Negative spirituality, or believing that God is punishing one for a transgression, is associated with poor mental and physical health, suggests a new study.
University of Missouri researchers discovered that when individuals blame a spiritual force for their poor health, they have more pain and worse physical and mental health.
However, targeted interventions to counteract negative spiritual beliefs could help some individuals decrease pain and improve their overall health, the researchers said.
“In general, the more religious or spiritual you are, the healthier you are, which makes sense,” said Dr. Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist and professor of health psychology in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions.
“But for some individuals, even if they have even the smallest degree of negative spirituality — basically, when individuals believe they’re ill because they’ve done something wrong and God is punishing them — their health is worse.”
In a new study, researchers followed 200 individuals to find out how their spiritual beliefs affected their health outcomes. Individuals in the study had a range of health conditions, such as cancer, traumatic brain injury, or chronic pain, and others were healthy.
The researchers divided the individuals into two groups: a negative spirituality group that consisted of those who reported feeling abandoned or punished by a higher power, and a no negative spirituality group that consisted of people who didn’t feel abandoned or punished by a higher power.
Participants then answered questions about their emotional and physical health, including physical pain.
Those in the negative spirituality group reported significantly worse pain as well as worse physical and mental health while those with positive spirituality reported better mental health.
However, even if individuals reported positive spiritual beliefs, having any degree of negative spiritual belief contributed to poorer health outcomes, the researchers found.
“Previous research has shown that about 10 percent of people have negative spiritual beliefs; for example, believing that if they don’t do something right, God won’t love them,” Johnstone said.
“That’s a negative aspect of religion when people believe, ‘God is not supportive of me. What kind of hope do I have?’ However, when people firmly believe God loves and forgives them despite their shortcomings, they had significantly better mental health.”
Researchers also found that individuals with negative spiritual beliefs participate in religious practices less frequently and have lower levels of positive spirituality and forgiveness. Interventions that help combat negative spiritual beliefs and promote positive spiritual beliefs could help some individuals improve their pain and their mental health, Johnstone said.
The study appears in the Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health.