A growing literature examines the correlates and sequelae of spiritual struggles. Particular attention has been focused on three specific types of such struggles: (a) divine, or troubled relationships with God; (b) interpersonal, or negative social encounters in religious settings; and (c) intrapsychic, or chronic religious doubting. To date, however, this literature has focused primarily on one or another type, leaving open the possibility that these are highly correlated and may tap a single, underlying dimension. Further, because studies have relied mostly on small, specialized samples, it is not clear whether the associations between spiritual struggles and psychological functioning vary across key subgroups in the US population. Using data from the 1998 NORC General Social Survey we address these issues. Findings reveal strong and independent associations between each type of spiritual struggle and psychological distress, and they also show that these patterns are robust across most population subgroups, except for variations by age and marital status. Implications, study limitations, and directions for further research are identified.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Readers may be surprised that our models do not include measure(s) of social integration or support. As noted in our description of the GSS data, since 1987 NORC General Social Survey has utilized a “split-ballot” interview design, in which (a) a relatively small core set of items are asked of all GSS respondents, and (b) the other items are asked of a randomly selected subset of respondents, usually roughly two-third of the total sample. In practice, this means that combining variables from several different “ballots” can result in quite small sample sizes, and indeed, this was the case when we included indicator(s) of social integration into the models presented in Table 3. However, in ancillary analyses (not shown, but available upon request), we did explore correlations between each of the spiritual struggle variables and a three-item index tapping the frequency with which respondents reported socializing with (a) neighbors, (b) friends, and (c) relatives. This indicator of secular social participation was virtually uncorrelated (i.e., r < .05) with each of the spiritual struggle variables, which suggests that it is unlikely to confound the associations between spiritual struggles and feelings of distress.
The issue of missing data deserves comment. Briefly most missing values occur on items tapping spiritual struggles or other aspects of religious involvement, or on the measure of psychological distress. These missing cases are handled via listwise deletion, which accounts for nearly all of the 20% case loss (298 of the initial 1,445). A smaller number (roughly 11%) of respondents failed to provide useable information on the family income item. To retain those cases in the analysis sample, we followed the longstanding practice advocated by Cohen and his associates (2002), substituting a fixed value (i.e., the valid sample mean on the variable) for the missing data, and then adding a dummy variable flag to identify those cases that were initially missing. Like the missing data flag for non-attendance at religious services, this dummy variable was never a significant predictor of psychological distress, and thus it was dropped from the final regression models. Extensive analyses were conducted to assess any potential biases associated with this approach and none were found.
Although our study does not focus on denominational differences in distress, spiritual struggles, or the relationships between these constructs, readers may be interested in the religious composition of the GSS (sub)sample. Based on the classificatory scheme proposed by Steensland and his associates (2000), our 1,147 respondents consisted of approximately 29% conservative (i.e., fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic) Protestants, 27% Catholics, 18% mainline (i.e., moderate and liberal) Protestants, 12% persons with no religious preference at all, 5% members of various other Christian groups (e.g., Mormon or LDS, Jehovah’s Witness, Mennonite or Amish), 4% adherents of various non-Christian traditions, and 5% persons who reported hard-to-classify or indeterminate religious or spiritual groups.
Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ano, G. G., & Vasconcelles, E. B. (2005). Religious coping and psychological adjustment to stress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 461–480.
Becker, P. E. (1999). Congregations in conflict. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Becker, P. E., Ellingson, S. J., Flory, R. W., Griswold, W., Kniss, F., & Nelson, T. (1993). Straining at the tie that binds: Congregational conflict in the 1980s. Review of Religious Research, 34, 193–209.
Berger, P. L. (1967). The sacred canopy. Doubleday Garden City, NY.
Charles, S. T., Mather, M. M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2003). Aging and emotional memory: The forgettable nature of negative images for older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 132, 310–324.
Cohen, J., Cohen, P., Aiken, L., & West, S. G. (2002). Applied multiple regression/correlation analysis for the behavioral sciences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Inc.
Coser, L. A. (1974). Greedy institutions: Patterns of undivided commitment. New York: Free Press.
Davis, J. A., Smith, T. W., & Marsden, P. V. (2008). The general social surveys: Cumulative codebook, 1972–2008. Chicago: National Opinion Research Center.
Ellis, A. L. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.
Ellison, C. G. (1991). Religious involvement and subjective well-being. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 32, 80–99.
Ellison, C. G., & Fan, D. (2008). Daily spiritual experiences and psychological well-being among US adults. Social Indicators Research, 88, 247–271.
Ellison, C. G., & Levin, J. S. (1998). The religion-health connection: Evidence, theory, and future directions. Health Education and Behavior, 25, 700–720.
Ellison, C. G., Zhang, W., Krause, N., & Marcum, J. P. (2009). Does negative interaction in church promote psychological distress? Longitudinal findings from the Presbyterian Panel Survey. Sociology of Religion.
Exline, J. J. (2002). Stumbling blocks on the religious road: Fractured relationships, nagging vices, and the inner struggle to believe. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 182–189.
Exline, J. J., & Rose, E. (2005). Religious and spiritual struggles. In R. F. Paloutzian & C. L. Park (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of religion. New York: Guilford.
Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Lobel, M. (1999). When God disappoints: Difficulty forgiving God and its role in negative emotion. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 365–379.
Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Sanderson, W. C. (2000). Guilt, discord, and alienation: The role of religious strain in depression and suicidality. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56, 1481–1496.
Fitchett, G., Murphy, P. E., Kim, J., Gibbons, J. L., Cameron, J. R., & Davis, J. A. (2004). Religious struggle: Prevalence, correlates, and mental health risks in diabetic, congestive heart failure, and oncology patients. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 34, 179–196.
Fitchett, G., Rybarczyk, B. D., DeMarco, G. A., & Nicholas, J. J. (1999). The role of religion in medical rehabilitation outcomes: A longitudinal study. Rehabilitation Psychology, 44, 333–353.
Galek, K. C., Krause, N., Ellison, C. G., Kudler, T., & Flannelly, K. J. (2007). Religious doubt and mental health across the lifespan. Journal of Adult Development, 14, 16–25.
George, L. K., Ellison, C. G., & Larson, D. B. (2002). Explaining the relationships between religious involvement and health. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 190–200.
Greenfield, E. A., Vaillant, G. E., & Marks, N. F. (2009). Do formal religious participation and spiritual perceptions have independent linkages with diverse dimensions of psychological well-being? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50, 196–212.
Hartman, K. (1997). Congregations in conflict: The battle over homosexuality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Hecht, J. M. (2003). Doubt: A history. San Francisco: Harper.
Hill, P. C., & Pargament, K. I. (2003). Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 58, 64–74.
Hunsberger, B., McKenzie, B., Pratt, M., & Pancer, S. M. (1993). Religious doubt: A social psychological analysis. Research in the Scientific Study of Religion, 5, 27–51.
Hunsberger, B., Pratt, M., & Pancer, S. M. (2002). A longitudinal study of religious doubt in high school and beyond: Relationships, stability, and looking for answers. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 255–266.
Idler, E. L., Musick, M. A., Ellison, C. G., George, L. K., et al. (2003). Measuring multiple dimensions of religion and spirituality for health research: Conceptual background and findings from the 1998 general social survey. Research on Aging, 25, 327–365.
Kessler, R. C., Andrews, G., Colpe, L., Hiripi, E., Mroczek, D., Normand, S., et al. (2002). Short screening scales to monitor population prevalences and trends in non-specific psychological distress. Psychological Medicine, 32, 959–976.
Kirkpatrick, L. (2004). Attachment, evolution, and the psychology of religion. New York: Guilford.
Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Handbook of religion and health. New York: Oxford University Press.
Krause, N. (2003a). Exploring race differences in the relationship between social interaction with clergy and feelings of self-worth in late life. Sociology of Religion, 64, 183–205.
Krause, N. (2003b). Religious meaning and subjective well-beingin late life. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 58B, S160–S170.
Krause, N. (2006a). Religious doubt and psychological well-being: A longitudinal investigation. Review of Religious Research, 47, 287–302.
Krause, N. (2006b). Gratitude toward God, stress, and health in late life. Research on Aging, 28, 163–183.
Krause, N. (2008). Aging in the church: How social relationships affect health. West Conshohocken, PA: John Templeton Foundation Press.
Krause, N., Chatters, L. M., Meltzer, T., & Morgan, D. L. (2000). Negative interaction in the church: Insights from focus groups with older adults. Review of Religious Research, 41, 510–533.
Krause, N., & Ellison, C. G. (2009). The doubting process: A longitudinal study of the precipitants and consequences of religious doubt. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48, 293–312.
Krause, N., Ellison, C. G., & Wulff, K. M. (1998). Church-based emotional support, negative interaction, and psychological well-being: Findings from a national sample of Presbyterians. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 725–741.
Krause, N., Ingersoll-Dayton, B., Ellison, C. G., & Wulff, K. M. (1999). Aging, religious doubt, and psychological well-being. The Gerontologist, 39, 525–533.
Krause, N., & Wulff, K. M. (2004). Religious doubt and health: Exploring the potential dark side of religion. Sociology of Religion, 65, 35–56.
Maselko, J., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2006). Gender differences in religious practices, spiritual experiences, and health: Results from the US General Social Survey. Social Science and Medicine, 62, 2848–2860.
McConnell, K., Pargament, K. I., Ellison, C. G., & Flannelly, K. J. (2006). Examining the links between spiritual struggles and psychopathology in a national sample. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 1469–1484.
Meisenhelder, J. B., & Marcum, J. P. (2004). Responses of clergy to 9/11: Posttraumatic stress, coping, and religious outcomes. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43, 547–554.
Mickley, J. R., Pargament, K. I., Brant, C. R., & Hipp, K. M. (1998). God and the search for meaning among hospice caregivers. The Hospice Journal, 13, 1–17.
Musick, M. A. (2000). Theodicy and life satisfaction among black and white Americans. Sociology of Religion, 61, 267–287.
Okun, M. A., & Keith, V. M. (1998). Effects of positive and negative social exchanges from various sources on depressive symptoms in younger and older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 53B, P4–P20.
Pargament, K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping. New York: Guilford.
Pargament, K. I. (2002). The bitter and the sweet: An evaluation of the costs and benefits of religiousness. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 168–181.
Pargament, K. I., Ishler, K., Dubow, E. F., Stanik, P., Rouiller, R., Crowe, P., et al. (1994). Methods of religious coping with the Gulf War: Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 33, 347–361.
Pargament, K. I., Kennell, J., Hathaway, W., Grevengoed, N., Newman, J., & Jones, W. (1988). Religion and the problem-solving process: Three styles of coping. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 27, 90–104.
Pargament, K. I., Koenig, H. G., & Perez, L. M. (2000). The many methods of religious coping: Development and initial validation of the RCOPE. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56, 519–543.
Pargament, K. I., Koenig, H. G., Tarakeshwar, N., & Hahn, J. (2001). Religious struggle as a predictor of mortality among medically ill elderly patients. Archives of Internal Medicine, 161, 1881–1885.
Pargament, K. I., Koenig, H. G., Tarakeshwar, N., & Hahn, J. (2004). Religious coping methods as predictors of psychological, physical, and spiritual outcomes among medically ill elderly patients: A two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 713–730.
Pargament, K. I., Murray-Swank, N., Magyar, G. M., & Ano, G. G. (2005). Spiritual struggle: A phenomenon of interest to psychology and religion. In W. R. Miller & H. D. Delaney (Eds.), Judeo-Christian perspectives on psychology: Human nature, motivation, and change (pp. 245–268). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Pargament, K. I., Smith, B. W., Koenig, H. G., & Perez, L. (1998). Patterns of positive and negative religious coping with major life stressors. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 710–724.
Rook, K. S. (1984). The negative side of social interaction: Impact on psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46, 1097–1108.
Rook, K. S., & Pietromonaco, P. (1987). Close relationships: Ties that heal or ties that bind? In W. H. Jones & D. Perlman (Eds.), Advances in personal relationships (pp. 1–35). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Schieman, S., Pudrovska, T., Pearlin, L. I., & Ellison, C. G. (2006). The sense of divine control and psychological distress: Variations across race and socioeconomic status. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45, 529–549.
Schuster, T. L., Kessler, R. C., & Aseltine, R. H., Jr. (1990). Supportive interactions, negative interactions, and depressed mood. American Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 423–438.
Shah, A., Snow, A. L., & Kunik, M. E. (2001). Spiritual and religious coping in caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical Gerontologist, 24, 127–136.
Sloan, R. P. (2006). Blind faith: The unholy alliance of religion and medicine. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Smith, T. B., McCullough, M. E., & Poll, J. (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 614–636.
Smith, B. W., Pargament, K. I., Brant, C., & Oliver, J. M. (2000). Noah revisited: Religious coping by church members and the impact of the 1993 midwest flood. Journal of Community Psychology, 28, 169–186.
Steensland, B., Park, J. Z., Regnerus, M. D., Robinson, L. D., Wilcox, W. B., & Woodberry, R. D. (2000). The measure of American religion: Toward improving the state of the art. Social Forces, 79, 291–318.
Thoits, P. A. (1991). Merging identity theory with stress research. Social Psychology Quarterly, 54, 101–112.
Wuthnow, R. (2005). America and the challenges of religious diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
About this article
Cite this article
Ellison, C.G., Lee, J. Spiritual Struggles and Psychological Distress: Is There a Dark Side of Religion?. Soc Indic Res 98, 501–517 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-009-9553-3
- Mental health
- Spiritual struggle
- Negative interaction