Health Correlates of Religiosity and Atheism

A famous advertisement by British Humanists on the sides of London buses reads, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy yourself” (Whitley, 2010).

Should people pay attention?

The percentage of people who do not identify with a religious institution or who consider themselves atheist or agnostic has increased in recent years in some highly developed, secular countries. Researchers have found that people from economically developed countries are moving away from their religions (Diener, Tay, & Myers, 2011). In the United States, the Gallup poll has found that the belief in God has decreased from 96% in 1944 to 86% in 2014 (Gallup, 2015). 86% is relatively high, given that the belief in God in other wealthy countries as gauged by the latest sample available from the World Values Survey. Believers in God in Australia (65%), China (19%), Germany (65%), Japan (59%) and Sweden (45%) are far below those in less wealthy countries such as Colombia (99%), Brazil (99%), and Nigeria (99.5%).

Despite growing trends towards atheism in some societies, there have been relatively few studies of the influence of atheism on mental health (Whitley, 2010). Yet such studies are warranted, given the growing influence of “new atheists” (Whitley, 2010). Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett lead the pack of “new atheists” and have collectively sold millions of books over the past few decades. Richard Dawkins considers people of faith to be “delusional” and “neurotic.”

Whitley (2010) further points out the way Richard Dawkins claims that faith qualifies as one of the world’s great evils, a “mental illness” comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate. Given such assertions, Whitley (2010) suggests social scientists and psychiatrists have a socio-moral imperative to examine atheism and its relationship to mental health. The intention of the present blog is to offer a brief summary of research studies that have identified relationships between atheism, religiosity and a variety of health and behavioral issues.

Atheism has its drawbacks

Several decades ago, researchers found that suicide rates are lower in religious countries than in secular countries (Stack, 1983; Breault, 1986). More recently, Dervic and colleagues (2004) compared depressed inpatients, finding that the religiously unaffiliated had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first degree relatives who had committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. The religiously affiliated further had greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression levels.

Wu, Wang, and Jia (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of 2,339 suicide cases and 5,252 comparison participants, finding that religion offered an overall protective effect. Sub-analyses further indicated protective effects of religiosity against suicide in Western cultures, in older populations, and in areas with religious homogeneity.

According to a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, adults and teens who consider religion very important and who attend religious services weekly or more often are “far less likely to smoke, drink, or use illicit drugs.” Those battling drugs who participate in spiritually-based support programs are more likely to maintain sobriety. Furthermore, adults who never attend religious services are three times likelier to smoke, more than five times likelier to have used an illicit drug other than marijuana, almost eight times more likely to have used marijuana, and almost seven times more likely to drink than their counterparts who attend religious services one or more times per week (Denison, 2013).

In a survey of 5,387 young Swiss men between 2010 and 2011, Gmel and colleagues (2013) found that young men who indicated that they believe in God are less likely to smoke marijuana, take ecstasy pills or smoke cigarettes than their atheist or agnostic counterparts.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims in studies of youths and adults who scored higher on measures of religiosity were more likely to see their dentists, take their vitamins, and wear their seatbelts and less likely to drink and smoke than their less religious counterparts (Wallace & Forman, 1998; Hill, Burdette, Ellison & Musick, 2006; Islam & Johnson, 2003; Shmueli & Tamir, 2007).

Religiosity has its benefits

Studies have also found that religious involvement is negatively correlated with deviant behaviors, such as sexual permissiveness, teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol use, (Bergin, 1991), crime and delinquent acts (Bergin, 1991; Baier & Wright, 2001). Stark (1971) found in a sample of 100 mentally ill individuals were clearly less religious and less active in a church denomination than their non-mentally ill counterparts.

In a meta-analysis of 147 independent studies, findings indicated religiosity is associated positively with psychological well-being (Smith, McCullough & Poll, 2003). Findings further indicated positive religious coping, positive God concepts, and intrinsic religious motivation were negatively associated with depressive symptoms. In other words, people who fall back on their religion to cope with events and who sincerely believe that religion is an active, directive force in their lives showed fewer symptoms of depression.

Religiosity also corresponds to better academic performance. A meta-analysis of fifteen studies on the relationship between religiosity and school achievement for Black and Hispanic American youths found a positive association between religiosity and both grade point average and achievement test scores (Jeynes, 2002).

Other benefits accrue for the religious. Numerous studies have found that frequent religious service is related to a 25 – 30% reduction in mortality in a variety of countries (Powell, Shahabi & Thoresen, 2003; Musick, House & Williams, 2004; T.D. Hill, Angel, Ellison & Angel, 2005; Teinonen, Vahlberg, Isoaho & Kivela, 2005; Yeager et al., 2006; la Cour, Avlund, & Schultz-Larsen, 2006).

One might question why findings suggest the highly religious have better health, well-being, and social behaviors. One comprehensive literature review recently published in Psychological Bulletin (McCullough & Willoughby, 2009) identified self-control and self-regulation as two factors. The scholars found that religion promotes self-control and facilitates self-monitoring and self-regulatory strength. Religion further influences how goals are selected, pursued, and organized. McCullough and Willoughby (2009, pp. 78) state “religiousness seemingly points people toward goals that facilitate effective coordination of their effort within families and larger social collectives, such as religious, ethnic, or cultural groups and communities. Ultimately, it may be through religion’s effects on family-oriented and socially oriented principle goals that religion obtains its small but well replicated associations with variables such as marital stability, marital commitment, and marital satisfaction (Mahoney et al., 2001).” McCullough and Willoughby (2009, pp. 71) define religion as “cognition, affect, and behavior that arise from awareness of, or perceived interaction with, supernatural entities that are presumed to play an important role in human affairs.”

Religiosity can be distinguished by its social/extrinsic aspects related to a sense of belonging, such as attendance in church services, and its personal/intrinsic aspects related to a sense of meaning, such as an individual’s spirituality or sense of purpose and the importance one places in God (Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010).

Previous studies have found that religious practices and frequent church attendance have been associated with higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction (Diener & Suh, 2008; Okulicz-Kozaryn, 2010; Lim & Putnam, 2010).  Within the United States, the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Religious Landscape Study (2014) differentiated respondents who identified themselves as highly religious (praying and attending religious services at least once per week) with those who don’t on several factors. Highly religious people were more likely to gather with extended family at least once per month, were very happy with life, were more likely to have volunteered, and more likely to have donated goods or time to the poor. These differences persist within a variety of religions and after controlling for age, income, education, geographic region, marital status, and parental status.

Other studies have concluded that personal aspects of religiosity relate to intrinsic motivations and beliefs and religious identity corresponds to higher levels of subjective or psychological well-being (Greenfield & Marks, 2007; Pargament, 2002; Green & Elliott, 2010; Laurencelle, Abell, & Schwartz, 2002). Intrinsic religious motivation further corresponds to a sense of purpose and satisfaction with life (Byrd, Hageman, & Isle, 2007). The authors measured intrinsic religious motivations with items such as “I try hard to live my life according to my religious beliefs” and “I enjoy reading about my religion.”

In summary, academic and medical studies have overwhelmingly provided data suggesting the positive outcomes of religiosity and the negative outcomes of atheism or low levels of religiosity.

Interestingly, in his book Will to Power, atheist Friedrich Nietzsche identified the benefits of religiosity in his “Christian moral hypothesis” over a hundred years ago. These benefits are quoted below:

“1. It granted man an absolute value, as opposed to his smallness and accidental occurrence in the flux of becoming and passing away.
2. It served the advocates of God insofar as it conceded to the world, in spite of suffering and evil, the character of perfection-including “freedom”: evil appeared full of meaning.
3. It posited that man had a knowledge of absolute values and thus adequate knowledge precisely regarding what is most important.
4. It prevented man from despising himself as man, from taking sides against life; from despairing of knowledge: it was a means of preservation.

In sum: morality was the great antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism.”

Nietzsche exemplifies a highly intelligent man who recognized the benefits of Christianity, yet did not find the benefits compelling enough to make the transition from atheism to Christianity. Hopefully his advocates will not follow in all of his footsteps. We know Nietzsche knows the truth now.

“And then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

Thank you for your time.

Oh, and don’t worry. Be happy.

Religion makes us happy.


Baier, C., & Wright, B. R. E. (2001). “If you love me, keep my commandments”: A meta-analysis of the effect of religion on crime. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 38, 3–21.

Bergin, A.E. (1991). Values and religious issues in psychotherapy and mental health. American Psychologist, 46(4): 394-403.

Breault, K.D. (1986). Suicide in America: a test of Durkheim’s theory of religious family integration, 1933–1980. American Journal of Sociology, 92: 628–656.

Byrd, K.R., Hageman, A., & Isle, D.B. (2007). Intrinsic motivation and subjective well-being: the unique contribution of intrinsic religious motivation. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 17, 141-156.

Diener, E., Suh, E.M., 1999. National differences in subjective well-being. In: Kahneman, D., Diener, E., Schwarz, N. (Eds.), Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. (pp. 435-450). Russell Sage Found, New York.

Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D.G. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1278-1290.

Denison, J. (2013). Believers consume fewer drugs than atheists. The Christian Post. Oct. 9. Accessed at

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Mahoney, A., Pargament, K. I., Tarakeshwar, N., & Swank, A. B. (2001). Religion in the home in the 1980s and 1990s: A meta-analytic review and conceptual analysis of links between religion, marriage, and parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 559 –596.

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Pargament, K., 2002. Is religion nothing but. . .? Explaining religion versus explaining religion away. Psychological Inquiry 13, 239–244.

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Teinonen, T., Vahlberg, T., Isoaho, R., & Kivela, S. (2005). Religious attendance and 12-year survival in older persons. Age and Ageing, 34, 406 – 409.

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Wu, A., Wang, J. & Jia, C. (2015). Religion and completed suicide: A meta-analysis. PLoS One. June 25.

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4 Replies to “Health Correlates of Religiosity and Atheism”

  1. Dishonest representation of published papers. E.g., Wu et al findings were dependent on social setting (in the West, among older populations, and in religiously homogeneous communities); it found no correlation with any specific religion and did not address the issue of social stigmatization of atheism as a possible factor in depression and suicide. Various studies showing less substance abuse, better schoolwork, etc. are credible; but the effects of family stability cannot be separated from religious participation (which leads to which?), and these data indicate nothing about the veracity of religious beliefs (small children who believe in Santa Claus may also behave better than their non-Santaist peers, which makes religion just a tool for social control). But the grossest misinterpretation is your citation of an excerpt from Nietzsche’s “The Will to Power.” Nietzsche sneered at Christianity; the excerpt you quote refers to morality as an answer to nihilism, and his labeling it the “Christian Moral Hypothesis” refers to Christianity trying co-opt morality for itself; but to Nietzsche, Christian morality is “mendacious” (he uses that term repeatedly) and enfeebling, and the real answer to nihilism, in his view, is the individual will seeking its highest and noblest expression.

    Citing references in a scholarly manner does not excuse misrepresentation of source material. Having spent my career writing scientific reports and reviews for the professional medical literature, I can assure you that no paper that so misrepresented its cited sources would ever be published.


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