Is being a believer beneficial to one’s mental health? That's the conclusion of much psychological research, which points to both the social support of belonging to a congregation, and the stress-reducing qualities of knowing that a larger force is looking out for you.
But a newly published study challenges those beliefs. Analyzing answers provided by a large and diverse group of participants, it finds “secular and religious adherents have similar levels of mental health.”
“The impaired mental health stigma against secular (individuals) is, at the very least, an exaggeration,” write Jon T. Moore of the Veterans Affairs Health Care System in Palo Alto, California, and Mark Leach of the University of Louisville. Their research is published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
As far as our mental health is concerned, it appears wavering beliefs are more problematic than a lack of belief.
Responding to the fact that past research on this topic has “largely excluded secular participants,” Moore and Leach used online forums to create a pool made up of a wide variety of believers and non-believers. Their sample of 4,667 people (which skewed young, with a mean age of 27) consisted of atheists (who made up 37 percent of the total), agnostics (19 percent), Christians (11 percent), “spiritual nonreligious individuals” (10 percent), Buddhists (three percent), Jews (one percent), and a smattering of adherents to other faiths.
All filled out a series of surveys that measured, among things, the importance of religion in their lives, and their level of “existential dogmatism.” The latter was determined by where they landed on a seven-point scale ranging from “Absolutely certain God exists” to “Absolutely certain God does not exist,” with “God’s existence or nonexistence is unknowable” in the middle.
Three separate mental-health surveys measured their sense of overall life satisfaction, feelings of gratitude, and perceived “ability to pursue their goals.” Another questionnaire measured participants’ “satisfaction with their social support system.”
Crunching the numbers, the researchers came up with a number of surprising findings, including that “those who were absolutely certain of God’s existence or nonexistence had largely similar levels of mental health.” Unwavering believers only came out ahead of committed atheists on one measure: they showed “higher levels of gratitude.”
For both believers and non-believers, the researchers found the effect of certainty on mental health was noticeable but small, accounting for perhaps one to two percent of the variance in mental health. This suggests that while belief may act as a “protective factor of an individual’s mental health,” its ability to serve in that capacity appears to be overrated.
What’s more, throwing up your hands and declaring the issue of God’s existence to be unanswerable also has its mental-health advantages: Self-declared agnostics “showed greater mental health values than participants who were only somewhat certain about God’s existence or non-existence.”
That finding affirms the results of a 2011 study that concluded only strongly felt religiosity offers the emotional benefits often attributed to belief in general. As far as our mental health is concerned, it appears wavering beliefs are more problematic than a lack of belief.
The benefits of belonging were clearly supported by this study. “A person’s available social support” was “by far the strongest predictor of mental health in the current analysis,” the researchers write.
If that support comes in the form of a religious community, great. But it appears the positive effect can also be felt if you regularly participate in a neighborhood organization, political party, or PTA.
Overall, the researchers conclude that “Grounds for declaring that there is a substantial mental health disparity between religious and secular groups were not supported.” Their findings suggest the catalyst to contentedness isn’t so much the man upstairs as the men and women in your social network.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.