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Surprising Science

Atheists’ Emotional Health Doesn’t Suffer from Non-Belief

Does God give believers a mental health boost? Two psychologists argue that it’s just not so — atheists are just as emotionally stable as those with religion.

I’ve often wondered if my atheistic ways were unhealthy. When I first realized my brain was unable to rationalize the existence of a supreme being, I would lie awake contemplating my own mortality — scary stuff. I missed the way I used to mentally dump out my issues on God during prayer and the small-talk coffee hour that followed church. But I eventually moved past this phase and found other outlets: A healthy regimen of mindfulness meditation and Sunday morning brunches with friends filled the void. However, Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard writes that, like myself, psychologists have long debated whether or not secularists are as emotionally healthy as people with religion. Some researchers have concluded that believers have the benefit of knowing some bigger force is looking out for them along with a congregation, making them more emotionally balanced than non-believers. However, a recent study challenges this notion, saying “secular and religious adherents have similar levels of mental health.”

Jon T. Moore and Mark Leach published their study in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, where they wrote:

“The impaired mental health stigma against secular (individuals) is, at the very least, an exaggeration.”

The two used online forums to find their participants, which comprised of 4,667 believers and non-believers with a mean age of 27. Moore and Leach had them complete a series of surveys to gauge how much of an influence religion played in their lives and how satisfied they were with their lives. The latter part asked participants things like their “satisfaction with their social support system” (something psychologists argue religion offers more of) and their “ability to pursue their goals.”

The researchers found that “those who were absolutely certain of God’s existence or nonexistence had largely similar levels of mental health.” Moore and Leach found that true believers came out ahead of committed atheists in showing “higher levels of gratitude.” But when it came to mental health, the researchers found “declaring that there is a substantial mental health disparity between religious and secular groups were not supported.” Indeed, their results reveal that religion may play a role in adding a “protective factor of an individual’s mental health,” but that’s all.

There are benefits to having that feeling of belonging to a group, which religion offers, but people can get that same feeling by joining a club or organization. It’s not that religion has magic emotional benefits; non-believers just have to look elsewhere to find them.

Take mindfulness meditation, for example. In her interview with Big Think, Arianna Huffington talks about how important mindfulness is to her daily routine (and how hard it is to make it a habit). She emphasizes how important this time is, though, saying it’s a time to take care of a deeper part of ourselves:

Read more at Pacific Standard.

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley/Flickr


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