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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Images of God and mental health

Baylor’s Wave III religion survey, which came out in late September, takes a look at the connection between religion and mental health. Among the findings, the authors report that:
“When it comes to religion, beliefs are more important than are behavior or affiliation…Frequency of prayer has no consistent effect on the number of reported mental health issues in past month. Respondents who pray every day report statistically the same number of mental health issues as those who never pray or pray only on certain occasions.” 

Likewise, the authors report: 
“Prayer, religious attendance, and religious affiliation, three mainstay measures of religiosity in Western culture, have no effect on the number of reported mental health issues.” 

But here’s the part that makes a difference: 
“When it comes to mental health, the aspect of religion that matters the most is the nature of one’s relationship with God.” The authors concluded that “Those respondents who believe that they have a strong, loving relationship with God report fewer mental health issues, while those respondents who report more ambiguity in their relationship with God report more mental health issues.” 

With that as background, here’s the Texas Reason Blog question for this week:

How do you interpret this data about the supremacy of a strong, loving relationship with God?

In the first case, when they noted that frequency of prayer was not a factor so much as beliefs, this tells me that a person’s perspective matters. Indeed our perspective on life and our value judgments about ourselves and our world have an amazing effect on our happiness and well being. This is one thing I noticed in the power of Stoicism as it helped me to look at the world in a different way.

The second point is also unsurprising, that prayer, attendance, and affiliation have no effect on mental health. Especially in the West, religions are not typically looked at as a set of practices with direct improvement purposes, as you have in the East with meditation and so on (although in the original study there was one mention of meditation in relationship to entrepreneurship). Instead, the West tends to focus on what you believe, not what you do. Therefore the “practices” of Western religion tend to be largely ceremonial or obligatory, or even experiential rather than the kind of practice that is meant to cultivate any particular quality.

On the third item, there is a lot of presumption here. The survey has a sharp Western, even Abrahamic, bias in the way it has framed the matter at hand, and in surveys the way you frame things can greatly influence results. Here, it was assumed that all religion necessarily includes monotheism. Secondly, the above summary of the study suggests that a number of real effective practices were unaddressed because they weren’t part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. This is, perhaps, understandable since the study was meant to look at the United States, of which Eastern practices are an extreme minority.

But when it comes to those who do believe in one God, it makes perfect sense that a person’s disposition toward that God would be affected by one’s mental health, and the reverse causality should also be obvious. In more broad terms, what’s likely going on is that, when one has ‘made peace’ with one’s situation as they believe it to be (God, Nature, the universe, etc) then they are mentally more healthy, and are more healthy by that disposition. This, at least, is what I have noticed among non-theists as well. Therefore, I interpret this data to be touching on something more broad than just a particular mindset about a monotheistic belief.

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