Why Atheists Handle Mental Health Issues Better Than the Religious August 11, 2012

Why Atheists Handle Mental Health Issues Better Than the Religious

At the Secular Student Alliance 2012 Conference, Brendan Murphy gave a talk on “why atheism can handle mental health issues better and how the movement can improve to handle such situations.” This is a tough issue to talk about, but Brendan does a wonderful job of it. (And he put his slides online (PDF) so you can follow along!)

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  • Thank you for posting this.  My father suffered at the hands of a religious community during a manic episode, part of his bi-polar disorder.  The church “prayed the demons away,” which led him to stop taking his medication.  As you can imagine, this made everything get worse.  He refused to get treated, and we (his family) were unable to have him committed for treatment until we found a suicide note, that led to a police man-hunt to find him. 

    As a Christian teenager, watching all this from the sidelines and praying for divine intervention, this was probably the first experience in my life to shake my superstitious belief in God.  Yes, atheists handle mental health issues better than the religious.  Religion simply piles more issues on top of an already-hurting person, feeding into their grandiose delusions (health/wealth gospel) or making them feel more depressed (sin doctrine).

  • Ken

    Religion and mental health do not belong together in the same sentence.  Religion is about compliance and submission, mental health is about self-awareness and balance.  Two diametrically opposed philosophies, so obviously mental health is a demonic tool ;).

  • dearestlouise

    Really glad to see someone speaking up about this. When I went through a major depression years ago I had a really hard time finding a therapist that wasn’t focusing on God and Christianity in their practice.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I know how you feel. I’m currently trying to find a therapist to work through my issues growing up in an extreme version of Christianity, and everyone here in Arkansas has either blamed it on me not believing hard enough or told me I just need to find a different church. The issue is always me, not what I went through. 

  • Tarassis
  • Trickster Goddess

    Fortunately not all religious therapists are tainted or unprofessional enough to bring their faith into the office. In my case, the therapist who diagnosed my gender dysphoria and started me on the road to transition was Muslim (and I only knew that because a third party told me). He was the only one in that redneck bible belt town who would take on transgender patients.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    Naturally it’s more helpful and responsible to support people and advise them to seek counseling and medical treatment than to tell them they’re just being irresponsible* and they need to be more Godly.


  • Defiantnonbeliever

    For one thing, they have to be as there is far less support.  At online support sites atheists are discriminated against whenever they confront magical cult ‘cures’ and other hogwash.  Many are in need of science based support and interaction with others that to my knowledge is completely absent online.

  • Guest

    Wow, atheists saying that atheists are better than religious people at something.  Didn’t see that one coming. Ever notice how so much of modern atheism is based on that?  It reminds me of an old Charlie Brown cartoon.  Charlie Brown and Schroeder (the kid who always played the piano) were in a brutal argument, calling each other names, insulting each other, putting each other down.  Finally one of the girls walks up and asks what they are arguing about.  They stop and look at her and explain that they are arguing who is better: Davey Crocket or Beethoven.  As she walks away, she overhears them continue with the insults: who’s a lousy baseball player?  You are!  She gives a puzzled look.  I notice that so much of modern atheism appears to hope that by gerrymandering this or twisting and turning that (if not outright appeals to ignorance and lack of information), they can convince people that the actual truth claims of atheism or religion have absolutely everything to do with its adherents. Of course they don’t.  But you’d never notice it given the thousand to one emphasis on things like this you see in so many atheist circles.   FWIW, it’s a lesson that not a few religious individuals also would do well to learn.

  • dearestlouise

    Have you tried the Secular Therapist Project?  They don’t openly list the therapists but they will try to match you with a therapist in your area if one is available. 

    In my area I was very lucky to stumble on someone whose practice was based on talk therapy and didn’t push patients to stop their medications. She also offered spiritual guidance through things like yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, etc., but that was only if patients expressed that desire. She wasn’t pushy about it.

    I hope you can find someone in your area to help you through this difficult time!

  • Already having one fewer mental issue to deal with makes it easier.

  • Inferno

    Religion is caused by a lack of mental health.


  • Guest

    I have to say, BEING an atheist with mental illness has been for me far easier than being a Christian with mental illness.  I’ve now been through two cycles of severe depression, the first when I was still a Christian, the second after becoming an atheist.  When I was a Christian I was fortunate enough to still be given evidence based therapy and medication, rather than the various BS things some religious people promote, but it was still harder to deal with.

    It is far harder to perseverate on the idea that god has given/allowed you to have this burden and wonder why; if you did something to deserve it or are being tested or what.  It is much easier to accept that it’s just a bad luck confluence of genetics and environment causing a biological disease.

    Also, when many of your coping mechanisms are rather unhealthy, it’s hard enough to deal with the consequences of the unhealthy behaviors without the added guilt of believing many of them to be “sinful”

  • TCC

    This kind of rhetoric is neither accurate nor helpful. Please stop.

  • TCC

    Those would all be valid points if Brendan was arguing that atheism is true because it helps you cope with mental illness better. He wasn’t, though, and so they’re not.

  • Berta

    As someone who is currently suffering from PTSD, and who after 5 years of therapy has only just started on anti-anxiety medication because I was so scared of the stigma of having to use pills to help me get better, and not being able to do it completely on my own, this entire talk was so up-lifting. I really, honestly choked up as the ‘de-stigmatise ALL the disorders’ slide because that’s a damn powerful thing for any one to say, but coming from a bloke who is undiagnosed himself was even more powerful. A wonderful, WONDERFUL speech.

  • Miss_Beara

    I am glad I never had to go through that. I had 3 therapists between 11-16 and all three were extremely professional and never ever brought religion into it. The psychiatrist I have no never mentions it either. Maybe it is because I live in a city and not the bible belt, but I am sure there are instances of that in other areas besides The Belt. 

  • Miss_Beara


    I cannot imagine living in Arkansas. I hope you find yourself a sane therapist soon. 

  •  You have clearly not watched the talk, and merely read the headline. Congratulations!

  • You have nothing valid to add to the discussion other than complaints about atheism itself. It’s people like you who are the problem. Leave the mature discussion of facts to the rest of us, and go back to wherever it was you came from.

  • Guest

    Of course he isn’t.  Atheists never do, because it would be ridiculous to do so.  But yet, the bulk of modern atheist arguments center around how superior atheists are or how inferior religious endeavors are. 

  • Guest

    Sure I did.  I didn’t say he was outright saying that was his goal.  I don’t think it is the goal of modern atheists to say ‘we are better than them, therefore there is not God.’  Just like Charlie Brown wasn’t saying he was better than Schroeder, therefore Davey Crocket is better.  He was simply spending all his time on a personal attack rather than dealing with the substance of the debate.  That’s my point.  This is one of fifty million attempts by atheists to say ‘atheism is better.’  And yet so little time is spent on ‘here’s why religion is wrong about it’s claims.’  Perhaps it’s because the world grew up and realized, as Dawkins concedes, that we can’t really know if there is or isn’t, and it’s all down to what we simply believe.

  • raerants

    Congratulations on your transition! I’m happy you were able to find someone to help you.

    I agree: It is a great disservice to paint any group with a broad brush. That leads to only seeing (and elevating) superficial commonalities and failing to realize that individuals have their own views and opinions. It also leads to over-simplifying and completely misconstruing what “they” believe.

  • Guest

    No, I simply make an observation.  Atheists today tend to avoid the meat of the discussion, and instead spend the bulk of their time on things like this.  And much of it is the intellectually suspect approach of assuming atheism is true in the first place.  The only way any of his talk makes sense is if you assume to begin with that religion is wrong and brings nothing to the table of mental health.  From there, you can build a strong argument, as he does, that religion is at a loss compared to atheism in the realm of mental health.  Of course if atheism is wrong and religion is right, then atheism just went over the cliff of uselessness since it denies a fundamental component of reality.  And it’s that point – the reality of atheism – that atheists want to avoid.  Like Archie Bunker of old, they want to yell case closed, almost as if they hope to do so before people begin to realize their own tepid faith in their fundamental truth claims today. 

  • Patterrssonn

    Nice trick, you get to look down on atheists and theists at the same time.

  • Patterrssonn

    Pretty sure Dawkins was more concerned with why we believe what we believe ie. the whole evidence thing.

    Also I don’t get what your problem is with saying that when it comes to illness medical science and rationality beat superstition? Do you believe that exorcism is just as valid an option as therapy?

  • Patterrssonn

    I’m impressed you’ve managed to generate enough straw men to populate a small straw country. Or perhaps it’s just that I missed the 50 million arguments you were talking about.

  • Kullervo

    Atheists handle every kind of human illness and suffering better, because we first believe that whatever is happening is based in reality and (if possible) can be addressed with human action. We are not allowed to do nothing under the guise of prayer. If we are doing nothing we have to own that. We also do not believe that the sufferer’s pain is somehow deserved as the result of some past sin or imposed as part of inexorable divine justice. There is no “god wills it, I can’t interfere.” To remain the moral beings we are, we must help.

  • TCC

    [citation needed]

  • TCC

    Are you kidding? Atheists spend a ton of time (way more than should be merited) talking about why the claims of religion are false or insufficiently grounded in evidence. Just because this atheist didn’t talk about that in this talk means nothing.

  • TCC

    And much of it is the intellectually suspect approach of assuming atheism is true in the first place.

    If there weren’t enough evidence already to show that you’re a complete idiot, the scales have now tipped.

    This is a non-theist talking to other non-theists – there is no reason to rehash arguments against theism to a bunch of people who already think that theism is false. Your complaint is like whining to a church that they have just assumed that God is real, and the only reason that their discussions of sin and repentance make any sense is if you make that assumption beforehand. This is true but a pretty ridiculous argument to make: when there is a shared belief among a group of people, it makes no sense to continually contest that belief.

  • TCC
  • Ken

    Actually, it’s easy to google “Alcoholics Anonymous Effectiveness” and find things like ”
    2006 Cochrane systematic review by Ferri et a,” and lots more.  Essentially, AA is maybe 40% as effective as anything else, including deciding to just stop without God’s help. Unless, of course, Google is just another tool of Satan, which means no Christian can ever use it to look up information ever again.  Yes, this is only one example, but apparently God bats kinda low on this field, and history, and science, and biology — care to go on?

  • Ken

    Um,  if God is a fundamental component of reality, where is he?  I’ve never seen him — but I have seen a lot of scientific proofs that contradict what people SAY about the God they’ve never seen either.  In fact, who (credibly) has ever seen God — some sheep-herder hallucinating over a spoiled three-day old piece of meat, or a warrior-king justifying the brutal massacre of his neighbors for their land, or some priest whose livelihood and status depends on the promotion of a God for authority?  As always, which is more likely “God sent his only Son to save the earth, or a tart told a lie?”  I believe in magicians, not miracles, and that there are more than four elements, and that in a land lit only by fire people will make demons in the darkness.  Now I just turn on the lights.

  • Brendan Murphy

    Kindly stop strawmanning and pay attention to, and discuss the actual content of my talk. You are doing absolutely NO service to the sufferers of mental illness in this thread who’ve come out and thanked me for bringing this issue to light, within the context of secularism. You are a distraction, and you are moving the goalposts miles away from the intent of my talk.

    Even if the fundamental assumptions of religion that I addressed were true – mind/body dualism, roots of mental illness and mental health having a metaphysical component, etc. – it can be shown and proven that secular medical care still provides statistically better results. Because we are not dealing with a theoretical reality in which evidence-based care is insufficient, we are dealing with a reality where evidence-based care is both necessary and sufficient.

    The evidence for the greater effectiveness of secular care is indeed evidence against the relevant fundamental assumptions of religion and spirituality here. If these assumptions are true, why does ignoring explicitly metaphysical components work? Why can we dismiss spirits, demons, and the lot of woo and still achieve effective care? This is not the primary argument I was making, but it certainly is a corollary.

    Now, what others said here is right. I was addressing other non-theists, and telling them to either a) stand up and be counted if you have a mental illness, or (especially) b) stand up and be a nonreligious advocate for those with mental illness, and fight against damaging, unhelpful care currently pathological in the psychological care system.

    If you cannot support that primary message, you are a useless troll.

  • amycas

     What exactly is wrong with spending time talking about how the atheist community can help those with mental illness? What’s wrong with advocating the use of evidence-based medicine and treatment options for those with mental illness? What’s wrong with pointing out that many religions treat mental illness without the use of evidence-based medicine, and that we can do better? As for atheists spending the bulk of their time talking about this subject, that’s just plain false. Before thsi talk, I only knew of one atheist who talked about mental illness, and that would be J T Eberhard.

  • amycas

     This has basically been my experience, except when I was a Christian I didn’t get any actual treatment. I was instead sent to talk to the youth pastor and she just gave me warm platitudes about god and told me to pray with her and pray more on my own. Of course, this only increased my depression because it made me feel like it was my fault for not believing or praying hard enough. Ridiculous bullshit is ridiculous.

  • Gringa

    Have you read this book?  It goes into the harms that a lot of these medications can cause to the patient, and also explores the research that disproves the connection between dopamine/serotonin and mental illness.  This talk says that medications help because a chemical imbalance is what causes mental illness, but I wonder if he has looked into the long-term effects of that treatment.  http://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Epidemic-Bullets-Psychiatric-Astonishing/dp/0307452425/ref=pd_sim_b_1

  • John

    Dr. Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, said: “Religious
    people seem to have a greater purpose in life, which is why they are
    happier. Looking at the research evidence, it seems that those who
    celebrate the Christian meaning of Christmas are on the whole likely to be happier:

    A meta-analysis of all studies, both published and unpublished, relating
    to religious involvement and longevity was carried out in 2000.
    Forty-two studies were included, involving some 126,000 subjects. Active
    religious involvement increased the chance of living longer by some
    29%, and participation in public religious practices, such as church
    attendance, increased the chance of living longer by 43%.

    In an article also published in this issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings,
    Mayo Clinic researchers reviewed published studies, meta-analyses,
    systematic reviews and subject reviews that examined the association
    between religious involvement and spirituality and physical health,
    mental health, health-related quality of life and other health outcomes.
    The authors report a majority of the nearly 350 studies of physical
    health and 850 studies of mental health that have used religious and
    spiritual variables have found that religious involvement and
    spirituality are associated with better health outcomes

    Teen Challenge claims of a 70% cure rate for the drug addicts graduating
    from their program attracted the attention of the U.S. Federal
    Government in 1973. Most secular drug rehabilitation programs only
    experienced a cure rate of 1-15% of their graduates. The National
    Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the U.S. Department of Health,
    Education, and Welfare, funded the first year of this study to evaluate
    the long term results of the Teen Challenge program.

    Dr. Martin urged that a great cause of suicide was atheism. It was, he
    said, a remarkable fact that where atheism prevailed most, there
    suicides were most numerous. In Paris,
    a recent census showed one suicide to every 2,700 of the population.
    After the publication of Paine’s “Age of Reason” suicides increased.

    In 2004, the American Journal of Psychiatry reported the following:

    unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts
    and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who
    endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger,
    less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with
    family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation
    perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections
    to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously
    unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and
    past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective
    and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were

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