Stephanie Burke  
The Relationship Between Religiosity and College Students' Attributions
Background Research Question Method
Results Implications Relevant Links


Keywords  Religiosity, Religious, Secular, Religion, Attributions 

Instruments Used Hilty Pneuman Religious Inventory (HPRI), Vignettes for  Life-Events Questionnaire (VLEQ)   

Attribution theory is concerned with the perceived causes of others and our own behavior (Coon, 1997). Spilka, Shaver, and Kirkpatrick (1985) proposed an attribution theory for religion. The general attribution theory for religion seeks to understand when and why people make religious versus secular attributions. God and Satan are examples of religious attributions, whereas luck and chance are examples of secular attributions. 

Lupfer, Tolliver, and Jackson (1996) were interested in finding out what types of attributions were made for life-altering versus non life-altering situations with a positive or negative valence. The results indicated that attributions to luck or chance were cited most often for life-altering situations. The results also indicated that those individuals with a very conservative view of Christianity attributed God more often than those more liberal in their outlook of Christianity. However, religious individuals did not make more religious than secular attributions. When attributions to God were made they occurred more often for life-altering situations than situations that were not life-altering. Additionally, these attributions were made more often for positive situations. Attributions to Satan were found to occur more often for negative situations.  

Studies have also looked at attributions to everyday behavior (Lupfer, Brock, & DePaola, 1992; Lupfer, DePaola, Brock & Clement, 1994). It was found that attributions to God were made more often for everyday positive than everyday negative situations. The tendency to attribute positive outcomes to God was seen more in the participants with a high commitment to conservative Christianity.  

Research Question  
The purpose of the present study was to (1) determine the type of attributions made more often by both religious and non religious college students for four different types of situations and  (2) to determine when religious and non religious college students made religious versus secular attributions.


Participants came from a pool of introductory college students at a small, Catholic, liberal arts college in the northeastern United States. A total of 61 students participated, with the average age being 19. Eighty-two percent of the participants were Roman Catholic, 7% Protestant, and 12% were other. 

The participants completed the Vignettes for Life-Events Questionnaire (VLEQ, Burke, 2000) and the Christian version of the Hilty Pneuman Religious Inventory (HPRI, Hilty, 1988). The VLEQ consisted of 12 vignettes (Burke, 2000). These vignettes included three life-altering positive, three life-altering negative, three everyday positive, and three everyday negative situations. Participants were given three vignettes to read and five questions to answer after each vignette. Question 1, for example, asked how much luck or chance determined what happened in the vignette. The participants also filled out one subscale of the HPRI, the Religious Belief subscale. The Religious Belief scale deals with how much an individual accepts the traditional values of theological doctrine.  

Scores on the VLEQ were obtained using a 7-point Likert scale. Responses to each question type were averaged. The scores for each question type were averaged across the three vignettes presented to a participant. Scores on the HPRI were obtained by interpreting individual questions. Each response to questions in the affirmative was given a point value ranging from one to five (1 = Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree). Responses to questions in the negative were given opposite point values (1 = Strongly Agree to 5 = Strongly Disagree). The mean score was obtained for each individual.  

Participants made more attributions to luck or chance in life-altering positive situations than everyday positive situations. Also, participants who were given everyday positive situations rated luck or chance as a lesser cause of the occurrences in the vignettes than participants who were in the life-altering negative group. 

Participants were more likely to cite the person in the vignette for everyday positive situations than life-altering negative situations. Also, participants were more likely to rate the actor in the vignette more often for life-altering positive situations than for everyday negative situations. It was also found that participants made more attributions to the actor in the vignette concerning everyday positive than life-altering positive situations.  

For life-altering positive situations, the higher the religiosity of the participant, the more attributions he or she made to God. Finally, those high in religiosity, given everyday positive occurrences, were more likely to make attributions to God than those lower in religiosity.  

It is peculiar that religious individuals, especially Christians, believe that positive situations are meant to happen, whereas negative situations are not because Christians generally believe in free will. If situations are destined to be, that means that human lives are predetermined. However, Christians do not believe that their lives are predetermined. They believe that they have free will, and this free will is what enables them to make choices that eventually lead them to heaven, Hell, or purgatory. Therefore, it would seem as though Christians would believe that situations are not destined. The finding concerning attributions made to fate or destiny implicate that there is a contradiction in many religious individuals’ beliefs about the nature of God and humanity. Is it possible for one to believe in fate or destiny and free will? If not, there may be a need for individuals to reevaluate their current beliefs in all domains in order to maintain consistent beliefs. 

Most importantly, the results suggest that it may be possible to predict people's attributions based on their religiosity. The results indicate that religious, Christian individuals view God as a benevolent being. Interestingly, responses to life-altering negative situations indicate that individuals may only make religious attributions to events that affect human lives directly. For example, paralysis affects a human life directly, whereas a home burning to the ground does not.  


     Burke, S. A. (2000). Vignettes for Life-Events Questionnaire. Unpublished questionnaire, Saint Anselm College. 

     Coon, D. (1997) Social Behavior. In Essentials of Psychology: Exploration and application (7th ed., pp. 645-647). Boston: Brooks/Cole. 

   Hilty, D. M. (1988). Religious belief, participation, and consequences: An exploratory and confirmatory analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 22, 243-259. 

     Lupfer, M. B., Brock, K. F., & DePaola, S. J. (1992). The use of secular and religious attributions to explain everyday behavior. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 31, 486-503. 

     Lupfer, M. B., DePaola, S. J., Brock, K. F., & Clement, L. (1994). Making secular and religious attributions: The availability hypothesis revisited. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 33, 162-171. 

     Lupfer, M. B., Tolliver, D., & Jackson, M. (1996). Explaining life-altering occurrences: A test of the 'God-of-the-gaps' hypothesis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 379-391. 

     Spilka, B., Shaver, P., & Kirkpatrick, L. A. (1985). A general attribution theory for the psychology of religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 24, 1-18. 

Relevant Links 

    Classics Views - The Psychology of Religion according to such psychologists as Freud and Erikson.
    History - The history of the Psychology of Religion in the United States.
    Future - The future of the discipline of Psychology of Religion.
    Readings - Books dealing with the Psychology of Religion.
Links - Links to Psychology and Religion Sites (from Christianity, to Judaism, to Buddhism). It's all here!
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