Can Harsh Brands of Fundamentalism Lead to Mental Illness?

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Photo: Corbis

In a recent paper in Sociology of Religion, a team led by Christopher G. Ellison, a sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, sought to unravel an ongoing mystery in religion research: studies about the relationship between prayer and mental health have yielded very mixed results, some suggesting a positive link, some a negative link, and some no link at all. To examine this in a more careful way, the team decided to approach the subject from a relatively new angle: What sort of relationship with God does the individual person praying have?

The connection between prayer and mental health is a complicated subject, because it’s easy to tell multiple stories about how it might work, and it could be that more than one of them is true. For example, while it’s easy to imagine that prayer helps reduce stress and anxiety among those who practice it, it’s also easy to imagine that particularly troubled people would turn to prayer more often, or that people who are already low in stress and anxiety are serene enough to pray a lot.

Maybe, Ellison and his team said, asking what the relationship between prayer and mental health is isn’t a specific enough question. To add more nuance to the subject, they turned to attachment theory, the idea that people, influenced by early experiences with their parents, develop a style of interacting with relationship partners and close friends that fits into one of three different patterns.

Roughly, according to this theory people have an attachment style that is either secure (“I know you’ll always be there for me”), insecure or avoidant (“Why should I come to you for support when you’re never there for me?”) or anxious (“I never know whether or not you’ll be there for me”). Past research has suggested that people’s relationship with God (or the divine being of their choice) can also being seen as fitting into one of these patterns — some people see God as a warm, eternally supportive partner, while others see God as a distant, unpredictably stern authority figure — and so Ellison and his co-authors decided to examine how this influences the relationship between prayer and mental health.

To do so, they gathered data from 1,500 individuals about their prayer habits, perceptions of God, and tendencies toward various anxiety-related symptoms. Here’s what popped out:

[W]e find consistent interactions between the frequency of prayer and secure attachment to God, such that persons who pray often to a God who is perceived as a secure attachment figure derive clear mental health benefits, while those who pray to a God who is perceived as distant or unresponsive experience elevated levels of anxiety-related symptoms… Persons who pray in an attempt to forge a relationship with a divine other, but who believe that their prayers are unmet and that God is distant and unresponsive, are likely to feel a deep sense of estrangement from God’s love. Thus, our results are broadly consistent with an emerging literature which indicates that the nature of one’s perceived relationship with God can play an important role in shaping mental health outcomes.

What’s fascinating and provocative here is the implication of adaptive versus maladaptive religiosity. Could it be that certain harsher perceptions of God make people particularly prone to mental illness? It certainly makes some intuitive sense — particularly to a nonbeliever like myself — but this is an area in which the findings are pretty new, so there’s a lot more research to be done.

Again, causation’s always difficult to establish — it could be that people who are already anxious are more likely to develop notions of God as a distant and/or angry figure. But it would be really interesting to see this research extended into, say, fundamentalist communities in which the perception of a harsh, angry God is delivered from on high at an early age, in which people don’t have a lot of flexibility to develop their own version of the supernatural.