The universality that some call "God" has been sundered by religion and culture into a multiplicity of personality and power, ranging from omniscient to absent, vengeful to benign.

American Christians, for example, range from belief in an all-powerful and punitive Old Testament-style god to a kinder, gentler Jesus depicted as a long-haired, sandal-wearing hippie who fed the poor and comforted the sick.

A new study shows how these beliefs may affect may affect mental health. Psychologists from Nava Silton of Marymount Manhattan College analyzed a 2010 Gallup survey to determine how one's perception of god — negative, positive or neutral — associated with symptoms of general anxiety, social anxiety, paranoia, obsession and compulsion.

The researchers interpreted survey respondents' thoughts on god based on six adjectives — absolute, critical, just, punishing or wrathful — which they labeled on a scale of 1 to 4. Similarly, respondents answered questions to gauge their level of psychological systems.

While belief in an indifferent god was not linked to any of the five symptoms, researchers found an increase in social anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsion among those who believed in a punitive God. Belief in a benevolent god was associated with reductions in those four symptoms — with general anxiety carrying no association with any belief in god.

"We propose that belief in a benevolent God inhibits threat assessments about the dangerousness of the world, thereby decreasing psychiatric symptoms," the researchers said. "Belief in a punitive God... facilitates threat assessments that the world is dangerous and even that God poses a threat of harm, thereby increasing psychiatric symptomology."

However, Real Clear Science found room to criticize the study, which relied on self-reported data with a cross-sectional design, the latter of which makes it impossible for researchers to prove causality on one side of the association. The researchers' use of self-reported data for psychological diagnosis, furthermore, was less than ideal.

At least one critical blog post praised the research as "provocative," given previous research supporting the overall conclusions. The "Evolutionary Threat Assessment System Theory," for example, states that global beliefs about danger in the world may impact one's mental health. A 2007 study, for example, proposed that three brain structures — the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and parts of the so-called limbic system — evolved over time to assess threat to the individual, a system that might be impacted by belief in an Almighty.

The research was reported in the April 10 issue of the journal Religious Health.