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Religion & Mental Health: New Study Links Belief In 'Punitive God' To Emotional Problems

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A new study suggests that certain religious beliefs are associated with psychological problems. | Michelangelo/Public Domain
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Many people find comfort in religious faith, but a provocative new study links certain beliefs with emotional problems. The study, published April 10 in the Journal of Religion & Health, showed that people who believe in an angry, vengeful god are more likely to suffer from social anxiety, paranoia, obsessional thinking, and compulsions.

Researchers reached this conclusion after analyzing responses of 1,426 Americans to a 2010 poll on religion. Poll respondents who indicated belief in a deity were placed in three categories -- those who believed in a punitive god, those who believed in a benevolent god, and those who believed in a deistic (uninvolved) god. Then the researchers looked at the prevalence of emotional problems in each group.

What exactly did the researchers find? Symptoms of mental illness were more common among those in the punitive god group than in the deistic god or benevolent god groups.

Does that mean believing in an angry god can make you crazy?

Not necessarily. The study looked only at the correlation between beliefs and mental health and not at causality, so the study's take-away message is subject to interpretation.

The study's authors are convinced that the type of god one believes in can indeed affect one's emotional state.

“Quite simply, the notion is that belief in a benevolent God will reduce the sense that the world is threatening at the neural level, because God will protect you from harm,” study co-author Dr. Neva Silton, professor of psychology at Marymount Manhattan College, told The Huffington Post in an email. “The angry God not only fails to provide protection, he/she may actually pose a threat of harm.”

But not every expert agrees with that assessment.

“We don't know whether it was the poorer mental health (anxiety, paranoia) that caused subjects to perceive God as punitive, or whether it was the view of God as punitive that caused the poor mental health,” Dr. Harold Koenig, a Duke University psychiatry professor who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post in an email. “My suspicion, though, is that…people with emotional problems see their entire world in a negative light and often feel a need to blame someone -- and God is often the target.”

How about the prevalence of emotional problems in believers and nonbelievers? Overall, the study found no significant difference.

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