Think ‘God’ and what do you see? Psychologist Bonnie Poon Zahl of the University of Oxford has investigated people’s perception of God and the effect those images have on behaviour. She talks to Nigel Bovey
Dr Zahl, what is your job?
I am a consultant for Templeton World Charity Foundation, which supports research and dissemination of information about big questions of meaning, purpose, and ultimate reality that sit at the interface of science and religion.
By training, you are a psychologist. What is psychology?
Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind. It includes behaviour, thoughts and emotions and the processes by which they arise and interact.
Why did you choose to study psychology?
I grew up in Hong Kong and completed my A levels. I then went to university in the United States. One of the advantages of the American university system is the flexibility to explore different subjects, which is different from the UK system, where you choose your subjects before you begin. When I first arrived on campus, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I started with history and moved through different subjects before realising that I was most interested in what people were thinking and the feelings that led to their behaviours. That was when I decided to focus on psychology.
You specialise in the psychology of religion. What is that?
Psychology of religion tries to understand human experiences of religion through methods and theories from psychology. My own starting point is that God made us to be psychological beings with minds, consciousness, cognition and emotions, regardless of religious faith. Psychologists in this field look at how these things relate to a person’s experience of religion and spirituality.
How did you come to study the psychology of religion?
While studying social psychology, I came across the concept of ‘locus of control’. This refers to a person’s perception of the sources of control over their life – and the extent of that control. A person with an internal locus believes that they are largely in control of how things turn out in their life. In contrast, external locus of control is where a person believes they have very little influence or control over what happens to them and that their life is determined by chance. Research shows that a high degree of internal locus predicts personal wellbeing, while those with an external locus fare less well. As a Christian, I believe that God is in control of our lives. God is not the same as fate, chance or luck but, in psychological terms, is a good, benevolent external and internal locus of control. God is not the same as us, but, God works around us, in us and through us. When I was an undergraduate student I asked my professor: ‘What about religious people who believe that a good God is in control?’ He told me to conduct research and submit a paper on the subject. I did – and that opened the world of applying psychological theory and methods to the understanding of religious experience.
Is there a link between having a religious faith and a sense of personal wellbeing?
There is a fair amount of research that shows a general trend of religiosity correlating with higher levels of wellbeing – so religious people seem to report more satisfaction with life and a greater sense of purpose. But it would be wrong to suppose that every individual believer feels good about themselves and about God all the time. As well as being a source of joy, religious faith can also sometimes be a source of strain.
How can having a faith be personally detrimental?
For my doctoral research, I looked at people’s perceptions of what God is like. My premise was that a person’s mental picture of God is likely to influence their sense of wellbeing, spiritually and generally. I found that people who picture God as cruel, judgmental or distant were more likely to report lower levels of wellbeing compared with those who saw God as loving, kind and intimate.
My research didn’t look specifically at cause and effect. Having a negative view of God is associated with lower levels of general wellbeing and sometimes with higher levels of depression or anxiety, but that’s not to say that a negative view of God causes depression. It’s equally possible that depression leads someone to view everything, including God, a bit more negatively. We often say in psychology that correlation does not mean causation.
In your doctoral research, what were you looking for and what did you find?
I studied people’s anger towards God. I was interested in the extent to which attachment relationships with parents affect a person’s relationship with God, in particular how it affects their interpretation of negative events in their lives.
Anger is often experienced when there’s perception of injustice or unfairness. It signals that a relationship is out of balance or something is not right. I wanted to study the psychological phenomenon of anger at God, particularly in terms of a person’s relationship with God.
I found a small but significant relationship between parental attachment and attachment to God – insecure attachment to parents correlated with less secure attachment to God. In turn, a less secure attachment to God was associated with interpreting negative events as God being cruel, unkind or deliberating hurting that person.
What makes people angry towards God?
In my research, I found that anger at God was often experienced when people had life experiences that they felt were not consistent with the God that they believed in. They often asked questions such as: ‘Why does a good God let bad things happen? Why wouldn’t God answer my prayer to be healed from being depressed? Why didn’t God answer my prayer to save my marriage?’
Often those experiences of unanswered prayers about very important things led to doubt and feelings of injustice. Religious people tend to get uncomfortable with strong emotions, and certainly strong negative emotions. The Church is not always very comfortable with negative feelings about God.
Is that because in emphasising the likes of instant miracles, some forms of Christianity regard non-delivery as an indication that the supplicant’s faith is not strong enough?
My experience of some evangelical churches is that if someone is going through a tough time, the answer is to ‘pray harder’. Church leaders are reluctant to say: ‘That’s a really hard question, we just don’t know. We just don’t understand.’
Somehow, admitting that we just don’t know has become equivalent to a lack of faith, but it takes great faith and compassion to admit that we don’t understand. People need to hear that God does not judge our negative experiences, anxieties, depression or our brokenness as reflecting a lack of faith. It is OK if life isn’t perfect.
Can being angry at God be damaging?
People get rightly nervous about anger because it is sometimes associated with aggression, but to quash any experience of anger in a religious context is unhelpful because we begin to lose touch with our awareness of our feelings and what they mean. God gave us emotions as important cues. We need to listen to these emotional signals that tell us things that aren’t right.
Christians worry that anger at God will last for ever and that God can’t handle us when we’re angry. On both counts, that’s not correct. Such an attitude also assumes that God is not big enough to deal with our lives and our emotions. In my experience, he certainly is more than capable of dealing with all of our anger and all of our doubts.
So, you have been angry at God?
Yes, and, in part, that motivated my wanting to research the subject academically. In my teens, I attended a highly emotionally charged church in Hong Kong. For several years, though, I went through what the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross called ‘the dark night of the soul’. During that time, all the teachings about hearing God’s voice and being in his presence were stripped away. God felt absent. It didn’t even feel like God was saying ‘no’ to my prayers, rather it felt as though my prayers were falling on deaf ears. I would go to church and come away feeling more alone.
Like any social groups, churches have norms – expected ways of behaving. I couldn’t participate in the same way that others were. There was a discrepancy between the way I was feeling and the way I was expected as a Christian to behave. I was very angry at God for not answering my prayers and for not speaking to me, especially when I knew that he could.
Did that anger subside and how did it resolve?
At some point, I had to come to terms with the possibility that I might never experience Christianity in the way that I used to and that, for the rest of my life, God may just feel absent.
There came a point when, in the light of this, I felt I had a choice to make: either accept that God is real even if I can’t feel him or don’t believe that he is real.
I concluded that I think I still believe that God is real, but the only way I could even cope with going to church was to attend a church service early in the morning, where we would recite liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer. It was just me, my husband, the vicar, and maybe one or two other congregants. The vibrant, emotional, spontaneous, spirit-filled worship services that I used to love had begun to make me feel hollow inside, and I had no prayers of my own to offer. But the time-honoured prayers of the liturgy helped me to verbalise the feelings of loss, loneliness – and of hope. There is such depth and compassion in that liturgy. Many years later, and rather unexpectedly, I began to regain some of the spiritual experiences I had lost.
Speaking of images, the Bible says that humankind is made in the image of God. What do you understand by that statement?
I take it to mean than we are made with the capacity to have a relationship with God.
Are you, as Marx’s ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ would have it, an escapist?
No, I don’t think so. My experience has been that being a person of faith makes you confront difficult questions in ways that are probably easier to avoid if you are an atheist. For example, as a Christian it is harder to hold together the idea that God is loving and good with the existence of evil, than to subscribe to the atheistic view that simply says God doesn’t exist and terrible things just happen because they just happen.
Could your faith be an illusion, a trick of your mind?
‘Illusion’ infers ‘façade’. Christianity is founded on the coming to earth of Jesus to a real country in real time and space. There are historical accounts of his existence and his actions, from which the Gospels, the writings of the Church fathers, and the tradition of worship of Jesus Christ came. Jesus was no illusion, nor is my relationship with him.
How do you know that your faith is not a delusion?
Delusion is a harmful condition where a person is out of contact with reality. Although it can be challenging to be a Christian, faith is generally beneficial and, in faith, I confront the realities of the world every day.
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