Internally External

I came across this essay at the American a few days ago and found it rather interesting. I was considering commenting on it in some fashion when I noticed that it had already been subject to discussion at Wren’s Nest at the Witches’ Voice.

I recommend reading the whole article, but the central idea can probably be illustrated here:

In 1966, American psychologist Julian Rotter published a paper that introduced the concept known as locus of control. Human beings, according to Rotter, could be divided into two basic groups: those who believed their locus of control was within themselves, and those who see themselves as under the control of forces located outside themselves, such as luck, or fate, or other people whose will cannot be resisted. The first group, called internals, believe that they are the masters of their own destiny; they tend to be high-achievers, optimistic about their ability to improve their lot, and to discard bad habits. They believe in willpower and positive thinking. They are determined to control their own lives, for better or worse. Members of the second group are called externals. They look on themselves as victims of circumstances, the playthings of fate. If they go to bed drunk, light up a cigarette, and burn their house down, they explain the disaster as another instance of their bad luck, and not their poor judgment, much less their bad habits. On the other hand, if a drunk driver hits an internal, the internal will scold himself that he should have been more alert at the wheel, he should have seen the drunk coming and swerved in time to avoid him.

The rest of the article addresses political concerns relating to government control versus individual liberty, the former often under the guise of what is “best” for everyone, as determined by, well, whomever determines it. It also goes on to discuss the impulse of the “natural libertarian,” the internal, who values personal freedom and responsibility, as opposed to externals who exhibit traits of “learned helplessness” and place responsibility for all or their actions and the fruits thereof on external forces. It is this Internal versus External tendency that interests me, especially in light of a statement at the beginning of the article:

[W]e own ourselves. We are not owned by the state, the church, or even by God. We are our own property, to dispose of as we wish, in any way we want.

A religious, devotional impulse places a certain amount of authority outside of the individual, and in the hands of the divine. Religiosity, thus, is an external mindset, or at least should be. Can one have an internal locus of control and maintain a strong religious devotion?

I encountered this article via Reason Magazine, a Libertarian publication. Columnist Nick Gillespie has addressed this very issue, by considering a common claim among Christians that morality comes from God (external), and cannot come from reason (internal). And he considers it in the form of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels:

Here’s the Syrian-American Presbyterian talking to an Indiana TV station about where morality comes from:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality….

This is an old argument: That when God is dead, all things are possible. It is empirically wrong when it comes to morality. Believers, even good, upstanding Christians, have certainly visited their share of hell on this earth and non-believers are hardly more likely to be the killers among us. What’s interesting to me in this context is that Daniels blurs the boundaries between internals and externals. Morality comes from outside of us, says Daniels, in the form of God who lays down “eternal” standards. Yet his Christianity actually forces him to take personal responsibility for his way of living and forces him to choose carefully, which seems like something an internal would think.

The whole idea of equality of men and women [and] of the races all springs from the notion that we’re all children of a just God. It is very important to at least my notion of what America’s about and should be about and I hope it’s reflected most of the time in the choices that we make personally.

Daniels reading of equality before God as a pretext for political liberation is straight out of 17th century England and the naturally libertarian Roundheads who “resisted” Charles The First, according to Lee Harris (who I think is right to call them that; the fact that they decapitated the king and brutalized many others suggests one way that, contra Daniels, believers can be as morally indifferent as atheists). Note also that Daniels, who called for a truce in culture war issues lately (only to be attacked by conservatives such as Mike Huckabee), is emphatic both on separation of church and state and the old-praying-on-the-street-corner bit:

I also take very seriously the responsibility to treat my public duties in a way that keeps separate church and state and respects alternative views….

I’ve sometimes referred to it as a Matthew 6 Christian. If you read that chapter, it’s the one that talks about praying in private, not giving your alms in public, not being ostentatious about your faith.

Maybe the inney-outey thing just ain’t up to describing folks all that well.

Like most models, the internal/external schema has some limitations. This is obviously one of them: for many Christians, personal responsibility for one’s own actions and the ability to control one’s destiny (and salvation) is key to their religious faith. Adherents accept an internal locus of control, but also hold faith that an external force keeps the world they live in operating properly, and possibly intervening on occasion in little ways. For that matter, most pagan religions can be seen in much the same way, especially religions like Wicca that adhere to a law of return or similar concept. In fact, those pagans who rely too blindly and effortlessly on the external influence of unspecified deities to solve their problems while they sit and wait are commonly derided as fluffy bunnies.

Paganism also has a mechanism that many other mainstream religions in the US don’t generally rely on: magic. Unless employing hat I rather nerdily refer to as “cleric magic,” in which all magic is rendered as prayers or supplications to various gods, magic is a primarily “internal” process, in which an individual literally takes the powers of the Universe into his hands to affect external factors. This really throws a monkey wrench in the internal/external schema.

I don’t think, however, that this model is without merit. If understood not as an either/or opposition, but a continuum, it can possibly provide some means of understanding how some people might react to negative events and how much control they have over them. For example, I am much more of an internal than my significant other, who is fairly external. When disaster or hardship strikes, I look to see what I can correct, while she tends to wonder what forces have worked against her. Yet I openly acknowledge the power of the gods to influence and change my life. So I might be better understood not as an “internal,” but as maybe a 7 or 8 on a scale of 10.

Such a scale may also prove useful for evaluating attitudes of various religions or other systems of belief. (The initial article does, in fact, do this with political ideology.) Maybe awareness of one Christian sect having a stronger external focus than another might help pagans better understand and relate to both of those sects, or why one sect is more open to theological differences (internal) than others that are more dogmatic (external).


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