Angry God, What kind of person?

From Stephen C. Webster:

People who believe in an angry, punishing God are much more likely to suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, a scientific study published in the April edition of Journal of Religion & Health finds.

The study, conducted by Marymount Manhattan College Assistant Psychology Professor Nava Silton, used data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey of US Adults to examine the links between beliefs and anxiety disorders like social dysfunction, paranoia, obsession and compulsion.

To do this, Silton viewed the data through the lens of what’s calledEvolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory, which posits that parts of the brain specifically evolved to detect threats, and suggests that many anxiety disorders may be a result of dysfunction in the brain’s perception of those threats.

In keeping with prior studies on this very subject, she queried the data on three types of believers: those who see God as angry, those who see God as neutral and those who see God as loving. Controlling specifically to weed out the non-believers, Silton found that a belief in a forgiving, loving God is associated with positive psychological traits, “almost protecting against psychopathology,” she told Raw Story.

But for those who think God is angry and preparing punishments for sinners, “that belief seems to be very much related to these negative symptoms,” Silton said.

“If you look at the previous research, they’ve connected it to depression and all sorts of other psychiatric disorders,” she said. “We were looking at social phobia, obsession, compulsion, paranoia and a lot of features of anxiety disorders.”


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  • Hmm… Interesting post. I can see how this might work, but I dare say there will be many exceptions too. I can think of several friends suffering long term problems with depression and other disorders who certainly do believe in a loving, forgiving, caring heavenly Father.

    We’re clearly talking about trends here, statistically significant but with exceptions. It would also be interesting to compare the mental well-being of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and so forth.

  • So does this make my post (wrath reconsidered) indicative of mental illness:) ?

  • Glenn

    I once heard Dr. Michael L. Brown, well known Messianic Jewish and Charismatic figure, cite a study that stated those who believe in a punitive aspect of God are far less likely to engage in crime than those who deny God’s punitive side. This was in response to those Mike Brown calls “hyper-grace” teachers.

  • scotmcknight

    Jason, ha, it would actually move you in the other direction I suspect!

  • Kevin

    I work as a hospice chaplain and in talking with people with terminal illnesses two common questions come up frequently: 1) Am I being punished for something? and 2) Is God mad at me? Wondering if the research looked at people facing difficult circumstances? I try to address these questions, of course, but wonder if these would be predicted by the research?

  • Tom F.

    Glenn, the work you are thinking of is Shariff and Norenzayan (2011), titled “Mean gods make good people: Different views of God Predict cheating behavior”. Very interesting, a punishing God-concept predicts less cheating behavior.

    Nothing says both studies couldn’t be true at the same time. It might be that persons whose God-concept is negative and punishing are well-behaved and law-abiding, but also neurotic and depressed sorts of people.

  • Jeremy

    People tend to behave when they think someone will drop the hammer on them if they act up. We do not usually consider this a good way to live. In politics, this is called a “Police State.”

    The connection of mental illness makes sense. Believing in a god like that would be living in a perpetual state of hopelessness and fear. That’s gotta make you crazy after a while.

  • Glenn

    One doesn’t have to think God will drop the “hammer” on them, but rather believe in forming a community that makes the establishment of justice something that is desirable. We do consider society just when it seeks to pursue people like the Boston bomber, put an end as much as possible to this type of crime and and seek a way to give closure to victims. So the “hammer” drops perhaps, but for the victims isn’t this also a type of mercy?

  • Jeremy

    In the context of the conversation, that’s not really what’s being talked about. There is a huge difference between a just, merciful god and an angry, punishing one.

  • Jason Micheli
    I thought you had one of the sanest posts I’ve seen.

  • Glenn

    “But for those who think God is angry and preparing punishments for sinners.”
    I was making the point that some hold this view in tension in a way that is not always negative. Many people I know think the inclusion of a God who is angry and preparing punishment for sinners is a good thing. Ray Comfort would be one example and Ray has written and credits this viewpoint for helping him overcome a severe fear and anxiety that left him unable to function for years.

  • Phil Miller

    In the case of God punishing people, I think the thing that is potentially damaging about it is the inherent unfairness in which the way eternal punishment is presented. If you genuinely believe that God will punish an 11 year old who steals a pack of gum in the same way He’s going to deal with a serial killer for all eternity, well, I think it can’t help but color the way you think of God. When I was little, I was deathly afraid of going to sleep with what might be an unconfessed sin. So I always made sure I “repented” every night (as best as a little kid can repent, I guess).

  • Tom F.

    I had another thought. I can’t tell from the abstract whether this is a longitudinal study, but it could be the other way around if not; that is , it could be that the kind of God that most makes sense to a person who was already depressed or anxious to start with…is an angry God. This would also broadly fit in with the threat assessment theory; those dispositionally predisposed to see threats more generally may be more likely to strongly perceive the threatening aspects of God, and weight them more strongly as the think about who God is.