Common wisdom holds that religious people generally have stronger mental health than atheists. On the surface, it’s easy to make sense of that. They have a built-in community, a sense of belonging, and a feeling that a Higher power is looking out for them.
New research, however, indicates that the perceived mental health gap may not exist after all.
According a paper published in the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, by the University of Louisville’s Mark M. Leach and Jon T. Moore of the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, part of the problem is that previous papers not only failed to include atheists in their studies, they over-generalized Christians as representative of all religions:
Past research studying the mental health benefits of religiousness largely excluded secular participants… Some studies in this area compared high-religiousness participants with low-religiousness participants…, whereas others studies combined low-religiousness and secular participants as a unified group… under the assumption that low-religiousness and secular participants can be regarded as similar. Secular participants are likely to be different from individuals who are low in religiousness, because the latter group is more likely to possess an identification with a religious denomination, have some level of belief in a religious doctrine, and/or have an engagement in religious activities.
Another methodological shortcoming of previous work is that much of what is known about the psychology of religion is related to the psychology of Christianity, because Christian participants have been more widely studied…, and scholars have assumed that constructs associated with Christianity are widely generalizable…
So Leach and Moore gathered atheists, Agnostics, and a number of believers from various faiths — many from belief-specific Facebook and Reddit groups — asked them to self-describe how devout they were, and had them fill out a series of different mental health-related surveys.
What did they find?
Of the participants who completed a sufficient number of responses for the appropriate scales, the theistically absolutely certain participants (n=348) were compared with the atheistically absolutely certain participants (n=515) while controlling for the variance…
… those who were absolutely certain of God’s existence or nonexistence had largely similar levels of mental health.
It’s possible that when you’re really confident that God does or doesn’t exist, that feeling of understanding and self-awareness translates into other areas of your life. It’s much worse, then, to be ambivalent about God’s existence:
… perhaps a person who has determined that God’s existence is unknowable is no longer in a state of identity moratorium (i.e., trying to establish and discover a fitting personal identity), whereas a person that is only somewhat certain of God’s existence or nonexistence is still undergoing identity moratorium and, thus, experiencing the distress associated with such a state.
Whether this holds up in subsequent studies, we’ll see, but it certainly matches up with my experience. Even without a church, most atheists who seek belonging and community can find it in other places.