Confess to Steven Reiss how important eating, exercise and vengeance are to you, and he can divine the role religion plays in your life.
Reiss, an Ohio State University professor of psychology and psychiatry, said these and 13 other "sensitivity points" -- a set of values held to different degrees by nearly everybody -- can predict not only whether a person is likely to be religious but also what form that belief may take.
He describes his theory in the June issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, which publishes peer-reviewed research.
According to experts in that field, academic interest in the science of God is growing.
But it is not new. The philosopher William James, working just over a century ago, linked personality traits with their expression in religious belief. Freud famously traced religious leanings to events in the unconscious. In the middle of the 20th century, Harvard psychology professor Gordon Allport developed scales for measuring religious belief that spurred an early wave of data-based research.
Reiss said his work differs by providing a comprehensive set of criteria that can be universally applied to collect data that can be dispassionately evaluated. If Reiss's theory is correct, the way a person responds to questions designed to measure the importance of each of the 16 points can reveal -- to an expert at interpreting the data -- the strength and nature of the individual's attraction to religion.
As one might expect of a theory that attempts to explain some of humankind's most persistent and vexing questions, this gets a bit complicated. The 16 points are known as "basic desires" in Reiss's scheme, and all people will assign each a different degree of importance. They are, in alphabetical order:
* physical exercise
* social contact
Fulfilling any of these desires produces a related "joy" or satisfaction that a person may get through religion. So someone with a strong basic desire for order is one who seeks the "joy" of stability. He may attain that joy through a religion heavy in rituals.
One who has a strong desire for social contact may be drawn to a religion that features many festivals and celebrations. Someone who assigns little or no value to social contact may embrace a religion that features retreats, periods of solitude or vows of silence.
As for eating and exercise? Those who value eating may be drawn to a religion that involves feasting -- or fasting. Those who value physical vitality may revel in the strength God provides -- or in the sabbath, when restricted exercise is a form of worship.
Reiss, author of "Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities" (Tarcher Putnam), test-drove his theory by having 558 people -- a group of college students and another group of people attending a seminar on teaching mentally retarded people -- complete his Reiss Profile questionnaire, which asks them to respond to 128 prompts such as "My honor is essential to my happiness" using a seven-point scale that ranges from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree," with a neutral point in the middle.
He further asked them to describe themselves as very, somewhat or not religious. He collected denominational information on just over half the respondents.
While earlier assessments typically tied religion strongly to the fear of death -- the old "there are no atheists in a foxhole" theory -- Reiss's small study shows that honor, not fear of death, is the single value most closely associated with religious feeling. Those who reported that honor was a strong motivator in their lives were more likely to be religious than those for whom honor mattered little. Reiss suggested that those who value honor may feel compelled to embrace the religion of their families and ancestors.
Those in his study who said they strongly valued independence were less likely to be strongly religious than those who valued interdependence with other people.
Reiss's work might appear to posit religion as little more than a means to an end -- as a way for people to achieve their personal psychological desires -- rather than an expression of pure and simple faith. But Reiss said there's plenty of room for faith in his scheme -- depending on where one falls on the curiosity scale, that is.
"If you're a curious person, you have to ask questions to establish meaning," he explained. "If you're not curious, you're going to want a faith that doesn't give much value to the intellect" or that allows for knowing God through revelation as opposed to learning about God through reason. "These people have different natures, and religion accommodates both."
Reiss said that, while it has not yet been tested in this way, his sensitivity theory can account for nonsectarian spiritual experience as well as more conventional religious expressions.
There is not universal agreement that such scientific study of religion tells the whole story.
Michael Nielsen, associate professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University and creator of a Web site devoted to psychology and religion (www.psywww.com/psyrelig/index.htm), says some people react to the idea of scientific study of religion much as they do to biological studies of love.
"So much of our identity is tied up in our sense of religion and belief, just as with our major relationships," he said. "When somebody . . . tries to pare down the way it's working, it strikes some people as stripping away the magic and beauty of it all.
"The way I view it," Nielsen continued, "it's like a sunset. I can appreciate the beauty, the fact that no two are the same. But I can look at it on another level, too, and understand that the colors result from the way the light strikes particles in the air. That doesn't mean the sunset is less beautiful or less meaningful. It's just another way of looking at it."
The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, a Catholic residential treatment and educational facility, said there is room for both pure faith and scientific inquiry. Rossetti, who has master's degrees in psychology, political science and theology, invokes what he calls "an old Catholic phrase."
"Grace builds on nature," he said. "In the Catholic view, it's not all grace or all nature. Grace and nature work together." While he does not dismiss scientific study of religion, he doesn't feel it can answer all questions about faith.
"Even if [Reiss's] model has some truth to it -- and I suspect it does -- there is always a mystery left behind that science can't account for," Rossetti said. "The rational mind says we can account for everything without grace. That's not true."
Reiss said most of the subjects in his preliminary study labeled themselves some sort of Christian, but he noted that his theory should apply equally to people of all religions -- a notion he said is ripe for investigation. In fact, Reiss invites researchers to put his theory to the test.
"I'm quite confident that if people study this in greater detail, that conclusion will hold," Reiss said. "If I'm wrong, we'll have to change our theory."
All part of the scientific process.
Jennifer Huget, a regular contributor to Health, last week interviewed actress Teri Garr about her multiple sclerosis.