The Mental Health of Atheists and the 'Nones'

New research suggests that atheists have better mental health than other nones.

Posted Dec 04, 2018

Christmas is approaching, and religious people across the world are preparing with the appropriate prayers, observations, and services. However, a growing proportion of the population is non-religious, and for them, Christmas can be a meaningless, empty, and lonely period.

Indeed, a small but growing body of research continues to explore the relationship between religiosity, non-religiosity, and mental health. Much of this includes broad comparisons between the religious and non-religious.

Who are the non-religious?

The ‘non-religious’ is an umbrella term referring to a heterogeneous group of people, often known as the ‘nones.’ These can include people who are lapsed, non-affiliated, agnostics, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and atheists.

Interestingly, Pew Research Center surveys indicate a growth in the ‘nones’ as a proportion of the population. A 2014 survey indicated that 23 percent of Americans identified as a ‘none,’ significantly higher than the 16 percent observed in 2007. Within these ‘nones’ are a growing number of atheists.

Indeed, the Pew Research Centre reports that ‘the share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years’, now making up 3.1 percent of the population, compared to 1.6 percent in 2007. Interestingly, young white educated men make up a disproportionate number of atheists.

This rise may be related to ‘the new atheism,’ a social movement created and led by major public intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom wrote best-selling books promoting atheism and atheistic worldviews.

Religiosity and mental health

Much research indicates that religious people as a group tend to have better mental health than the ‘nones’ as a group. This is manifest in various indicators, including lower rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm, and substance use among the religious.

The protective mental health effects of religiosity have been attributed to various factors. These include social support in religious congregations, a sense of purpose and meaning offered by religions, and moral codes commanding certain behaviors (e.g. abstinence) within religions. These are discussed in the short video below with Dr. Eric Jarvis, a leading authority on religion, atheism and mental health.

However, the studies leading to these conclusions often collapse a variety of different groups (e.g., agnostics, lapsed, unaffiliated, weak atheists, strong atheists) into a single category of ‘nones,’ comparing these to a single category of ‘religious.’ This binary ‘lumping’ approach loses granular-level information about the many specific sub-groups within the ‘nones.’

Examining the ‘nones’

New research has set out to examine the broad mental health differences in the sub-categories constituting the ‘nones.’ Interestingly, a growing number of studies suggest that people possessing strong religious beliefs and convinced atheists tend to share similarly positive mental health. The worst mental health is observed in those with more ambiguous, confused and weaker religious or spiritual beliefs.

For example, a just-published study by Dr. Joseph Baker at East Tennessee State University indicates that atheists have the best mental health among the ‘nones,’ similar to that of the highly-religious. In contrast, ‘non-affiliated theists’ had the poorest mental health.

These findings overlap with a classic British study which found that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ had higher levels of drug dependency, abnormal eating, generalized anxiety disorder, neurotic disorders and use of psychotropic medication, in comparison with both ‘religious people’ and people who were ‘neither religious nor spiritual.’

These results tantalizingly suggest that ‘certainty of belief,’ rather than the content of the belief itself, may be a key determinant of positive mental health in the groups studied. Contrariwise, uncertainty or inconsistency of belief, as sometimes witnessed in agnostics, the non-affiliated and the ‘spiritual but not religious’ may be a risk factor for poor mental health.

Conclusion

Richard Dawkins himself has joked about atheists possibly being ‘despairing neurotics driven to suicide by relentless cosmic angst’ because they lack the emotional and psychological consolations of religion. However, emerging evidence suggests that convinced atheists may derive consolation from a certainty of belief in their own solidly-held worldview, leading to similar mental health to the highly-religious.

Such consolation may not be present for those with more uncertain and ambiguous beliefs, such as the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and agnostics.

All this implies a need for further research examining the psychosocial and mental health differences between the different categories of the ‘nones.’ A ‘splitting’ rather than ‘lumping’ approach is necessary to enrich the scientific literature and avoid false conclusions.

Merry Christmas.