Among other things, church-goers have less stress, are less likely to smoke or drink, have more self-esteem, and have stronger social support. The problem with these results is that it’s not necessarily church itself (or belief in the supernatural) that’s the key — it’s just being part of a tight-knit community. An atheist group that meets regularly, in other words, may provide many of the same benefits.
Finally, we’re getting a look at the other side. Why is leaving religion good for your health? Jon Fortenbury explores that question in a new Atlantic article. It turns out the health benefits of becoming an atheist are especially obvious if you’re leaving a restrictive religion:
Like [former evangelical Christian Annie] Erlandson, some people’s health improves after deconverting because they stop practicing negative health behaviors that may have been tied to their religion. For example, leaving a faith such as Christian Science, which dissuades medical treatment, obviously opens up more opportunities for healthcare intervention.
Other negative health behaviors sometimes associated with being religious, according to social psychologist Dr. Clay Routledge in Psychology Today, are cognitive dissonance (consistent religious doubts can harm your health) and avoidant coping. An example of the latter is the attitude that things are “all in God’s hands,” which could potentially keep people from taking action on behalf of their own health.
Unlike those who become isolated from community after losing their faith, Erlandson’s social life improved drastically after her deconversion. She began hanging out with theatre kids and people in the local punk rock scene.
Essentially, a lot of the benefits of becoming an atheist are similar to joining a church (if that makes you happy). You become part of an accepting social circle. You feel that your new beliefs are in accordance with reality. You feel at peace with yourself. You have new ways of handling the stress of everyday life.
If you’re in a religious faith and you’re not happy, leaving it will almost certainly be good for you. It’ll be tough at first, making such a drastic change, but I can’t think of anyone I know who left religion and still has any regrets about it. (The flip side of that, of course, is that those who join a church because they felt alone or depressed will inevitably be better off as a result.)
It reminds me of the Louis CK bit about how divorce is always good news because it means things were shitty before and they’re a little less shitty now. If you’re unhappy, then changing your situation is bound to confer some health benefits along the way.
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