Field of Science

Banish your worries by surrendering to God

You may have seen, earlier this month, one of several news reports about how belief in God is great for reducing worries (e.g. here). Well no, that's not really what the study found - the study is actually a bit more precisely focussed than that and a bit more interesting for it.

The researchers, lead by David Rosmarin at Harvard Medical School, were interested in the idea that the  Middle-Eastern monotheisms place a great deal of focus on trusting God. Yet many believers don't trust their God - for whatever reason, they've "come to believe that the Divine is intentionally ignorant or malevolent." Indeed, some people seem to hold both beliefs about God simultaneously.

Now, believers who mistrust their God also tend to be more depressed, anxious and worried. Although that might sound unsurprising, in fact the reasons for this aren't altogether clear.

Rosmarin thought that trusting God might help people to cope better with uncertainty. So, first off they surveyed a bunch of mostly very-devout believers - around 100 Christians and 200 Jews. He asked them about their trust in God, how freaked out they were by uncertainty, and how worried they were.

By carefully analysing the results they were able to show that the data fitted the model, and that it was unlikely that the cause and effect ran in the backwards direction. That supports the idea that distrust in God leads to fear of uncertainty, which in turn makes you worried.

So far so good. The next step was to see if increasing trust in God could decrease fear of uncertainty and reduce worry.

So they took a group of 39 religious, but stressed and worried, Jews, and ran them through a two-week programme of guidance, stories, visualisation exercises and prayer, all designed to increase their trust in God. The programme was effective - trust in God went up, distrust went down, and as a result the participants were more tolerant of uncertainty and less worried.

So it does indeed seem that, for stressed-out religious Judaeo-Christians, getting them to trust God makes them better able to cope with uncertainty. Another recent study found that Appalachian students who surrender to God are less stressed.

Crucially, however, it only applies to people who already believe in God. If you do, then changing your views about God can change your outlook.

But when you think about it, really all that's happening here is that you are making these people fatalistic. Maybe you could create the same effect in non-believers by encouraging them to be fatalistic. I know that when I'm stressed, taking a fatalistic outlook helps a lot!

And a final thought to consider. Fatalism might make you less anxious about uncertainty, but that can have unintended knock-on effects too. It might lead to a certain lack of realism about your own inevitable death, for example. And who knows what else!
Rosmarin, D., Pirutinsky, S., Auerbach, R., Björgvinsson, T., Bigda-Peyton, J., Andersson, G., Pargament, K., & Krumrei, E. (2011). Incorporating spiritual beliefs into a cognitive model of worry Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67 (7), 691-700 DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20798

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Concerning simultaneous beliefs
    Indeed, some people seem to hold both beliefs about God simultaneously.
    This notion of holding contradictory believes is critical even for atheists to believe -- it is a center piece of my blog. Indeed I think many atheists both simultaneously believe in God and disbelieve in God. Your article seemed to imply more of a rheostat view, though. The worrisome Jews go to a 2-week trust-amplifier camp. So did you mean that believers hold varying degrees of trust or hold contradictory beliefs simultaneously?

    Concerning "Fatalism": The "Trust in God" thing has a positive fatalism --> "all things will work for the better for those that Trust the Lord" (Bible verse). Your fatalism is negative: "Shit, I can't do anything anyway." Big difference, I think. Yes, the both make the believer realize there is no need to worry about action but one rests in a happy state and one in a sad state.

  2. Yep, I had to explain this study when it came up somewhere else, Ed Brayton's blog I think. (Don't hold me to that, I may be misremembering) A lot of people in the comments only read the headline and had misinterpreted it. I had to explain that the study had absolutely nothing to say about belief vs. non-belief whatsoever.

    Thanks for doing your typical in-depth look at it.

  3. Sabio, in practical terms, trust and mistrust are measured using two separate sets of questions. Now you might expect that the more 'trust' questions you say yes to, the fewer 'mistrust' questions you would answer yes. That does happen in general, but there's significant deviation from this strict linear relationship.

    It's not necessarily a case of holding contradictory beliefs - it may be that respondents think that God can either be trusted or distrusted depending on the circumstances.

    Well, actually an atheists fatalism can be positive. I think that, if you do what you can, things tend to turn out for the best. I think that because I think that people are generally good, and with good will we can get through any problems. Naive? Moi?

  4. It is funny how personal anecdotal data can obscur even the sharpest mind looking for objective truth.
    Yes, naive! :-)
    But may you continue to live the fortunate life !!


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