God and Mental Health

With two seders behind us, Good Friday upon us and Easter two days away, let us sing the praises of religion for its power to improve mental health (pace, Hitchens and Dawkins). Yes, “religion features in a lot of psychotic delusions,” as British medical writer Tom Rees notes in his blog Epiphenom. But as two new studies show, religion can also improve mental health--but only if you believe in the right god.

In a paper in the online edition of the Journal of Religion and Health, psychologist Kevin Flannelly of the Spears Research Institute, HealthCare Chaplaincy and colleagues analyzed the link between particular beliefs about god and psychiatric symptoms in 1,306 adults in the U.S. They used data from a 2004 survey asking people what they thought about god as well as asking about their mental health. For the first part, the survey asked whether the god they believed in was close and loving, approving and forgiving, or creating and judging. Eliminating people who professed no religion (3 percent), Flannelly and his team then compared the incidence of general anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsion disorder, paranoid ideation and social anxiety in the three groups.

If your goal is mental health, they found, it’s a whole lot better to believe in a close and loving god. People with that belief had significantly lower rates of anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsion and paranoid ideation than people who believed in an approving and forgiving god. Belief in that sort of god reduced incidence of those disorders slightly. Belief in a creating and judging god raised the risk of all those mental disorders, especially of paranoid ideation. Well, sure: if you think an omnipotent and omniscient god is watching your every move and will smite you for any infraction, that can indeed make for a bit of paranoia.

Before we jump to causal conclusions here, however, it’s important to keep in mind that pre-existing mental states, including a tendency toward forms of mental illness, might predispose people to believe in one kind of god rather than another. (Yes, the family and culture you’re raised in has a strong effect on your religious beliefs, but as people reach adulthood they tend to customize their faith.) To be blunt, it’s possible that psychotic people gravitate toward a stern, judgmental god of the Old Testament stereotype (Sodom, Gomorrah et al.) while people without psychiatric problems gravitate toward a kinder, loving god, and not that particular religious beliefs make you more or less psychotic.

But in a paper in the same journal, Flannelly and colleagues argue that the arrow of causation might indeed run from belief system to mental health. They hypothesize that the human brain contains what they call an Evolutionary Threat Assessment System that alerts you to threats in the environment. If this system malfunctions, identifying dangers that are not there, it may produce symptoms of paranoia, depression and OCD. In contrast, a mellower alert system should decrease these symptoms. Belief in a close and loving god who’s looking out for you is one way to decrease activation of the threat-assessment system, they argue. Result: less chance of becoming paranoid, depressed, anxious and the rest.

Well, who are we here at Lab Notes to judge? Whatever gets you through the night. And up the next morning.