The God-Shaped Elephant

Most of the health psychology of religion sub-sub-field suffers less from a God-shaped hole and more of a God-shaped elephant sitting in the room that usually goes undiscussed. The most important, but always implicit, mechanism in these studies is God.

By Alex Uzdavines

Alex Uzdavines was born in San Diego, CA and existed for a number of years before deciding to pursue Psychology after taking most of the coursework in it offered by the San Diego Community College District. He transferred to and earned his BA in Psychology and Social Behavior and MA in Demographic and Social Analysis from the University of California, Irvine. He is a Clinical Psychology graduate student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, working under Professor Julie Exline. His primary research interests are in the psychology of (non)religion and (non)spirituality, with an emphasis on studying how (non)beliefs contribute to spiritual struggles and well-being.

Alex Uzdavines

Alex Uzdavines was born in San Diego, CA and existed for a number of years before deciding to pursue Psychology after taking most of the coursework in it offered by the San Diego Community College District. He transferred to and earned his BA in Psychology and Social Behavior and MA in Demographic and Social Analysis from the University of California, Irvine. He is a Clinical Psychology graduate student in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, working under Professor Julie Exline. His primary research interests are in the psychology of (non)religion and (non)spirituality, with an emphasis on studying how (non)beliefs contribute to spiritual struggles and well-being.

In response to:

Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO's, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

Post written by Alex Uzdavines in response to a podcast with Dr. David Speed and Tommy Coleman.

About 90% of my thoughts is response to this podcast could be summed up by:

But posting a .gif and walking away doesn’t make an especially compelling blog post so…

Tommy Coleman and Dr. David Speed hit on some of the biggest problems lingering within the overlap of health psychology and the psychology of religion:

  1. Far too many studies select on the dependent variable
  2. Conflating “low religiosity” with “nonbelief”[1] is rampant
  3. Work jumps from academic journals to policy recommendations too readily
  4. Specific mechanisms of the relationship between religiosity and health are generally left undefined.

Tommy and Dr. Speed do an excellent job defining and discussing these points. I’m going to elaborate[2] on #4 a bit further.

Most of the health psychology of religion sub-sub-field suffers less from a God-shaped hole and more of a God-shaped elephant sitting in the room that usually goes undiscussed.[3] The most important, but always implicit, mechanism in these studies is God. When participants go to church or have the kinds of beliefs which lead to them getting high scores on religiosity measures, God gives them better health. Or maybe the causality is flipped and God gives people better health which then allows them to go to worship services more often? Either way, the causal chain of religiosity and health implicitly assumes both God’s existence and benevolent intervention for the “good” or “strong” believers (i.e. high religiosity/attendance) and not for the “less-good” or “weak” believers (i.e. low religiosity/attendance). This mechanism doesn’t need to be discussed because believers[4] know it’s true. It’s inherently part of the belief set.[5] I think the prevalence of this underlying assumption, at least among Americans, is why a prescription of chess club attendance for increasing health screening behaviors seems odd whereas one for increased religious adherence doesn’t.

Within the sub-sub-field, the lack of discussion of the God-elephant isn’t a major problem, at least right now. Researchers studying both health and nonreligion/nonreligious populations seem to be more likely to dig into this assumption and seriously consider mechanisms like social support. In addition, as God rarely responds to survey requests,[6] there’s no way to actually gather information about this assumed causal pathway within a scientific framework. Instead, we focus research on constructs like supernatural attributions and worldviews. This allows for a sort of Gentleperson’s Agreement among those of us in the sub-sub-field to get along while working in ecumenical environments without looping into arguments about God’s (non)existence. In general, I think this is a great way to go.

Unfortunately, as Dr. Speed discussed, within the context of the United States the implicit God < > Health assumption is endemic among people who make major policy decisions. The example he and Tommy discussed in the podcast was the US Department of Defense. It’s within these policy environments that the sub-sub-field’s lack of discussing the elephant becomes more problematic. To the extent that policymakers base intervention programs on the extant literature, without an explicit discussion of causal mechanisms within this literature they’re left with the over-simplified “more religion = more better” paradigm. However, this can improve when researchers are willing to acknowledge the God-elephant. In the case of the US DoD’s Spiritual Fitness program, researchers such as Dr. Ian A. Gutierrez[7] are working to develop a more holistic view of “spirituality” that incorporates discussion of causal pathways toward improved well-being aside from God < > Health. Hopefully, as the viewpoint diversity within the sub-sub-field continues to increase we’ll see more discussion of testable causal pathways that don’t rely on an implicitly assumed elephant in the room.

[1] Or whatever termfloats your boat

[2] See also: pontificate

[3] Including within this podcast

[4] …in a deity which has a bunch of associated “omnis” in addition to caring about and intervening in the world and etc. This varies person to person

[5] Yes, this is inflammatory and isn’t true for everyone, see also footnote #2.

[6] I’ve tried to email Them Qualtrics links several times, but have never gotten a response. I guess They aren’t using Inbox Zero yet.

[7] Creating the Spiritually Ready Warfighter: A Roadmap for Defining, Measuring, and Implementing Spiritual Fitness in the Military (March, 2019) APA Division 36 Mid-Year Conference

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