A Relationship With God Can Boost Mental Health, Even if You Don’t Believe

New research points to mental health benefits for the devout and agnostic alike

T Ryan Byerly
Elemental
Published in
5 min readDec 28, 2020

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A man looks out at the sky and cityscape.
Photo: d3sign/Moment/Getty Images

Maybe you don’t believe in God. But could cultivating a relationship with God, despite your agnostic stance, make a difference for your mental health? As a philosopher of religion, this question is of great interest to me — and now a recent research trend suggests the answer might be yes.

For decades, researchers have wondered about the factors that account for the complex relationship between religion and mental health. Under certain circumstances, it appears that religion positively influences mental health — though not in all cases. One key variable in this equation has become increasingly clear over the past ten years: the value (to the believer) of a perceived relationship with God.

Research in this area focuses on what psychologists call “attachment to God.” If “attachment” sounds familiar, it should — attachment theory (often invoked as a framework for understanding relationships) has received a great deal of attention in recent years.

Just because a person lacks the sort of evidence they might require in order to believe in God doesn’t mean they won’t take an intellectual risk and try to engage in a relationship with God — just in case God is there.

The idea of attachment to God was borne out of a research paradigm that began with studies of attachment relationships between infants and caregivers. Infants could be avoidantly attached — seeking to strike out on their own, cold toward their caregivers, not experiencing much need for them. They could be anxiously attached — constantly needing reassurance from their caregivers, afraid to engage their environment independently, and worried their caregivers might abandon them. Or, they could be securely attached…

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T Ryan Byerly
Elemental

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Sheffield. Author of several books, including Putting Others First (Routledge Press: 2019)