Like Smoking, Atheism is a Health Hazard

June 24, 2008 at 11:59 pm 42 comments

Christian Commentary

Okay, so maybe it isn’t a direct health hazard to be atheist, but studies show that theism could be conducive to better mental and physical health. For instance, consider the following finding made by the Mayo Clinic in 2001:

Mayo Clinic researchers reviewed published studies, meta-analyses, systematic reviews and subject reviews that examined the association between religious involvement and spirituality and physical health, mental health, health-related quality of life and other health outcomes. The authors report a majority of the nearly 350 studies of physical health and 850 studies of mental health that have used religious and spiritual variables have found that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes.

As far as mental health and atheism is concerned, the following statement was made by the University of Warwick in 2003:

Dr. Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, said: “Religious people seem to have a greater purpose in life, which is why they are happier. Looking at the research evidence, it seems that those who celebrate the Christian meaning of Christmas are on the whole likely to be happier.

Also, there are psychological studies that suggest a link between atheism and suicide. This isn’t too surprising in my opinion. I could see how depression could possibly set in with some people who decide to be atheists given their beliefs. Also, if the atheist comes from a religious/spiritual family, then they could possibly receive negative backlash from their family including isolation. That is just my opinion though, here’s what the American Society of Psychiatry reported:

Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.

I am by no means suggesting this as evidence that God exists (i.e. He ‘likes’ theists more), so don’t waste time writing a response of that nature – just hoping to spur a lively conversation!

God Bless,

- Justin

Entry filed under: Justin. Tags: , , , .

A treatise on re-conversion Can an Atheist be Spiritual?

42 Comments Add your own

  • 1. latinaxpatriada  |  June 23, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    A couple of quotes aren’t going to convince me that the religious are happier. Because they’re not. In fact, my lifetime experience in churches tells me that Christians are terribly unhappy and in DEEP DENIAL.

    The data from where those quotes were obtained was, obviously, collected based on WHAT PEOPLE SAID they felt, not in reality.

    When I was a Christian, I was miserable, and so were others. But we all went around saying that Jesus had given us life, that he was our reason to live, that we owed our happiness to him.

    People who are able to IMAGINE the existence of a God who isn’t there are also able to imagine that they are happy. But close observation of their actions shows otherwise.

    Because they are repressed, sexually and emotionally, they tend to be judgmental, rule enforcers, gossipers, and finger pointing.

    If Christians are so happy, I have to wonder, why do so many pastors have to quit their jobs when they can no longer stand the closed-mindedness of church board members who continually back-stab and try to micromanage the men and women who are trying so hard to serve their God and their congregation. (Some are crooked too, but it isn’t the point I’m trying to make.)

    The problem with this theory of Christian “happiness” is that what people say they feel is being taken at face value. The assumption is made that we always tell the truth. Statements are taken at face value. Those who took what George W. Bush said at face value should know by now that it isn’t wise to believe everything we hear.

  • 2. The Apostate  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Justin, I’ve read studies that swing both ways.
    I have also read that when people are drinking to the point of intoxication they feel happier than they do when they are sober. Likewise, people who use various illicit drugs also get a sense of “highness” and feel a certain connection with the divine and a given sense of purpose in the world.
    I’ll take the truth of the matter, with its goods and bads, over the numbness of alcohol, drugs, and religion any day.

  • 3. Justin  |  June 25, 2008 at 12:22 am

    Apostate,
    yeah i totally agree, for every study there is a counter study. I was just bringing these few forward for a conversation. Of course, truth on this matter is quite subjective, and I’ll take my truth ;)

    Latinaxpatriada,
    I appreciate your obvious enthusiasm. I am not trying to convince you of anything; you can do what you want with the information. However, your counter argument doesn’t have any supportive material for any of your claims… It’s strictly opinion without any statistical backing and therefore I have a hard time really taking it seriously. There is a ton of stuff out there, I’m sure you could find something.

    -Justin

  • 4. Cthulhu  |  June 25, 2008 at 9:45 am

    Justin,

    I could see how depression could possibly set in with some people who decide to be atheists given their beliefs.

    Don’t confuse correlation with causation. The very study you refer to states that the rate of depression is no worse then in the general population. Personally (strictly anecdotal here!) I was far more depressed while engaged in religion. The study does make one good point – I agree that atheists does have fewer moral objections to suicide, but am not sure if that is because of atheism or other factors in their life. Once again, I would not commit suicide simply because of the suffering it would inflict on my family. This is a complicated subject and I do not think a single study can be complex or thorough enough to explore this in any depth.

    Cheers…

  • 5. LeoPardus  |  June 25, 2008 at 10:58 am

    latinaxpatriada:

    You’re committing a classic blunder. Basically you’re saying, “My limited, personal experience trumps any study, or survey, or other experiences.”

    It’s like the wonderful quote I read years ago when Bush was first elected. A liberal in Greenwich village was quoted as saying, “I don’t see how he could have won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

    You simply must set aside your very limited perspective and accept a tremendously wider view.

    That said, there may still be numerous methodological flaws in the meta-analysis cited, and in the many studies analyzed. But by and large I’m willing to accept the conclusions until and unless I can dig up substantive evidence to the contrary.

    One more caveat. The findings of any survey or meta-analysis, no matter how well done, don’t mean anything at the level of the individual. Any one of us de-cons may be happy as all get out to be free of our former beliefs.

    And if indeed atheism does have a statistically significant tie to depression, suicide, etc, then we ought to be aware of it and be prepared to help de-cons deal with that possibility.

  • 6. Griffin  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

    These studies show one thing: Professing a religious orientation makes subjects less likely to say that they are sad or have attempted/contemplated suicide.

    That’s very different from ‘professing a religious orientation makes subjects happier or less suicidal.

    The fact that religion (at least Christianity) teaches that suicide is a sin and that we will be fulfilled (made happy) through Christ certainly wouldn’t dissuade sad/suicidal Christians from admitting it (consciously or unconsciously) would it?

  • 7. Justin  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Interesting thought Griffin, would like to know if there is any study that examines that premise.

  • 8. Finn  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    “Like smoking”? Health hazard? What? Atheism kills 400k+ Americans a year and I just failed to notice?

    Be careful when you’re making analogies. Some might think you’re just, you know, exaggerating ridiculously for the shock value.

    I’ve seen studies both way on happiness, but I would suggest that perhaps if atheists truly are unhappier than believers, there are a number of explanations which to me make more sense than “they’re depressed that we’re alone in the universe”:

    1. We tend to be more informed and involved in politics, news and world events, and it can be very depressing knowing that your country is run by idiots who want to, for example, control women’s bodies because their two-thousand-year-old fairy tales tell them it’s the right thing to do. It’s also depressing knowing that even if we supposedly have “choices” in elections, our choices invariably are between a bunch of people with imaginary friends.
    2. Likewise, those of us with some interest or education in science may be depressed over how little understanding of and respect for it there is here.
    3. We may be depressed because it’s harder for us to find friends, romantic interests, etc who share our world-view, simply because there are fewer of us. Likewise, we may be unhappier just because it’s tiring having to constantly make the choice of whether to “out” yourself as an atheist when you meet new people, and if you do, to what extent you can make your actual views on any subject known. It’s tiring having to pretend or listen to ridiculous things you don’t agree with (say, a neighbour talking about how unChristian another neighbour is) without being able to speak your mind for fear of causing drama. (Especially if your parents or significant other are of different beliefs than you, it can be difficult and awkward dealing with their friends/family.)

    What would be more enlightening, to me, would be a study of WHY believers and unbelievers are happy/unhappy, and comparing the results. There are a lot of things Christians take for granted – it’s called Christian privilege – like getting to automatically assume in any room or PTA or board meeting or party that the majority of the people there share their beliefs. Stick a Christian in the Middle East or some other place where Christians are a disliked majority, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they’re unhappier than the general population.

    As a final note, I would be very, VERY careful making ANY inferences on the suicide note. Gay and transgender teens have higher suicide rates than straight/cis teens – does that mean there’s something inherent in being gay that makes you more inclined to suicide? Or could it possibly just indicate how difficult it is to live as a minority which a vast percentage of the population demonizes due to their religion?

    And I know you don’t want to talk about it, because you think you’re making some point here and talking about it would make your “point” irrelevant, but I’m surprised no one’s quoted George Bernard Shaw yet: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

  • 9. Finn  |  June 25, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    *”where Christians are a disliked MINORITY,” my bad.

  • 10. arensb  |  June 25, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Okay, let’s say that the studies you’ve quoted are accurate, and there’s a significant positive correlation between health and religiosity.

    My question is, what is the cause of this increased health, and is there a way to get it without religion?

    For instance, it could be that people who regularly go to church feel better for being part of a community, than people with fewer friends, or who don’t get out as much. If that’s the case, then presumably any social club would provide the same benefits.

    Or perhaps non-Christians in the US suffer more stress and stress-related ailments simply from not being part of the majority, especially when they’re part of a disliked minority (e.g., gays, Muslims, Jews, atheists).

    And, of course, you’ve only established correlation, not causation. Rural areas tend to be more religious than urban centers. So perhaps all this means is that country living is healthier than city living.

    Finally, there’s a big leap from “Christianity provides health benefits” to “Christianity’s claims about the universe are true.”

  • 11. Justin  |  June 25, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    “finally there’s a big leap from ‘Christianity provides health benefits’ to ‘Christianity’s claims about the universe are true.”

    no where in the post do I make this leap arensb, in fact, there is nothing in my post about the truth of Christianity. C’mon now.

  • 12. Samuel Skinner  |  June 25, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    And atheism is correlated with intelligence.

    Which do you guys like more?

    Although on the usbject of health benefits I hear you can the same results with pet ownership- it is the whole unconditional love. Get a puppy!

  • 13. pinstripebindi  |  June 25, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    “Ignorance is bliss”.

  • 14. Dilemma of the week « The Bleeding Heart Show  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    [...] June 25, 2008 by Neil Like Smoking, Atheism is a Health Hazard [...]

  • 15. orDover  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Funny…when I had serious suicidal thoughts it was when I was 16 years old and very depressed, but my mother wouldn’t take me to a therapist despite me begging her, because she said my depression was caused by demons trying to win my soul.

  • 16. gardenqueen  |  June 25, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    I’m wondering if the health benefits of religion are more a result of social networking than of religion per se. Having good friends also contributes to longevity.

  • 17. Justin  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Samuel Skinner says:
    And atheism is correlated with intelligence.

    unfortunately, when I see blind, arrogant statements such as this, I think quite the opposite of intelligence.

  • 18. frankyvanherreweghe  |  June 25, 2008 at 5:40 pm

    What about this: people that are religious are so because they are intrinsically unable to deal with their own live. Therefore they created in their head the idea that ‘someone’ has already made their future. They remain relax when something goes wrong, because ‘he’ will fix it anyway in the future, and they are happy when things work out fine for them because ‘it is like he planned’. Unreligious people, obviously, can not rely on that ‘überruler’ of life.
    So very easy: people that are religious have a serious mental disorder characterised by lack of initiative and independence. The fact that there are billions of them makes belief the most widespread disorders.

  • 19. Joe Sperling  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    So very easy: people that are religious have a serious mental disorder characterised by lack of initiative and independence. The fact that there are billions of them makes belief the most widespread disorders.

    Franky–

    Isn’t this a bit in the same vein as someone saying “all the schizophrenics are after me”? You are basically saying “Most of the people in the world are mentally ill, thank goodness I’m sane enpough to recognize that”.

  • 20. sashwap  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    i’ve never been happier since i converted to atheism! i think these “studies” are a little weak…

  • 21. damewiggy  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    right.

    and i was in my healthiest prime when i believed in santa, the easter bunny, and the tooth fairy, too.

    now i must sob. or drink heavily. or both.

  • 22. arensb  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    “finally there’s a big leap from ‘Christianity provides health benefits’ to ‘Christianity’s claims about the universe are true.”

    no where in the post do I make this leap arensb, in fact, there is nothing in my post about the truth of Christianity. C’mon now.

    You don’t make this leap explicitly, but the thrust of your article is that (on average, on the whole, etc. Insert whichever qualifiers are necessary) it’s better to be religious than atheist, because there are health benefits.

    So a logical next question is, should one believe something if it isn’t true? What if the belief comes with tangible benefits? Are those benefits worth believing something that isn’t true?

    For instance, let’s say it’s been demonstrated that if you believed in fairies, you’d be healthier and live an extra five years (maybe from the extra exercise and fresh air you’d get from going on fairy-spotting hikes or something). Would you want me to convince you that fairies exist?

  • 23. orDover  |  June 25, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    You know, it’s been found that Christians are more likely to get divorced than atheists.

    So if you really want to stay married, you’d do best to give up your religion.

    (Statistics. You can work them from every angle.)

  • 24. Finn  |  June 25, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Samuel Skinner says:
    And atheism is correlated with intelligence.

    unfortunately, when I see blind, arrogant statements such as this, I think quite the opposite of intelligence.

    Bwuh? You’re allowed to cite studies linking health and religion, and Sam can’t cite any of the many studies linking atheism and intelligence? Of course, the fact that there may be a correlation between the two doesn’t imply causation, but it is curious.

    Only about 7% of the members of the National Academy of Science believe in God. Am I likewise unintelligent for pointing this out? Would it make you more comfortable, since I understand “intelligence” is a complicated concept which is difficult to quantify, if I pointed out that studies invariably indicate a correlation between education and atheism?

    Heck, I think I read somewhere that more educated people tend to be more pessimistic (or realistic), perhaps this also explains why atheists would be unhappier and thus more prone to your mental health issues?

  • 25. Joshua  |  June 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    Looking at the research evidence, it seems that those who celebrate the Christian meaning of Christmas are on the whole likely to be happier.

    I guess I’m with the atheists then, since I don’t celebrate Christmas. :(

    “For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18.

  • 26. arensb  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:34 pm

    Joshua:

    I guess I’m with the atheists then, since I don’t celebrate Christmas. :(

    That’s okay: I’m an atheist, but I celebrate Christmas, so it all comes out right in the end.

  • 27. boyo  |  June 25, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    Here’s the basic thought: Add this to the examples in the link below.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation

    I know it’s open-source, but isn’t this the same logic that allows all Muslims to be terrorists? ;)

    Not planning on offing myself anytime soon,

    A Nonymous

  • 28. Samuel Skinner  |  June 26, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Christmas is when the Jews and the Chinese celebrate the invention of Chinese food- everyone knows that!

    Poor Christians- all they have is a tree. You can’t eat a tree.

    As for the intelligence study just type in “intelligence and atheism”.

    It isn’t that atheism causes intelligence- it is that it is directly correlated with education. That is why atheists have a lower divorce rate and lower prison stats.

  • 29. Ubi Dubium  |  June 26, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Samuel

    Christmas is when the Jews and the Chinese celebrate the invention of Chinese food- everyone knows that!

    Poor Christians- all they have is a tree. You can’t eat a tree.

    Dont forget chocolate Santa Clauses! Woudn’t be christmas without those! I’ll celebrate any holiday that comes with the tradition of eating too much.

    And I’ve certainly eaten my share of Chinese food on christmas.

  • 30. Originate  |  June 26, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    You should look at a little deeper at the “studies” that you decided to present. I also take offense to your use of the word “decide” (to be an atheist). I didn’t make a conscious decision to know that religion is completely unnecessary, I just knew it. I don’t require it to fill any voids in my life and I don’t need someone to praise when things go right or to question when things go wrong. The universe is ambivalent. Religion is man made and self serving.

    Also, none of your points even concern the existence of any God, only the positive effects lying to yourself can have on your life. More people die of drowning after eating bbq than any other kind of food. This is the same irrelevant argument you use by stating that suicide is higher in atheists. Suicide and atheism are also at a higher rate/risk ratio the higher you get in the IQ spectrum. I hate to tout the “intellectual elite” card… but religion does tend to be on the lower end of that graph.

  • 31. Originate  |  June 26, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    “yeah i totally agree, for every study there is a counter study. I was just bringing these few forward for a conversation. Of course, truth on this matter is quite subjective, and I’ll take my truth.”

    Sorry to break this to you, but… Truth is not subjective…

  • 32. JohnS  |  June 26, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    As a person raised Christian and who became an atheist later, I am immensely happier about being an atheist than I ever was as a Christian. I don’t think I’m too out of line by saying that if something horrible happens to a person, they might NEED to feel bad. Anger, sadness, etc. rather than saying “oh well, it’s God’s will”.

  • 33. Twazzi  |  June 26, 2008 at 9:10 pm

    Justin:

    I just wanted you to know that I have been an atheist all of my life and I am now about to turn 74 years of age.

    I just spent a very gratifying day:

    I saw an old lady on the street hobbling along with a cane and decided to have some good old atheist fun. I tripped her, she fell down
    and I stood their laughing in glee at her distress.

    Later the same day I deliberately murdered at least a dozen people. I really enjoyed that little escapade.

    I quit after that one because having been an atheist for so long I just couldn’t think of any more horrible things to do, I guess I’m just becoming burned out.

    But you know what, not once did I criticize
    anyone for not believing like I do or did I tell anyone they were going to burn in some imaginary place like hell. I get through Sunday with out taking money from poor deluded people and scaring them with tales out of an
    ancient book written by people who didn’t understand what a thunderstorm is.

    Some day fundies like you will wake up and
    be enlightened. Or maybe you will be caught up by “the rapture” and end up on a cloud alongside a bunch of other bad guys who suddenly became “born again” xtians. I can’t imagine the boredom of sharing a cloud with the likes of Jerry Falwell, and most of the “death row” gang from jails everywhere. Give me Lava Lake Resort any day.

  • 34. robert  |  June 27, 2008 at 10:12 am

    Bear in mind that whenever you hear “atheism” the idea is that of disbelief in Yahweh. No one bitches about people not believing in Ra or Odin.

  • 35. Griffin  |  June 27, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Good call, Robert.

    It all gets back to the whole “We’re both atheists. I just believe in one less god than you do.”

  • 36. Justin  |  June 28, 2008 at 2:21 am

    Twazzi,

    “some day fundies like you will wake up and be enlightened”

    Yikes, you obviously felt the need to take out your childhood religious frustrations. Not that it matters to you, but I am not a fundie. In fact, I wrote an entire series denouncing the 20th century emergence of fundamentalism on my old blog.

    http://politicsandreligion.wordpress.com/articles/

    I would reply to something in your comment, but there isn’t anything really substantial in it.

  • 37. Glen  |  June 28, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    All of those statements could be true. In fact I might go so far as saying that in many instances they probably are. I am an atheist myself, that is no lie.

    However, there are a couple things to remember before making any stupid conclusions.

    We don’t have any illusions about humanity. Most of us are ashamed about where this race is going and what we have done. We continue to make the same mistakes. We give into
    greed. We let the corporations walk all over us. And don’t forget that we have to live in a society that questions everything about us from our morals to our patriotism. Ask yourself, if you were in the extreme minority, and rest of the population is biased against you, would you be happier for it?

    Atheists are disappointed, and Christians may be too, but we don’t have any superficial fake simulated system of comfort.

    Physical health is nothing special. Look at the Mormons: They are successful AND healthy. Why? Because they regulate themselves very well. In fact, my best friends are Mormon, because (this is my opinion purely) are the kindest, forgiving, and most of all understanding of the Christians.

  • 38. robin  |  October 16, 2009 at 9:35 pm

    Odd that otherwise rationale people can discount Christianity as history’s biggest mass delusion.

    No where in your writings do I find the inherent happiness in knowing God. You miss the point entirely

  • 39. Joshua  |  October 16, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    No where in your writings do I find the inherent happiness in knowing God.

    It is really weird to me when Christians admit they are Christians for selfish reasons (e.g. it makes me happy).

    Kind-of misses the point entirely, but whatever.

  • 40. Anna  |  December 10, 2009 at 1:36 am

    Very well said Glen.

    It IS sad to be an atheist sometimes. For me, not because I don’t fit in, but because there is so much suffering in the world, and all of it without meaning.

    I remember reading once–in Martin Seligman’s excellent book on optimism–that pessimists are relatively sadder people, in part because they are realists. Seems to me that a similar thing can happen to those of us that don’t have a religious “context” in which to find ourselves…nobody’s running the show but us. How terrible….and yet exhilarating!

  • 41. Joshua  |  December 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    Anna,

    http://www.damninteresting.com/the-total-perspective-vortex

    On topic. I promise :)

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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