Faith and health: When TV goes low in depicting religion, marginal believers may suffer most

Ashton Kutcher’s character on the TV comedy “Two and a Half Men” says he wants to spend the night with Mother Teresa because the nun who went on to achieve sainthood deserves to have one man “give her a little something back.”

Comedian Bill Maher, who has referred to God as a “psychopathic mass murderer,” regularly mocks religion on his HBO show, “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

As starter fluid for the culture wars, such examples predictably inflame public debates over the coarsening of popular culture and what many perceive as its general hostility toward matters of faith.

But what is the impact of the public trashing of religion on the lives of the great majority of Americans who profess a belief in God?

New research exploring the relation between mental health and negative media portrayals of religion reveals some surprising findings.

Religious individuals who were relatively less invested in their faith in terms of worship, prayer and scripture reading were the most likely to have greater mental health problems in response to media images that challenged their beliefs.

Yet the more believers went to church, read their Bibles and talked to God on their own, the less likely they were to be affected.

The apparent best defense against the cultural mocking of religion: A strong faith.

Health benefits

It is not as if Americans place great trust in television.

Fewer than 10 percent of respondents to the 2014 General Social Survey said they had a great deal of confidence in the people responsible for programming. Nine in 10 said they had only some or hardly any confidence.

But it is also a powerful force, contributing to a shared national identity that can produce feelings such as anger, alienation and a sense of threat among individuals who feel mocked or ignored by its images, studies have shown.

In their study of religion, TV and mental health, researchers from Louisiana State University and Hope College analyzed data from 1,714 adults in the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey.

About two-thirds of respondents said they had been offended by negative remarks about religion on television.

No great revelation there.

But lead researcher Samuel Stroope of LSU said he was surprised “that highly religious people were not the ones most negatively affected” by such portrayals of faith.

They found that low rates of worship attendance and personal prayer and scripture reading were associated with higher rates of anxiety and general mental health problems such as depression.

But health issues associated with negative portrayals of religion decreased as public and private religious participation increased.

“Indeed, religious participation not only reduces the deleterious effect of negative media portrayals, but it appears to nullify the effect of media portrayals for the highly religious,” researchers said in the journal of Society and Mental Health.

Some potential reasons they indicated may explain the relationship include:

Social support: More frequent attendance provides access to social, emotional and spiritual support for dealing with issues such as stress and anger. Others may not understand why attacks on religion are unsettling, “but congregational friends can understand and validate a person’s feelings.”
Stronger self-image: The culture may make fun of your beliefs, but worship, prayer and scripture reading reinforce the idea that believers are “a child of God.”
Divine care: Practices such as prayer help develop a close personal relationship with God, who can serve as a “safe haven” in the face of outside threats.
Expecting tribulations: The scriptural teachings of many religions warn that believers should anticipate outside criticism of their beliefs. When criticism comes, it may be viewed as a sign of those teachings, and an opportunity for spiritual growth.
A forgiving nature: “If stressful media portrayal causes anger and negative emotions, religiously supported forgiveness—either with the help of fellow believers or in private devotions—may aid in letting go of distressing feelings,” researchers noted.

On the other hand, absent these protective factors, more lukewarm believers may be less prepared to respond to public attacks on their beliefs.

“These people seem to be in a vulnerable group,” Stroope said. “It could be that those who are really nominal or on the fringes of their communities are who can really benefit from their support.”

Looking forward

For the most part, research studies have generally shown religion to be positively related to physical and mental health.

In those cases when religion can be harmful, research has focused mostly on internal factors from congregational conflict and spiritual abuse to perceiving God as judgmental and punitive as opposed to loving and kind, researchers in the LSU study noted.

Among the potential takeaways of the LSU study is that it may help counselors and religious leaders to become more aware of ways religious coping mechanisms can reduce outside stressors.

When it comes to perceived popular culture attacks on religion, Stroope said, religious leaders may find it of special value to reach out to members on the margins of congregational life.

One example of how to respond may be taken from the medium itself.

Talk show host Stephen Colbert, who is open about his Catholic faith, welcomed the opportunity to discuss religion with Maher on “The Late Show.” At one point, Colbert, with a twinkle in his eye, invited Maher to come back to the Catholic Church.

“All you have to do,” Colbert said, “is humble yourself before the presence of the Lord, admit there are things greater than you in the universe that you don’t understand.”

Maher responded that he does not believe “intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age, but you believe what you want.”

When Maher then tried to change the topic, Colbert did not back away, but lightened the mood by joking:

“You see my religion teaches me humility in the face of this kind of attack.”

Image by islandjoe, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Catholic Diocese of Saginaw, via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]

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