According to a new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, people who were uncertain about their relationship with God were found to have higher levels of mental distress.
The survey, titled “Attachment to God and Psychological Distress: Evidence of a Curvilinear Relationship,” used national data from a 2010 Religion Survey, which included 1,600 Americans who believe in God. While non-Christians were featured in the study, respondents were predominantly Christians.
According to researchers W. Matthew Henderson of Union University and Blake Kent of Westmont College, they concurred that “anxiety or a lack of certainty about one’s relationship with the divine represents a threat to psychological well-being.”
Henderson, an assistant professor of sociology at Union University in Tennessee, said there was a lack of data regarding how “people’s specific religious beliefs” affect mental health. Previous research has reportedly shown that prayer and attending religious services are “pretty protective of people’s mental health.”
“We thought that was a pretty glaring weakness because belief is such an important part of religious practice,” Henderson told The Christian Post. “And we were especially interested in beliefs about God.”
In the study, both researchers used a concept known as Attachment Theory to analyze the psychological well-being of people when it comes to their relationship with God and their ideas about the divine.
“Attachment theory examines child-caretaker bonding as a central motivator of human behavior and a primer for future interpersonal relationships. Young children engage in proximity-seeking behavior, drawing close to primary caregivers to feel emotionally comforted, supported, and safe. In this capacity, caregivers provide infants with a ‘secure base’ from which to explore the world,” the researchers explained.
“The style of attachment a child develops with the caregiver serves as an ‘internal working model’…, a collection of neurological, biological, emotional, and social stimuli that coalesce to prime expectations for future relationships,” they added.
When applying attachment theory to God, Henderson and Blake were able to assess people’s “emotional dispositions” to Him.
“So if you feel like God is consistent and responsive, usually we call that a secure attachment to God,” Henderson explained. “If you feel like God is aloof and distant and you can’t really rely on Him, that is an avoidant attachment style. And if you’re just not really sure, that’s kind of an anxious attachment.”
“What we found with the curvilinear relationship was higher levels of psychological distress were predicted for people who were in the middle of this avoidance-secure measure,” he continued.
Henderson also shared that being in a church can help alleviate the stress of those who are unsure about their relationship with the Lord.
“If people are uncertain or they’re going through a bit of crisis personally in their lives, and if that crisis tends to also intermingle with their view about God, the more they are doing that in isolation, the more I think that their beliefs are going to lead to anxiety,” he said. “But if they can do it in a healthy congregation, it’s probably going to lead to greater stability in the face of hard, stressful moments in their lives.”
The study also revealed how mental health is affected by the complexity of beliefs in God.
“What I first encountered looking at the research was that you had to believe that God was a certain way [for it to] correlate to good mental health, that there was this way to believe in God that was healthier than others,” Henderson said. “And I just don’t think we’re necessarily seeing that. You can believe a lot of different things about God, and it can correlate to pretty good mental health.”
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Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer. He is also the co-hosts of the For Your Soul podcast, which seeks to equip the church with biblical truth and sound doctrine. Visit his blog Blessed Are The Forgiven.