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.

Hill and colleagues (2006, p. 309) found that “regular religious attendance (especially weekly attendance) is associated with a wide range of healthy behaviors, including preventive care use, vitamin use, infrequent bar attendance, seatbelt use, walking, strenuous exercise, sound sleep quality, never smoking, and moderate drinking.”

Wallace and Forman (1998, p. 721) conducted a study, finding that “relative to their peers, religious youth are less likely to engage in behaviors that compromise their health (e.g., carrying weapons, getting into fights, drinking and driving) and are more likely to behave in ways that enhance their health (e.g., proper nutrition, exercise, and rest). Multivariate analyses suggest that these relationships persist even after controlling for demographic factors, and trend analyses reveal that they have existed over time. Particularly important is the finding that religious seniors have been relatively unaffected by past and recent increases in marijuana use.”

Shmueli and Tamir (2007, p, 703) examined the health behaviors and religiosity of Israeli Jews, finding both positive and negative outcomes. The authors state: “Logistic regressions were used to estimate the religiosity gradient on health behavior, controlling for other personal characteristics. We found a lower prevalence of stress and smoking among religious persons; we also found that religious women exercise less than secular women and that religious people–both men and women–are more obese than their secular counterparts. While no religiosity gradient was found with relation to the frequency of blood pressure, cholesterol and dental checkups, religious women are less likely to undergo breast examinations and mammography. Finally, religious people generally follow a healthier dietary regime, consuming less meat, dairy products and coffee, and much more fish. The lower smoking rates, lower levels of stress, and the healthier dietary regime are consistent with the previously shown longer life expectancy of religious people; however, obesity might become a risk factor in this community.”

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; la Cour, Avlund, & Schultz-Larsen, 2006). However, the strength of these relationships may vary as a function of the culture of the participants. As an example, Yeager and colleagues (2006) conducted a study in Taiwan, finding that the frequency of religious attendance has the strongest, most consistent relationship with health outcomes, yet with only one exception, the relationship disappears when controls for health behaviors, prior health status, and social networks are added.

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.

Studies suggest examining intrinsic from extrinsic forms of religiosity as results sometimes vary. As an example, Lim and Putnam (2010, p. 914) found that “religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations. The effect of within-congregation friendship is contingent, however, on the presence of a strong religious identity. We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.”

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; 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.” Byrd and colleagues (2007, p. 141) reported that “measures of 3 distinct domains of intrinsic orientation (work, leisure, and religion) were administered to 161 college students along with 4 measures of SWB [subjective well-being]: satisfaction with life, purpose in life, self-efficacy, and negative affect. Four multiple regressions were performed, 1 to predict each measure of SWB, with the 3 intrinsic orientation scales, gender, and social desirability as the predictors in each regression. Intrinsic religiousness emerged as an independent predictor of satisfaction with life, purpose in life, and self-efficacy. Intrinsic religiousness appears to make a unique contribution to the prediction of SWB.”

Green and Elliott (2010, p. 149) used the longitudinal Global Social Survey dataset, finding that “people who identify as religious tend to report better health and happiness, regardless of religious affiliation, religious activities, work and family, social support or financial status.”

In summary, academic and medical studies have overwhelmingly provided data suggesting the benefits of religiosity and detriments 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.


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7 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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