Field of Science

Can choosing the right god reduce anxiety and other psychosis?

Religion and mental health seems to be a double-edged sword. Religion features in a lot of psychotic delusions, but there's also a lot of evidence linking religious belief to better mental health. There's some new research which suggests that part of the problem in teasing out the relationships is that it's not belief itself, but rather the type of god that you believe in, that matters.

The data came from a 2004 US survey on religion and health, which included measures of what people thought about god, and also a variety of health measures including some standard psychiatric scales.

The researchers took out all those who said they had no religion (just 3%). What's more they found no effect of how religious people said they were, or how often they went to church. So this is not a study comparing religion with non belief.

The essence of what they found is shown in the graph. They looked at whether people agreed with each of three statements describing god: Close and Loving, Approving and Forgiving, and Creating and Judging.

Believers in a close and loving god had the lowest incidence of a range of psychoses, especially anxiety. Belief in a creator/judge god had the opposite effect.

Last year they also showed that there is a similar relationship between beliefs about the afterlife and mental health. People who believed that the afterlife will bring nice things, like union with god, peace and tranquillity, reunion with loved ones, or paradise, were less psychotic. Those who thought that there is no afterlife, or that the afterlife is just a pale and shadowy life, or even those that it would bring reincarnation or the possibility of punishment had more psychoses.

So what's going on? Of course there's a significant chicken and egg problem here. Is it that particular religious beliefs making people less psychotic, or is it simply that psychotic people have negative opinions of both other people and of god?

But Kevin Flannelly, the lead researcher, has a theory to explain these results. He suggests that there is a system in the brain that's specifically designed to alert you to threats in the environment around you (the Evolutionary Threat Assessment System, or ETAS).

Dysfunction of this system, he believes, underpins a lot of mental health problems. The idea is that activation of the ETAS causes a decrease in the sense of security and also an increase in psychiatric symptoms.

Flannelly thinks that belief in a close and loving god (i.e. a protective one that's looking out for you) decreases activation of the ETAS.

To be sure, alternative theories abound - in particular attachment theory, which suggests that God acts as a surrogate parent. But this doesn't explain why belief in a loving god does not reduce somatisation.

Whatever the cause, Flannelly's results are further evidence that positive beliefs about God are linked to less psychosis, especially anxiety-related psychosis (see also Xanax of the people)


ResearchBlogging.orgFlannelly, K., Galek, K., Ellison, C., & Koenig, H. (2009). Beliefs about God, Psychiatric Symptoms, and Evolutionary Psychiatry Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-009-9244-z

Flannelly, K., & Galek, K. (2009). Religion, Evolution, and Mental Health: Attachment Theory and ETAS Theory Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-009-9247-9


  1. Wow! Very interesting study! Can you also tell where this survey was published?

  2. Interesting study. Am linking to this post it in my own blog, if that's all right.

  3. Great stuff, as always. Are you on reddit? If so, I want to friend you. If not, sign up real quick and I will friend you. :)

  4. Awais I don't think the survey itself was published, but you can find an article about it here.

    Luke I am!

  5. Thanks Tom for the article. It appears that they did not control for trait cognitive styles. So their findings may have nothing to do with the type of god that people believe in, but with other unrelated cognitive factors. That is, people who have positive cognitive styles (___insert here your favorite cognitive theory) also have less anxiety, and also may be more likely to label god as loving and close.

    So I put my money on a combination of positive emotionality and adaptive cognitions rather than on god. :-).

  6. Nestor: Yes, and Flannelly does acknowledge that in the paper (albeit in one throwaway sentence at the end).

    The only hint that the causal effect is from type of god to psychosis is that there's no link with somatization. They connect this with ETAS - i.e. belief in the right type of god reduces the perception of the magnitude of external threats.

  7. I do not understand the third category 'creating and judging'. What's the basis for grouping these two adjectives together? When people believe in God, its a creating God, the one who created everything. On the other hand, 'judging' has a very different meaning. If the researchers had used creating and judging as separate "types of god" I'm sure results would have differed across the two 'types'.

  8. Rhodora: They don't give a rationale, unfortunately.

  9. I'm surprised that they lump no belief in an afterlife with believing that it's "pale and shadowy." Those are such vastly different concepts; it would be like asking, "Which is scarier: believing that you led a pale and shadowy existence before you were born or the one you remember?" Would they really answer, "Both are equally scary."?

    Anecdote Alert: losing my belief in an afterlife was the second most relieving thing that's happened to me (after losing belief in a god).


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