Faith & Mental Health

Faith & Mental Health January 12, 2022


Another psychological study of faith has some interesting things to say.  But the account of that information is hidden behind what must be one of the worst, most misleading headlines in the annals of journalism:  Poorer Mental Health Linked to Stronger Religious Attachment, National Study Says.

Actually, that is the opposite of what the article says.  That article says,  “Attachment to God has emerged as one of the most significant, powerful influences of mental health.  And the results of this new study are “confirming that people with a secure attachment to God are predicted to have better psychological well-being.”

Newsweek, where the article first appeared, has since changed the headline to the more accurate Poorer Mental Health Linked to Religious Uncertainty, National Study Says. But MSN and other news aggregators continue to use the howlingly wrong headline.

Just for the record, headlines and titles are generally supplied by the editors, not the writers.  The story itself, by Nick Mordowanec, is pretty good, about a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion entitled  Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship by sociologists Matthew Henderson and Blake Kent. (In more sloppy editorial work, no link to the published research was included in the story, though it is available online.)

So what were the findings that so confused so many editors?  Here is the lede, the summary sentence that reporters are taught to write at the very beginning of their stories (also revised from a grammatically garbled original, more poor editing):

A recently published study suggests that people who possess anxiety or a lack of certainty about their relationship with the divine, such as a god, could find their psychological well-being is at risk.

That is to say, a lack of faith, doubts, questioning one’s salvation, etc., correlates with poorer mental health.  Basically, according to the published study, the researchers applied Attachment Theory–which studies children’s attachment to parents and later attachments with friends, spouses, fellow-workers, etc., and how this impacts mental health–to a person’s attachment to God.

They found that people who have a strong attachment to God tend to have a higher level of psychological well-being, whereas those who feel anxiety and insecurity about their attachment to God tend to feel anxious and insecure about a lot of other things and, in general, display poorer mental health.

Interestingly, in the words of one of the researchers, “people who perceive God as close, supportive and responsive were predicted to have similar psychological well-being as those who perceived God as distant and aloof.”   So the issue for mental health is not so much what a person believes about God, but, rather, the confidence of the person’s faith in that God, however construed.

This would seem to be simply a confirmation of what St. James says about faith and doubt, that a doubter “is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).

And yet, the study and those like it say less than they seem to.  Correlation is not causation, so we can’t tell from this whether strong faith produces mental health, or mental health produces strong faith.  Nor can we tell whether insecure faith produces mental insecurity, or mental insecurity produces insecure faith.

Furthermore, “mental health” as defined here seems like a problematic category in matters of faith.  The published study, though not the journalistic report which (in another editorial failing) leaves this concept crucial to the story unexplained, gives survey findings about “paranoia,” “obsession,” “compulsion,” “general anxiety,” and “social anxiety.” (If I am interpreting the statistical jargon correctly, it looks like “evangelicals” score lower in all of these mental health problems than mainline Protestants, black Protestants, and Catholics.  That might have produced a different headline, though survey generalizations should not be confused with therapeutic diagnoses.)

But even those who are “mentally unhealthy” by these standards and even those who struggle in their faith can display an authentic Christianity.  That is evidenced by the father of the child whom Jesus healed (“I believe; help my unbelief” [Mark 9:24]); St. Thomas (“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe. . . .My Lord and my God!” [John 20:25, 28]), and the frequently depressed Martin Luther.

In fact, the complacent, the carnally-secure, and the self-satisfied are often said in Scripture to be in greater spiritual jeopardy than those who struggle in anguish. (See, for example, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain [Luke 6]).

Besides, as others have observed, the point of Christianity is not whether or not it improves our lives or has other benefits, but whether it is true.  If it is, then we should cling to it whether it helps us or not.  And we should realize that if it is true objectively–that God was really incarnate in Christ, who atoned for our sins and rose from the dead–then our own subjective and variable feelings about that fact do not matter all that much.  Such considerations, I think, get to the heart of what the Bible teaches about faith.

Still, works righteousness, perfectionism, decision theology, and fear of non-election can torment the otherwise healthiest minds.  The bottom line is what reader Steve Bauer, who alerted me to this study, said:  “Sounds Like a Lotta People Need the Gospel.”

Image by kalhh from Pixabay

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