Belief In God Associated With Psychiatric Symptoms

It's all cool, dude.

It’s all cool, dude.

Medicalizing Belief

Would you say that a guy who claims he believes in a “just” God suffers from “psychiatric symptoms”? What if we swap “just” for “critical.” Do we have a loon on our hand then or what?

Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science wants to believe it. And Nava Silton of the Department of Psychology at Marymount Manhattan College thinks she’s proved it. She has the statistics to back it up, gathered in the modern scientific way: by conducting a survey filled with loaded questions and then manipulating the answers mercilessly with tortuous statistics.

Silton wrote about it in the peer-reviewed “Beliefs About God and Mental Health Among American Adults” in the 10 April 2013 issue of the Journal of Religion and Health.

It’s Science!

Here’s what Silton did. Via Gallup, she asked 1,400-some folks a bunch of questions, some to assess their “psychiatric symptoms”, their religion, and their race.

What’s a “psychiatric symptom”? Answering high on questions like these (allowed range: 0-4). You suffered from “Generalized anxiety disorder” if you said you “Worried too much about different things”. The horror of “Social anxiety” is experienced by saying you “Became anxious doing things because people were watching”. You know you’re under the thumb of “Paranoia” if you “Felt that people were taking advantage of you.”

A doozy symptom is “Obsession”, which possessed you if you “Thought too much about things that would not bother other people.” What about “Compulsion”? That’s when you told the anonymous person on the phone, who was writing down all your answers, and who knew who you were and where you lived, that you “Repeated simple actions that realistically did not need to be repeated”.

“Beliefs about God were measured by participants’ responses to a list of adjectives describing God: absolute, critical, just, punishing, severe, or wrathful” on a scale from 1-4. A “Punitive God” score was created by adding answers to “punishing” and “wrathful.” A “Deistic God” added “absolute” and “just.” Finally, a “Benevolent God” added (in reverse) “critical” and “severe”.

Now the theological usefulness of these adjectives is best described as (and your author looked this up) vaporous. How much distance is there—exactly, now—between “punishing” and “just”? And what’s the specific difference between the opposite of “severe” (since that’s how the question was used, in its opposite sense) and “absolute”? How much time do you think respondents spent thinking of these questions? Did everybody interpret the adjectives in precisely the same way? The same as Silton?

What fooled Silton, and what bamboozles other “researchers” like her, is that her survey gave numerical results, which made it feel scientific. All worry about the meaning of the questions is gone and replaced by comforting manipulatable quantities.

Manipulate them she did, using several “regressions”, which are common statistical models. The wrong ones in situations like this, where the outcome has a limited range (regressions are designed for outcomes which are continuous and wide-ranging, the opposite of Silton’s “psychiatric symptoms”).

Results

Silton checked the “statistical significance” between the Benevolent God, Punitive God, and Deistic God scores with each of the five “psychiatric symptoms”. That makes 15 possibilities, of which she found wee p-values in only 8. The “discoveries” only pertained to Benevolent and Punitive God, with only Social anxiety, Paranoia, Obsession, and Compulsion.

For example, for every increase in the arbitrary Punitive God score of one unit, the curious Social anxiety “psychiatric symptom” increased on average 0.08 points. This is in the range statisticians classify as “trivial.” Worse—and here it gets technical—the explanatory power of this model measured by adjusted R22 was 0.04. This is less than trivial. What it means is that the increase in “symptoms” is only barely likely, that it only happens sometimes, at only a slightly higher rate than a coin flip, that decreases are just about as likely.

All Silton’s findings are like this: you have to squint to see them, and you must wear special glasses (provided at tenure ceremonies). Nevertheless, theory is on the line. The “Evolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory” to be specific. Belief in this theory was so strong in Silton that even with such watery results, she asserted “belief in a punitive God had a pernicious association with psychiatric symptoms”. There is hope, though: “belief in a benevolent God had a salubrious association” with the “psychiatric symptoms”.

This wasn’t her final word. No: future research is needed. Like “How might belief in a punitive God relate to depression and disordered eating?”


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Thanks to Juan Ramirez for alerting us to this topic.

Comments

Belief In God Associated With Psychiatric Symptoms — 33 Comments

  1. In unrelated news, the parents of a child that died due to them believing prayer was superior to medicine just managed to kill another one of their offspring.

    Let’s not for a moment call these people mental. Let’s rather conclude that their faith was just not strong enough. Clearly, they do have to work out their prayer sessions.

  2. Luis,

    I don’t believe the question of “Would you let your kid die?” was on the survey.

  3. You mean that assigning a numerical value to peoples answers and then claiming you measured something is a fallacy? Who would have guessed?

  4. Luis,

    The fact that some believers are mentally unbalanced does not count as evidence that ALL believers are mentally unbalanced which is what the referenced study is claiming to prove.

    I am sure that if I found a paranoid atheist that you wouldn’t (and you shouldn’t) accept that as proof that ALL atheists are paranoid.

    There for your comment is a non sequitur.

  5. This is all the more chilling when you hear the liberals in Congress talking about “mental health” in the context of gun control. They knew all along that they’d never succeed in banning guns, but are still hoping that they’ll get some new bill that lets them confiscate weapons from people on grounds of “mental health”. Meanwhile, academia is happy to provide “research” framing every religious belief or politically conservative viewpoint as some sort of a psychological disorder or “phobia”…

  6. RE: “a guy who claims he believes in a “just” God”

    TAKING the above out of context to just focus on that concept–its interesting to note that:

    Early in the history of Christianity Marcion noted that the God depicted in the Old Testament and the God depicted by Jesus and the Heavenly Father he referred were inconsistent — leading Marcion to conclude they were completely different entities.

    That led to his church that truly gave what became the Roman Catholic Church a “run for its money.” …even contributed to the Roman Church to define the formal set of documents constituting its version of the New Testament. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcionism

    Similarly, an expert on narcissism has noted that the Jesus depicted in the Bible very neatly fits the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as is common of cult leaders of all stripes): http://samvak.tripod.com/narcissistgod.html

    Also, review of Justin Marytr’s First Apology (defense of the Christians against Roman persecutions) one finds some curious assertions made rather matter-of-factly about features of early Christianity and its pagan counterparts (they were basically the same!)…but I’ll those of you interested in real history to research that.

    Taken together, knowing the above — and related facts of history — belief in the modern characterization of “God” common in the USA is quite illogical — at least that is the predominantly recurring conclusion of those, however strong their faiths going into it, who objectively study the full history and make some interesting comparisons (like Justin Martyr did) with other religions.

    Put another way, denying the facts, reality in other words, is a common characteristic of all forms of mental illness.

    When one chooses to believe something by ignoring facts or pretending they don’t exist if willful ignorance fails–the outcome is next-to-impossible to distinguish from mental illness.

  7. So, is today’s society, with its techological gismos, extended life span, near-unlimited knowledge the product of 10,000 years of psychologicaly-disordered civilisations. I would like especially to refer to the last 2000 years that have been dominated by the Christian Europeans who have so much influenced mankind that nations all over the world dress up like us, play the sports that we invented, study the science and technology that we developed etc etc. But then this was all the result of psychologically disordered Newtons, Copernicuses, Galileos,Da Vinci’s, Michelangelos, Voltas, Einsteins and Lemaitres.

    I’m taking a trip to the psychiatrist to check if he’s OK.

  8. Ken,

    You always find the best stuff. I notice your boy, self-appointed expert in Narcissism, who calls himself “Dr.” Sam Vaknin, began his list of educational achievements with “Completed nine semesters in the Technion”. His “Doctorate”? In Philosophy, from California Miramar University, a.k.a. Pacific Western University , a “distance-learning” establishment once known as a degree mill.

    On the other hand, Vaknin also says he’s certified in “Psychological Counselling Techniques” from Brainbench. So he must know what he’s talking about.

    All,

    Here’s how Ken’s expert opens his “research”:

    God is everything the narcissist ever wants to be: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, admired, much discussed, and awe inspiring. God is the narcissist’s wet dream, his ultimate grandiose fantasy. But God comes handy in other ways as well.

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

  9. Superstition is undoubtedly a form of neurosis, and cripples the mind. It is reason that gives man the power to fulfil himself. Moreover, it should be obvious to even the meanest intelligence that every culture invents its own gods.

  10. Carl-Edward,
    The most successful culture by any means is the 2000+ year old European one. It must have invented the best ‘god’, according to your (a)theistic measuring tape.

  11. Carl-Edward
    What is Reason? Where does it come from in a universe which to you has no purpose?
    Can you find out by Reason why you exist and why you should ‘fulfil’ yourself.

  12. The fact that some believers are mentally unbalanced does not count as evidence that ALL believers are mentally unbalanced which is what the referenced study is claiming to prove.

    Matt S,

    Below is part of the abstract (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23572240?dopt=Abstract).
    The last sentence indicates that the study doesn’t claim to have shown that ALL believers are mentally unbalanced.

    This study examines the association between beliefs about God and psychiatric symptoms in the context of Evolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory,… Belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms, while belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms, controlling for demographic characteristics, religiousness, and strength of belief in God. Belief in a deistic God and one’s overall belief in God were not significantly related to any psychiatric symptoms.

    ____
    Based on my experience, it’s likely that the above conclusion will stand even after more appropriate analyses. Yes, one can always question the validity of a survey instrument, and let me suggest that one digs deeper into the survey instrument. Oftentimes well-established and well-tested survey instruments in social studies can produce good proxies of certain psychological condition.

    Based on my prejudice, (i.e, I don’t claim to have any evidence or to know the truth), I am inclined to think that belief in a punitive God is positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms. How strong is the association? I don’t know. Reading statistical conclusions can be tricky.

    Who said something like (or something to that effect) a happy, strong mind tends to see things in a positive light and a weak mind negative? Not Confucius. Not Laotz. Is it Leo Tolstoy?

  13. JH,

    “Based on my experience, it’s likely that the above conclusion will stand even after more appropriate analyses.”

    The only appropriate analysis is to toss it in the circular file. That other sociologists with similar biases will claim to validate the result is utterly meaningless.

  14. MattS,

    JH has demonstrated that even non-theists can have faith.

    Something reading the statistical conclusions is easy: the paper is junk. Doesn’t prove, as JH intimates, the conclusion desired by the authors is false. It may still be true, but there isn’t evidence here for it. Thus to believe it requires faith.

  15. Briggs,

    True, but that doesn’t invalidate my statement about the appropriate response to the study.

  16. Pingback: Morality, Rationality, and Theology - Big Pulpit

  17. Pingback: We Do Not Live in the Age of Reason

  18. @Carl-Edward

    Superstition is believing in a theory which contradict other theories you also believe in. The theory with the least political influence of the two is the superstition.

  19. Briggs, Why don’t you apply your logical analysis to the source material that underlies your beliefs — or at least the beliefs & values you claim to hold…but clearly exercise selectively?

  20. Ken,

    Still sticking with your expert? As to your challenge, see today’s post.

  21. Disclaimer: I am a Catholic and believe in God.
    Ok, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, I propose that mental illness is a constancy throughout time an throughout all cultures. I acknowledge that there are differences, fluctuations, and various cultural circumstances that vary but as a whole, it is what it is; fallible and fallen man. So this means that the rate and incidence of mental health issues likely is the same in a religious group as the general population. Again, I know there are variances and some exceptions. With that said , a believer will manifest their neuroses through their cultural beliefs as would an atheist or agnostic. Perhaps this study is just reflecting this but is coming up with the wrong conclusion, namely that belief in God causes the neuroses. I propose that the neuroses are part of our fallen nature and is manifested through the cultural paradigm of religion.

  22. As a follow up, let me make a view other points. I am a medical professional that often is called to make mental health diagnoses. The variability of opinion from clinician to clinician is quite great and in my opinion leads to conflicting diagnoses. I try to keep it simple and narrow it down to the main components of mental health; mood, thought content, and temperament/ personality (essentially one’s mental lens). But even within these 3 components one finds differing opinions. I find a study as noted above not very helpful or useful because mental health, as evaluated through a questionnaire, is not static but quite fluid. Who at some point in their life has not been depressed, anxious, irrational, or temperamental? And to attribute anxiousness as a “psychiatric” diagnosis muddies the waters for some people. Also, Not all anxiety and depression (such as grief) is pathological but is expected and natural to an extent. This is very difficult tease out in a questionnaire.

  23. Michael Matthew,

    With that said , a believer will manifest their neuroses through their cultural beliefs as would an atheist or agnostic. Perhaps this study is just reflecting this but is coming up with the wrong conclusion, namely that belief in God causes the neuroses.

    I like your charitable view of the results. But the paper doesn’t conclude that belief in God cause the neuroses. In fact, it finds no evidence to support such conclusion in general.

  24. Briggs,

    If a non-theist is a person who is not be able to accept the existence of and the stories about your God and your religion for whatever reason, then, yes, I am a non-theist. A happy and open-minded one, I think.

    What is the faith that you are talking about here? Do you mean my preconceived idea that stronger belief in punitive and wrathful God is associated with higher anxiety and anger and that the results may still hold? I would say it’s more of my opinion.

    Yes, I have faith. I have faith in myself knowing that I am mainly responsible in saving myself from hell (e.g., anger and suffering) and lead myself to heaven (e.g., happiness and meaningful life) in my daily life.

    I can confidently say that this paper has no statistical merits, i.e., I learn nothing new about statistics from this paper, which is often the case for most of the applied papers. This paper probably would not help the authors get a job in a statistics department; anyway, they are not statisticians.

    I don’t feel comfortable in trashing or judging the merits of the research objectives and conclusions. Just because I don’t appreciate it in my own way, doesn’t mean it’s of no values in other areas that I don’t have a deep understanding. As a Chinese saying states,there is a Mount Everest between two disciplines. Is this one of the lessons we learn in graduate school?

  25. JH: your point is well taken that the study does not conclude that belief in God causes these neuroses. I did not word that properly. It is better stated that many of the responses to this study appear to be drawing that conclusion and I agree with you that is not the case. Nobody is immune to struggling with mental health. At a very base level, religion is an attempt to help us deal with our mental struggles and to make sense of our realities.

  26. As a Catholic and medical professional, I don’t feel threatened or take offense to this study. Actually, I think on a microcosmic level it demonstrates the evolution of the Christian understanding of God. For example, a small child may look at their parents or the authorities around them as demanding, exacting, vengeful etc. If a child is about to touch a hot stove, the parent may slap the child’s hand away. The child sees this as a non loving act and perhaps as a “wrath” filled parent. As the child matures and becomes an adult, they are now able to better understand what the parent was doing. If you apply this to Christian spiritual development, the early believers (ie: Old Testament) were spiritually immature and interpreted the actions of God as wrathful. With spiritual maturity and development, humanity is matures in their understanding of God and recognize him as Father and as loving. I think many people of faith are stuck in their spiritual maturation and understanding of God, and yes, this leads to increased anxiety, depression etc.

  27. 1) Alex, you clearly misunderstood my point, i.e. ALL gods are invented. The success of Western civilisation is the result of the individual endeavours – guided by reason – of genetically superior people.

    2) M.E. Wood, reason is the faculty that enables man to assess logically what he apprehends through his senses. Individual fulfilment is the highest moral good because life is an end in itself.

    3) Sander van der Wald, superstition is the holding of irrational beliefs – notably mystical beliefs.

  28. Michael Matthew,

    Like JH I am not competent to comment (fully) on the psychiatric nature of this paper. But every conclusion the authors reach, every implication they make, every theory they promulgate, all of them and each of them are not warranted by the data. The statistical results are dreck—at best.

    Also like JH, and even though we agree there is a mountain between disciplines (lovely saying), we can still comment about the nature of the questions. They are scatter-shot, internally inconsistent, not obviously useful in diagnosing “symptoms” as opposed to mood, subject to all kinds of unaccounted for variability, etc. I’m sure you could point out many other deficiencies.

    These criticisms are no proof that their theory isn’t right. All we can say is that it isn’t proven by the evidence they offered.

    These scientists (and some others) are very good at finding corroborative evidence for beloved theories, but they stink at finding counter evidence; they don’t even try. A good scientist has to do both.

    Carl-Edward,

    Anticipating Alex and for the sake of curiosity…might you show us your proof—complete, please—that “ALL gods are invented”? If you can give it you’ll be the first (genetically superior) person to have offered a valid proof for the non-existence of God. Quite a feather-capper, that.

  29. Briggs:

    RE: “Still sticking with your expert? As to your challenge, see today’s post.”

    TODAY’s post does not address the topic I raised.

    Consider your first response here, that includes: “Here’s how Ken’s expert opens his “research”:”

    THAT IS AN AD-HOMINEM COUNTER-ATTACK. It is not a rebuttal–it does not address the subject raised. It is an evasion.

    It is also a lie.

    The so-called “expert” was not presented as an “expert” — that is your term, not that it matters, but it is a form of name-calling (i.e. a very petty response) — IS widely recognized as articulating what little is known about narcissists, which are very disruptive to organizations in addition to personal relationships.

    But you evade (still) that entirely, resort to an ad-hominem (with name-calling)…and to support the ad-hominem you curiously reference his affiliation with Brainbench — a firm that provides employee candidate & other profiling & related services [which you clearly dismiss as crackpottery or something] to numerous corporate clients….

    ….its one of dozens of such firms that provide such services to corporations large & small….

    ….that is, those corporate firms do take seriously those services you so cavalierly dismiss…

    ….which happens to include the same prospective clients you every so often comment on in this blog (which those prospective clients undoubtedly consult) that are not purchasing your particular services/staying away in droves…think about that….

    Sometimes its best, for oneself, to keep certain opinions private…for ‘oneself’s’ own interests. There’s a bit of philosophy you can put to use–and, perhaps sooner or later, profit from.

  30. Ken,

    Your earlier comment:

    Similarly, an expert on narcissism has noted that the Jesus depicted in the Bible very neatly fits the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (as is common of cult leaders of all stripes): http://samvak.tripod.com/narcissistgod.html

    So I ask again: still sticking with your expert?

    As to what constitutes an ad hominuminumiam, this. You will note that I failed in my attempt to make an ad hominumeriasthanum. I have no duty to respond to patent nonsense, as his opening quote surely is. About the company, I could care less, but it is not proof of his expertise in Narcissism.

    As to your other criticism, I pointed (and still point) to today’s post.

    Update: incidentally, gentlemen do not call each other “liar”.