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.
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”).
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?”
Thanks to Juan Ramirez for alerting us to this topic.