The Mental Health of Atheists

By Schumaker, John F. | Free Inquiry, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The Mental Health of Atheists


Schumaker, John F., Free Inquiry


Much has been said about the so-called pathology of religion. As research shows, conventional religion is associated with general insensitivity, cruelty, overpunishment, intolerance, authoritarianism, child abuse, ethnocentrism, prejudice and bigotry, dishonesty, inflexibility, lack of creativity, and diminished critical thinking ability. But these should be understood as adverse side effects of religion, ones that influence personality, character structure, and some features of cognition. It may be true, as I argue in Wings of Illusion (Prometheus, 1990), that the combination of these and other side effects are potentially lethal at this precarious point in human history. Nonetheless, religion's dark side should not lead one to assume that religion fails in all spheres. One sphere in which religion generally succeeds is mental health.

If we define mental health in the traditional way as the absence of psychopathological symptoms, then we see that religion does tend to act in the service of mental health. The reverse is true when one defines mental health in terms of more humanistic concepts, such as autonomous functioning, rationality, cognitive flexibility, and the like. For now, however, let me limit this discussion to our usual "clinical" formulations of mental health and mental disturbance.

Recently I edited a book titled Religion and Mental Health. In its introduction, I describe mental health as a complex composite of factors, while noting that religion does not necessarily relate similarly to the various dimensions of this composite. In line with this reasoning, the book consists of twenty-four chapters examining religion's influence on many specific aspects of mental health. When employing the above traditional definition of mental health, the overall picture reveals that religion has a positive sum effect on mental health. My own chapter in Religion and Mental Health concentrates on the mental health consequences of atheism. There, I refer to my research showing atheists to have 45 percent more symptoms of psychological disturbance than their strongly religious counterparts. As part of the background research for my chapter, I foraged through the mounds of empirical work that has explored the connections between religious belief/ritual and psychological health. However, remarkably few studies have involved an experimental approach wherein a group of atheists were compared to a group of religious people on some useful measure of mental health. One reason for this is, as I found myself, that it is not easy to round up sizable numbers of atheists, especially in a country like the United States, where upwards of 95 percent of have a god.

Even so, I managed to find three other studies that approximated an acceptable assessment of mental health in decidedly irreligious people. Coincidentally, two of them used the same test that I used in my above-mentioned study, namely the Langer Symptom Survey Scale (LSS). It contains symptoms drawn from the widely used Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, and the Neuropsychiatric Screening Adjunct, and is slightly overrepresented by "psychosomatic" symptoms.

One study found the irreligious sample to have 85 percent more symptoms as measured by the LSS (Crawford, Handal, and Weiner, 1989, Review of Religious Research, vol. 31, 16-22). That research team also found that irreligious people showed themselves to be significantly less psychologically well-adjusted as measured by tests of life satisfaction and social adjustment. In a different study, using only women as subjects, irreligious people had 63 percent more LSS symptoms than highly religious people (Handal, Black-Lopez, and Moergen, 1989, Psychological Reports, vol. 65, 971-975). Therefore, three similar studies, using the same mental health index, found irreligion to be associated with considerably more symptoms of psychopathology.

In a different type of study, irreligious individuals were compared to their religious counterparts on the extent to which they felt that "life is worth living" (Hadaway and Roof, 1978, Review of Religious Research, vol. …

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