Religiosity, Atheism, and Health: The Atheist Advantage

There is no evidence that atheism is associated with poor health.

Posted Mar 19, 2018

In my previous post, I discussed a recent paper (Dutton, Madison, & Dunkel, 2017) that claims that religion, specifically belief in a moral god, has been selected for during recent human evolution, and that deviations from this belief such as atheism are aberrations resulting from genetic mutations due to relaxation of natural selection in modern times. One of the lines of evidence the authors present is that religiosity is associated with better mental and physical health and presumably deviation from the same would be associated with poorer health. The argument being that the relationship between religiosity and health is probably underpinned by common genetic factors, and therefore deleterious mutations should be marked by both poorer health and deviation from mainstream religious belief. In this article, I will show that the religiosity health relationship probably depends more on environmental and cultural factors rather than genetics. Furthermore, there is a complete lack of evidence that atheism is associated with poor health, and in fact, far from being bad for one’s health, religious disbelief may be associated with good outcomes, especially compared to wavering belief.

Dutton et al. cite a 2012 meta-analysis (Koenig, 2012) that found that religion/spirituality was related to physical and mental health. They use these findings to buttress their conclusion that belief in a moral god specifically was selected for and that atheism is an aberration likely caused by genetic mutations. However, they failed to note that the positive relationship between religiosity and health is dependent on cultural and individual factors and is therefore unlikely to be a manifestation of a common genetic factor. Koenig himself considered that the main pathways between religiosity and health were likely to be psychological (e.g. improved coping with adversity), social (support from one’s religious community), and behavioral (e.g. avoiding excessive alcohol and drug use, living a healthier lifestyle). Additionally, although Koenig considered the possibility that religious/spiritual people might be “born healthy,” he considered this to be unlikely. He noted that religious/spiritual people “are typically those with the least resources (minority groups, the poor, and the uneducated), both in terms of finances and access to healthcare resources… Rather than being born healthier, then, the opposite is more likely to be true.” Intriguingly, although Dutton et al. think that religiosity is selected for by evolution and that atheism has increased in modern times because of “dysgenic” factors that have allowed a relaxation of natural selection, Koenig asserts an opposite view. He states that religion/spirituality “could actually be viewed as acting counter to an evolutionary force that is trying to weed genetically vulnerable people from the population.”

Furthermore, asserting that a relationship between religion/spirituality and health implies that atheism is therefore unhealthy is blatantly misleading, as no research has shown that the latter is true. Studies on the benefits of religion have largely focused on religious activity and attendance rather than privately-held belief in God. Hence, they have found that attendance at religious services tends to be beneficial but have not demonstrated direct benefits of believing in God or any harmful effects of disbelief. Moreover, these studies usually contrast frequent church attendees with non-attenders. However, the latter group is not necessarily atheists. In fact, most non-attenders in these studies are believers in God who are uncommitted or unengaged with religious practices. Hence, studies based on attendance or affiliation lump together indifferent and uncommitted believers with atheists and agnostics. Hence, a more accurate interpretation of Koenig’s findings is that committed or devout religious individuals tend to have better health compared with uncommitted or uninvolved religious individuals (Galen, 2015). Interestingly, a study on the effects of religious attendance on well-being (specifically, life satisfaction and mood) (Lim, 2015) found that benefits of religious attendance depended to a great extent on whether one belongs to a religious tradition in which attendance is considered very important. For example, people who did not attend religious services and who were members of traditions in which most people are highly devout (e.g. Mormons) were substantially worse off compared to non-attenders who were members of less devout traditions (e.g. Jews). This might indicate that in traditions in which attendance is strongly expected, those who do not attend suffer more social disapproval and feelings of guilt than those who belong to more relaxed traditions. The author concludes that “These findings suggest that the positive link between religious service attendance and subjective well-being should not be confused as a gap in subjective well-being between the religious and the nonreligious in general” and suggests that for some people, “A bit of religion indeed might be bad for subjective well-being.” 

LiveLearNkTeach blog, image in public domain
The effects of religion on well-being might be Janus-faced.
Source: LiveLearNkTeach blog, image in public domain

Furthermore, there is even evidence that it is not so much religious belief that is beneficial for health, but having strong convictions of any kind, whether religious or non-religious, that guide one’s philosophy of life seems to be better than being wishy-washy (Galen, 2015). More specifically, a Gallup-Healthways poll found that people who were only moderately religious had poorer mental health than those who were either highly religious or not religious at all. Similarly, the World Values Survey found that people who regard religion as either “very important” or “not important at all” reported greater happiness than those for whom religion was either “rather important” or “not very important.” This suggests that atheists who have a well-defined non-religious worldview are likely to be as well-adjusted as committed religious believers because they benefit from having clear values in life.

Closer examination shows that benefits of religious attendance largely derive from factors such as social capital and perceived social support one’s community, rather than the contents of one’s beliefs (Galen, 2015). Hence, Dutton et al.’s claims that belief in a moral god as such is beneficial are not supported. Perhaps even more importantly, whether a person is likely to benefit from religious participation may depend on their cultural context. Specifically, whether one lives in a culture in which religion is valued and respected. Conversely, if one lives in a largely secular society where religion is not highly valued, the relationship between religious attendance and health disappears. A survey of 59 countries found that a positive relationship between religiosity and self-rated health occurred only in 20 countries; in 37, there was no relationship, and in two there was actually a negative relationship (Stavrova, 2015). Individual religiosity within each country was assessed by asking participants how often they attended religious services, whether they self-identified as religious, and how important religion was to them personally. Analysis showed that the relationship between religiosity and self-rated health was substantially stronger in countries with a strong cultural norm of religiosity than in those with a weak norm of religiosity. This suggests that person-culture fit is important. That is, fitting in with the norms of one’s culture seems to be beneficial for health because it can improve one’s social standing, whereas deviating from social norms can lead to increased stress, social disapproval, and reduced self-esteem. Hence, in countries where being religious is the norm, it helps to be religious oneself because one can gain respect from one’s neighbors. On the other hand, in more secular countries, religion does not command as much respect, so being religious might be a waste of time in this regard. A second study by the same author within the US also found that person-culture fit can be important within a country when there are regional variations in the importance of religion. This study used data from the General Social Survey which was conducted from 1978 to 2008 with the same individuals. Participants were assessed on their self-reported health and frequency of attending religious services. Additionally, the dataset indicated whether participants were still alive as of 2008. In more religious regions of the US, religious people tended to report better health and were, in fact, more likely to be alive as of 2008 than less religious individuals. However, in less religious regions, religious attendance tended to be unrelated to health and mortality status. This again supported the importance of person-culture fit regarding whether religiosity benefits health.

As well as physical health, societal conditions affect the relationship between religiosity and subjective well-being, that is one’s sense of happiness and satisfaction with life. Although past research found that religious people tended to report being happier, many of these studies were done in the USA, a rather religious nation by Western standards. More comprehensive international research has found that the relationship between religiosity and subjective well-being depends on societal health (Diener, Tay, & Myers, 2011). Nations with more difficult life circumstances, e.g. widespread hunger and lower life expectancy, are generally much more religious. In these nations, religious people received greater social support and respect and had a greater sense of meaning and purpose. These factors were associated with greater subjective well-being. However, countries with greater societal health, tend to be much less religious, and religious and non-religious people enjoy similar levels of subjective well-being.

Person-culture fit also seems to affect how religion is related to personality, which may help explain why religion may be related to health in some cultural contexts but not others. Previous research has found that religiosity tends to be associated with higher agreeableness and conscientiousness (Saroglou, 2010). However, these relationships have also been found to be subject to person-culture fit. Specifically, agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to be more strongly related to religiosity in more religious cultures and less so in more secular ones. This may because people who are high in these traits tend to be rule-abiding and prefer to conform with social norms rather than those who are lower in these traits who are more likely to do what they feel like than obey other people’s rules. Conscientiousness, in particular, is the personality trait most associated with health. Highly conscientious people tend to lead healthier lifestyles and are less to smoke, drink, use recreational drugs, and engage in risky sexual behavior. Hence, at least part of the relationship between religiosity and health in religious countries might be explained by religious individuals being generally more conscientious. However, in more secular countries, people high in agreeableness and conscientiousness are less likely to be less religious because it is less normative (Caldwell-Harris, 2012). This also suggests the importance of the interaction between the environment and individual characteristics in understanding relationships between religiosity and health. Although Dutton et al. argue that common genetic factors may underpin this relationship, it seems more likely that the relationship is more complex and that genetics plays a limited role. For example, while agreeableness and conscientiousness have a strong genetic component, how they are expressed in a given context will largely depend on cultural norms. It may be that whether a person becomes religious depends on the interplay of a host of factors that affect their development rather than their mutation load. Indeed, behavioral genetics research suggests that religious attitudes are more strongly affected by shared environment than personality traits (Eaves et al., 2012). Therefore, arguments that atheism is an aberration resulting from deleterious mutations are not supported by this evidence. Indeed, some religious people might even be better off leaving their religion altogether, such as if their religion is not a good fit for their own way of life.  

In my next post, I will discuss the remaining factors that Dutton et al. consider to provide evidence that atheism is associated with deleterious mutations, which are left-handedness, autism, and fluctuating asymmetry. As I will show, the evidence is largely contrary to their arguments.

References

Caldwell-Harris, C. L. (2012). Understanding atheism/non-belief as an expected individual-differences variable. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(1), 4-23. doi:10.1080/2153599x.2012.668395

Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. G. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1278-1290. doi:10.1037/a0024402

Dutton, E., Madison, G., & Dunkel, C. (2017). The Mutant Says in His Heart, “There Is No God”: the Rejection of Collective Religiosity Centred Around the Worship of Moral Gods Is Associated with High Mutational Load. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806-017-0133-5

Eaves, L., Heath, A., Martin, N., Maes, H., Neale, M., Kendler, K., . . . Corey, L. (2012). Comparing the biological and cultural inheritance of personality and social attitudes in the Virginia 30 000 study of twins and their relatives. Twin Research, 2(2), 62-80. doi:10.1375/twin.2.2.62

Galen, L. (2015). Atheism, wellbeing, and the wager: Why not believing in God (with others) is good for you. Science, Religion and Culture, 2(3), 54-69.

Koenig, H. G. (2012). Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications. ISRN Psychiatry, 2012, 278730. doi:10.5402/2012/278730

Lim, C. (2015). Religion and Subjective Well-Being Across Religious Traditions: Evidence from 1.3 Million Americans. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 54(4), 684-701. doi:10.1111/jssr.12232

Saroglou, V. (2010). Religiousness as a Cultural Adaptation of Basic Traits: A Five-Factor Model Perspective. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1), 108-125. doi:10.1177/1088868309352322

Stavrova, O. (2015). Religion, Self-Rated Health, and Mortality: Whether Religiosity Delays Death Depends on the Cultural Context. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550615593149

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