Christian churches. Since 1995, The Family have had an Internet site on the World Wide Web (www.thefamily.org) which provides an up-to-date view to their activities, history, theology, and core message to persons interested in finding more information concerning the group.
Since the Children of God’s (COG) inception, an emphasis on the power and divine goodness of human sexuality has played an integral part. The 'Law of Love’ is a foundation principle of The Family’s theology, based on Jesus’ statement that "Loving God with all one’s mind, soul, and heart and loving one’s neighbor as oneself" is the greatest commandment, which should guide and govern all actions of Christians, and led to The Family’s doctrine of 'positive sexuality’ (The Family, personal email communication, April 10, 2000). One Family practice that grew out of the Law of Love was "Flirty Fishing" (or "FFing"). Begun as an experiment in 1973, this entailed Family members meeting strangers in social settings which could lead to human sexual intimacy in the belief that such 'loving’ contact would meet perceived bodily needs as well as lead persons to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. By 1979, FFing had become a missionary practice which pervaded most Family Homes, and the practice contributed considerably to The Family’s infamous reputation of being a "sex cult." Since birth control was not accepted within their theology, several children were conceived during these FFing encounters, and these progeny were called "Jesus Babies." While most these children became Family members, they accounted for 10% of total Family births during the period in which FFing was practiced (Lewis, 1994; Palmer, 1994).
Few empirical studies have been conducted on active members of The Family, although several socio-psychological histories have been written about the group. The Family has been "domesticated" by internal and external pressures since its beginnings, so much written about it during its colorful history in the 1970s and 1980s will have somewhat limited value since the group became somewhat more mainstream during the 1990s (Lewis, 1994; Richardson, 1994).
In 1993, Shepherd and Lilliston (1994) completed an in-depth psychological assessment on child and adolescent members of The Family living in two different communal homes based in California. Most of these participants had previously lived in Family Homes located in other nations (e.g., South America, Asia, Europe, and Mexico). The sample therefore most likely reflected the additive product of child rearing and educational practices (as well as other environmental influences) present in other Family communities around the world.
Shepherd and Lilliston (1994) found consistent evidence (in the form of observational data, direct assessment of children, and interviews with members) that their study participants had been and continued to be raised in healthy environments. Participants appeared comfortable when interacting with adults, seemed to have age-appropriate ego and emotional development (with no indications of significant anxiety or depression), and exhibited well developed ego functions (i.e., had appropriate impulse control as indicated by neither suppression of spontaneity nor under control). Members were judged to have a generally high degree of ego regulation (i.e., capacity to adjust behavior to different situational demands and changes in ongoing situations) and good cognitive flexibility (i.e., ability to take on stimuli and situations from a different perspective). Creativity and curiosity were high, and functional skills (which enable individuals to cope with stress) were well developed, and perhaps superior compared to children drawn from mainstream American society. No evidence of either psychopathology or child neglect or abuse was uncovered.
Children and adolescents in the Shepherd and Lilliston (1994) study functioned at a high level compared to similar aged non-member cohorts, suggesting that The Family Home-based schools were quite effective at teaching basic academic skills. The child participants’ academic and cognitive functioning was determined to be above the norm; WISC and WRAT scores placed most children above average, and the typical Family child exceeded age-based norms in reading and arithmetic by two to four grades. Their problem-solving skills on concrete, abstract, and interpersonal tasks were well developed. Based on the results of the psychological tests, clinical interviews, and behavioral observations, Lilliston and Shepherd (1994) described the Family children as “emotionally well adjusted, cognitively advanced, and quite adaptive in interpersonal functioning” (p. 52).
The results obtained by Lilliston and Shepherd (1994) led them to conclude that occasional allegations of wide-spread, institutionalized child abuse within The Family are unwarranted. While not denying that singular cases of child abuse might have occurred or could happen (given the global child abuse base rate), these authors concluded that “The children we studied are simply too healthy to be products of a system in which abuse occurs at a high level” (p. 56). That The Family has consistently been found innocent of all allegations of child abuse brought against them in various courts lends further support to this point.
The Shepherd and Lilliston (1994) was a well done, in-depth investigation of The Family, but it had some limitations. First, the researchers relied largely on observational data to evaluate the psychological functioning of their relatively smallish sample. Although this method of data collection offers many advantages, accepted psychometric instruments would provide data that could more directly be compared to scores obtained from the population. Second, while their sample was arguably representative, it was relatively small and participants were drawn from just a few locations in the same geographic area. Third, while the investigators used widely accepted intelligence tests, no standardized personality or religiousness instruments were administered. So while they were able to collect valuable qualitative information, more quantitative data would have enabled more direct comparisons with larger, normative samples.
The purpose of this study was to complement the Lilliston and Shepherd (1994) study by addressing its shortcomings. First, study participants were drawn from several different homes across a large geographic area. Second, the actual number of participants (N = 172) was much larger than the one used in their study. Finally, this study obtained considerably more quantitative information due to its use of standardized instruments which permitted the investigator to make straightforward comparisons between the personality and religious functioning of current Family members (who have spent most of their lives growing up within the group) and normative group peers.
Personality was assessed with the Sixteen Personality Factors Questionnaire (16PF--Fifth Edition) and the SASB Intrex–-Medium Form. Based on findings of the study conducted by Lilliston and Shepherd (1994), this sample was expected to have normal personality development as defined by all 16PF Primary and Global Factor scales remaining in the normative range. Mean Introject sample scores on the SASB Intrex were also expected to remain within a range suggestive of overall healthy psychological functioning. It was expected that some members might have personality features which might suggest less than optimal adjustment (as in any large group), but that overall scores would show participants' profiles to be similar to the scale's norm group.
Sample scores were expected to reflect good mental health in general, as evidenced by mean personality scale scores that (a) did not have extreme mean magnitudes and (b) showed no overall patterns of psychopathology. Given a frequent finding in previous studies of members in communal NRMs, we might expect to find somewhat reduced levels of personal autonomy and elevated levels of self-monitoring and self-restraint, but these trends would be expected to be of small magnitude compared to the normative groups. Such a finding may speak more to the adequacy (i.e., personal fit) and successful adaptation to living in a communal setting rather than religious immaturity or psychological maladjustment (Bainbridge, 1997). All sample scale scores will therefore need to be interpreted in light of the context in which participants live. It was anticipated that the sample score variance would be similar (i.e., not significantly different) to the norm sample's score variance.
Religious attitudes were assessed with the Intrinsic-Extrinsic Religiousness Scale--Revised (I/E-R) and the Religious Status Inventory (RSI). The sample was expected to have greater religious maturity as defined by significantly higher scores on all Religious Status Inventory Dimension and Factor subscales. The sample was expected to have a religious motivation which was more intrinsic than extrinsic as defined by the I-E/R subscales (I, Ep, and Es).
The participants were expected to be at least somewhat invested in "looking good" as a group, therefore scores on scales which measure social desirability (i.e., 16PF response profile scores) were expected to be significantly elevated above the norm.
All participants (N = 172, mean age 19.35 years, age range 15 - 25) were active members living in official group communes (‘Homes') located in either the United States or Canada. Most participants were born, raised, and educated in The Family.
The hypothesis that the group would present with an overly positive impression management bent was not supported by the data. The three 16PF validity scales were all well within normal limits. In fact, the Impression Management scale score was significantly lower than average, suggesting the participants answered more openly than many who take the test. Mean group scores on the 16PF were within the average personality domain with no pathological trends. Mean SASB Intrex scores suggested that participants had healthy introjects, viewed rebellion in relationships negatively, and highly prized internalized self-discipline.
The SASB Intrex group profiles ‘at Best’ suggested a strong internalized sense of nurturance (4) coupled with internalized discipline (5), self affirmation (2), and self love (3). The "peaks" were all positive (which seems to be a healthy ability to care for the self), but all with a desire to do this within norms set by the community. ‘At Worst,’ the group offers a somewhat different picture: ambivalence appears, and the balance between good and bad self is obviously a vacillating one, where ambiguity becomes part of the picture. This is a normal and desirable trait, and this does not appear to have pathological results. SASB Introject data did not suggest psychopathology, as the relevant cluster scale scores (6, 7, and 8) were not elevated. SASB Introject scores were all in the relatively ‘healthy range.’
Religious Maturity. RSI scores suggested that participants had significantly greater religious maturity than Christians in conventional churches on whom norms were based. Six of the 8 Dimension scales (Awareness of God, Acceptance of God’s Grace and Steadfast Love, Knowing God’s Leadership and Direction, Involvement in Organized Religion, Being Ethical, and Affirming Openness in Faith) scores were found to be both significantly higher than the norm, as was the Dimensions Total scale. The Family participants had a significantly higher general factor score for overall Religious Maturity (Dimension Total) suggests that they have greater religious maturity. Six of the seven RSI Factors scores were found to be both significantly higher than the norm and meeting the criterion that their magnitude be at least 0.25 standard deviations different from the norm, as was the Dimensions Total scale. Although Religious Omissions and Simple Trust were elevated, suggesting somewhat less religious maturity than the norm, Worship and Commitment, Involvement in Organized Religion, Avoidance, and Fellowship scores suggested greater religious maturity than the norm. The Family participant’s significantly higher general factor for overall Religious Maturity (Factors Total) suggest that the sample was, as expected, more mature in this domain.
Religious Motivation. I/E-R scale scores suggested that participants' religious motivation was considerably more intrinsic than that of persons included in normative samples available. Scores on the Intrinsic (I) scale found the sample to be exceedingly more intrinsic than the norm. Extrinsic religiousness was similar to the norm; while social extrinsic motivation (Es) was significantly below the norm, personal extrinsic motivation (Ep) did not differ significantly from the norm.
Participants’ obtained scores on personality (traits and introjects) and religiousness (maturity and orientation) scales of youth members in The Family was examined and consistent with the hypotheses of overall good mental health, overall greater religious maturity, and had more intrinsic religiousness than norm-group peers. These results suggest that participants appear to have been raised in and/or continue to live in psychologically and social healthy environments. That The Family members in our study sample, on average, obtained psychologically normal scores suggest that they differ little from those of the normal population was supported by the results. This is not to say that no maladjustment exists amongst The Family’s membership, but rather, that there appears to be a preponderance of overall normality.
The Family members live a rather different lifestyle than is normative in most cultures around the world. While overall scores suggest healthy psychological and religious functioning, this group must be understood within a proper context. While the positive findings in this study might be generalized to the greater international Family community, these findings are not necessarily applicable to youth raised in different NRMs. Given the variety of NRMs throughout the world which have a plethora of different beliefs and practices, it is unfeasible to generalize the results obtained by members of one NRM to another, unrelated religious group.
The SASB scores attained by this sample might even prove similar to those attained by military personnel on a submarine, where there exists a need for individual members to be loyal, self-sacrificing, and deferent to rules and authority on the one hand, while being self-disciplined, autonomous, and self-sufficient on the other, if the entire community is to survive. Members who have not benefited, or were perhaps harmed by being raised in this group, may have freely left it for this very reason. That those who benefited stayed and those who did not were able to leave of their own volition might explain the fact that ex-members of NRMs have tended to have the particular score profiles observed. As with any group or organization, people who leave (whether freely or being forced out) are more likely to make a negative appraisal of their former lineage.
The SASB Intrex results suggest reasonably normal personality and intrapersonal functioning. The average participant tended to devalue free thinking and place greater value on loyalty to group needs than most peers their age. The visual representation of the Cluster scale score values shows group members to be largely normal. Sample pattern coefficients suggest that The Family are socialized to think that to be assertive, individuated, and differentiated is a bad thing. This is consistent with The Family community’s view which promotes interdependence rather than autonomy. This is consistent with the Shepherd and Lilliston (1994) finding of positive parenting practices.
Kantor and Lehr (1975) conceptualized family systems into three major types: Closed, Open, and Random. These three basic categories, which differ in their strategic styles and structural arrangements, are based upon three homeostatic models grounded on the same idea that families are semipermeable systems. Each category designates a stereotypical way in which semipermeable family systems maintain themselves and achieve their aims, and none of the three models are considered "healthy" or "pathological" alone. Rather, they are different styles which can be more or less functional from one family system example to another.
The Family best fits the Closed type of homeostatic family model, and it appears to do so with good effect. According to Kantor and Lehr (1975), closed family systems maintain and rely upon stable structures of space (fixed and bounded), time (regular), and energy (steady) as reference points for change and order. In the ideal prototypical closed family system, (a) affect involves stable intimacy and nurturance, (b) power is stable and organized vertically with clear rules, and (c) meaning has a stable identity (i.e., the family’s aim is to "be integrated".
The goal of this study was neither to evaluate the costs and benefits associated with children raised in religious communal settings, nor to state that the exposure to and rearing with unconventional practices is beneficial. It is possible that children reared in The Family benefited from the enduring and uniquely positive theological frame placed on human sexuality, there is nothing specific in the data to support this. The uniquely unconventional environment inherent in one group may have had an overall positive effect on its progeny’s psycho-social-spiritual development does not negate the benefits associated with many traditional values and parenting practices. The Family has consistently bestowed what it considers sexual responsibility versus prohibition, whereby strengthened "feelings of both personal worth and attachment to the purposes of the group" (Shepherd & Lilliston, 1994) appear to have been effective, as is evidenced in other studies (Vogt, 1998).
Future studies on The Family could have participants complete scales which collect more specifics concerning the content of their beliefs so that it might possible to surmise how closely participants’ faith resembles that of more conventional Christian church members). Such data would certainly provide a different and valuable overview on what members of The Family actually believe and consider most fundamental to their personal creed. Future research results obtained from such a survey could then be juxtaposed to what their formal doctrine (i.e., as written down and accepted by The Family leadership) spells out. Future research might also include having participants from The Family complete SASB Intrex scales with several more relationship ratings (particularly parents, siblings, and chief figures concerned with child rearing and education) would certainly prove valuable. This would provide more information about the nature of members’ interpersonal relationships, and thus provide an even better picture of what effect child rearing has had upon the personality development of current members.
The study to be presented today was conducted under the direction of Richard L. Gorsuch, H. Newton Malony, and Hendrika Vande Kemp (Professors of the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary) in Pasadena, California.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Douglas M. Sell, Department of Education and Child Development, Munroe-Meyer Institute (MMI), University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), 985450 Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, Nebraska, 68198-5450, USA. Electronic mail may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This presentation was developed from a study conducted under the direction of Richard L. Gorsuch, H. Newton Malony, and Hendrika Vande Kemp; all three are Professors of Psychology in the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California, USA.
Persons interested in considerably more depth and breadth concerning this study may obtain a copy of the author’s doctoral dissertation through Bell & Howell Information and Learning; their contact information is listed immediately below:
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Prologue to the Tables
This prologue is an addendum to the presentation prose delivered above. Tables and some additional study details are included here in an attempt to better illustrate certain study outcomes which received only brief attention during the presentation.
Religious Attitudes, Worship Frequency, and Nature of Membership
Responses to one-item religiousness scales (rated importance of religion and spirituality, and frequency of worship) are listed in Tables 1 and 2. In general, participants reported frequent worship practice and endorsed high personal value for both religion and spirituality on the single item measures. Tables 3 through 6 summarize participants' amount of education completed in Family Home schools, years lived in Charter Family Homes, total years of membership, and age when joined The Family, respectively. Participant responses (N = 150) on the Family History questionnaire were quite homogenous: most participants reported being born into this group, raised within the Family communal system, and educated in Family home schools.
Mean scores (sample and population), standard deviations, and significance tests for the 16PF response style scales are located in the first section of Table 7. On the 16PF, response style (i.e., validity) scale scores remain raw, while Primary Factor and Global Factor scale scores are converted to STEN (standardized ten) scores. Means, standard deviations, and significance tests for the 16PF scales can be found in Table 7. After overall Hotelling's T2 Tests performed on both the Primary and the Global Factors were found to be significant, each factor score was tested for significance against the norm score by protected F tests. The 16PF Criterion scale scores generally differed little from the normative scores; the means, standard deviations, and significance tests are located in Table 8. The only Criterion scales found to be significant (at better than the p < 0.01 level) were SE (Social Expressivity), LP (Leadership Potential), CP (Creative Potential), and CA (Creative Achievement).
The mean SASB Intrex scores for both ‘Best Self' and ‘Worst Self' on the Introject surface (Tables 9 and 10, respectively) shared some patterns observed in the norm group, with some significant differences. Two pattern coefficients (ATK and CFL) and seven cluster scores (Free, Affirm, Love, Control, Blame, Attack, Neglect) were significantly different given the self scenario. While vector scores for Autonomy (AUT) and Affiliation (AFL) were also calculated and placed in Tables 9 and 10, these were not included in the analysis because the more recently developed pattern coefficients are thought to offer a better account of all observed variance (Benjamin, 1996b). Centroid figures for the mean sample and normative group SASB Intrex scores (Introject Surface) are presented on the final page of this document.
The RSI mean Dimension and Factor subscale scores, normative group means, and results of the analysis, can be found in Tables 11 and 12, respectively. The Family participant's significantly higher mean Dimension and Factor scores for overall Religious Maturity (Dimensions and Factors Total) suggested that the sample was, as expected, more mature in this domain.
Mean sample scores, standard deviations, normative group means, and significance tests on the I/E-R scale can be found in Table 13. Again, the observed sample scores found The Family participants to have religious motivation considerably more intrinsic than that of the normative group.
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