Belief in Angry God Associated with Poor Mental Health

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Nahum 1:2-8 - 2

The LORD is a jealous and vengeful God; the LORD is vengeful and

strong in wrath...


He can blast the sea and make it dry up; he can dry up all the rivers...


The mountains quake because of him; the hills melt away. The earth heaves before him-- the world and all who dwell in it.


Who can stand before his indignation? Who can confront the heat of

his fury? His wrath pours out like fire; the rocks are shattered because

of him...


With a rushing flood, he will utterly destroy her place and pursue his enemies into darkness.

John 3:16 - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

If God exists, is he (or she, or whatever) inherently benevolent or punitive? The two Bible selections above clearly demonstrate that God can be both, but many believers cordon their perception of the Almighty into a singular view. This fundamental categorization may be more influential than one might think, as recently published research demonstrates that how a believer conceives of God could affect his or her mental health.

The findings, discerned by a team of psychologists led by Nava Silton of Marymount Manhattan College, are intriguing, especially considering that more than nine out of every ten Americans believe in some sort of God.

shutterstock_109067246.jpg Analyzing a Gallup survey conducted in 2010, the researchers sought to determine how one's perception of God -- as punitive, benevolent, or indifferent -- was associated with five different psychiatric symptoms: general anxiety, social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion.

Respondents' characterizations of God were gleaned from their opinions of how six adjectives -- absolute, critical, just, punishing, severe, or wrathful -- applied to God. A numbering system was used to gauge the degree to which the subject viewed the adjective as an accurate descriptor of God (very well = 4; somewhat well = 3, not very well = 2, etc.). In a similar fashion, respondents answered queries designed to measure the five aforementioned psychiatric symptoms.

The researchers found that belief in a punitive God was significantly associated with an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion. Conversely, belief in a benevolent God was associated with reductions in those four symptoms. Belief in an indifferent God was not linked to any symptoms.

So does this mean that God-fearing individuals are more anxious because of their beliefs, or that individuals who believe in a loving God have less to worry about? Possibly both, say the researchers. But before we delve into that notion, let's get skeptical.

While the study benefited from a large sample size and its findings agreed with a plethora of previous research, there are a great many limitations. First and foremost, the data was self-reported, which is susceptible to invariable outside influences. Additionally, the study was cross-sectional, meaning that it cannot conclusively say whether belief in a benevolent or punitive God affected the psychiatric symptoms or vice versa. Moreover, diagnosing such symptoms via a self-reported questionnaire is certainly suboptimal.

Still, the results are quite provocative. According to the researchers, they make sense in light of the
Evolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory, which states that overarching beliefs about the dangerousness of the world can influence mental well-being.

"We propose that belief in a benevolent God inhibits threat assessments about the dangerousness of the world, thereby decreasing psychiatric symptoms,"
the researchers write.

But they also say that the pendulum can swing to the other side as well.

"Belief in a punitive God... facilitates threat assessments that the world is dangerous and even that God poses a threat of harm, thereby increasing psychiatric symptomology."

Source: Silton NR, Flannelly KJ, Galek K, Ellison CG. "Beliefs About God and Mental Health Among American Adults." J Relig Health. 2013 Apr 10

(Image: Angry God via Shutterstock)

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