Don’t Believe the Hype (About Believing): You Don’t Need Religion to be Happy

Image: Dan Etherington/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Is religion good for you, full stop? Many Americans think so—and perhaps that’s unsurprising in a country where most people struggle to survive, while a wide variety of gurus, hucksters, and privileged commentators are always standing by to offer simple, usually individual (non-)solutions to complex, and usually fundamentally structural and systemic, problems. But the United States is not just a country where all the pablum that’s fit to print peppers the pages of legacy media outlets, whose editors—when not conservative Christians themselves—seem to be suffering from a sort of “belief envy.” This is also a country in which “science” is regularly represented as taking the side of believers, at least when it comes to wellbeing and mental health. 

“Faith in a higher power is associated with health, and in a positive way,” a philanthropist tells us in Forbes. A therapist uses the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal to—explicitly and irresponsibly—exhort parents who don’t believe in God or life after death to lie to their children, lest they scar their psyches, and adds, “Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude and real connection.” 

Of course, this is simply not true of the kind of Christianity in which many Americans are raised—a kind of Christianity that fuels polarization and even insurrection, and that leaves many who are raised in it traumatized. And yet, unfortunately, the fact that much of American Christianity is harmful doesn’t stop Scientific American from echoing Christianity Today by claiming that a sharp increase in internet searches for “prayer” during a pandemic somehow indicates that religion is the cure for what ails us. Perhaps the ultimate irony here is that, according to the same Scientific American article, “psychiatrists are the least likely of all physicians to be religious,” a juxtaposition with which, it seems to me, neo-Freudian intellectuals could have a field day.

Be that as it may, the scholarly consensus in psychology has long been that religion and spirituality are generally good for human health and wellbeing. But that consensus is wrong. New scholarship is exposing the biases and methodological flaws that led to the current conventional wisdom, as well as correcting the record and complicating the picture. To be clear, it is certainly not the case that religion is always harmful, a fact that must be disappointing for the ardent antitheists among us. It is true, however, that “religious people do not generally have better life satisfaction than atheist and non-religious people,” as a recent press release sums up the peer-reviewed conclusions of Katharina Pöhls and her colleagues at the University of Cologne, Dr. Thomas Schlösser and Dr. Detlef Fechtenhauer.

In a review article published in May, Pöhls, an advanced graduate student in psychology, clearly lays out many of the biases that have marred previous research. These include a myopic focus on the United States, although the assumption that U.S. centered studies’ results are generalizable is unfounded. In addition, the studies typically do not involve a sufficient number of nonreligious participants, and the questions they pose, because they take religion as normative, are often “biased in the sense that they are difficult to answer for nonreligious individuals.” In this connection, Pöhls points specifically to questions about how the importance of God in one’s life are not easy to address for those who may wish to indicate precisely that not believing in God is an important aspect of their lives.

These studies also fail to differentiate between types of nonreligious individuals, which is important, because active, self-defined atheists and humanists are a very distinct subset of the “nones.” Finally, as Pöhls contends, “The influences of sociodemographics, personality traits, or context variables on the relationship between religiosity and life satisfaction are rarely examined,” which is a fancy way of saying that scholars researching the effects of religion on life satisfaction mostly ignore the crucial factors of social context and individual personality. One upshot of this is that much of the prevailing scholarship seems to “confound the effects of religiosity with the effects of social group membership.” Another is that scholars, operating under the influence of confirmation bias and the (often unconscious) Christian supremacism that pervades American society, have failed to contend with the impact of stigmatization of the nonreligious.

“In many countries, nonreligious individuals are seen in a more negative way than religious individuals; thus, they are confronted with a negative bias,” says Pöhls, citing research that documents the subjection of atheists to discrimination. This part of her analysis immediately reminded me of American Atheists’ 2020 Secular Survey, with its focus on the impact of stigmatization and how it varies regionally across America. Reached for comment, Alison Gill, American Atheists’ Vice President for Legal and Policy, also immediately saw a connection between her organization’s work and that of Pöhls and her colleagues regarding the prevailing consensus on religion and mental health. “The association of high levels of religiosity with happiness unfortunately leaves out the negative impact that religious monocultures can have on nonreligious people and religious minorities,” Gill told RD.

While Pöhls herself did not immediately return a request for comment, two American psychologists whose work focuses on similar areas did. Dr. Laura Anderson, a founder of the Religious Trauma Institute, agrees with Pöhls’ assessment of the scholarly consensus, and, as an exvangelical herself, Anderson is keenly aware of how the consensus affects the training of therapists, resulting in the mistreatment and invalidation of those who’ve been harmed by religion at the hands of those who are supposed to help them. “In a society such as the U.S. that many believe to be a ‘Christian nation,’ critique of religion, including the lived experiences of those harmed by religion, is typically dismissed,” Anderson explains.

Noting that this failure to engage critically with religion places de facto limitations on both research and training, Anderson sees the downstream effects on “individuals who have experienced harm from a religion,” which she describes in terms of “adverse religious experiences” that, she maintains, “may or may not result in trauma.” The result is that many people who seek therapy to help them address religious harm end up “deeply confused and ashamed” when they encounter therapists who “may dismiss the client’s narrative as ‘a bad church experience’ or ‘people being people despite a loving God.’” According to Anderson, “This can easily lead to even greater feelings of shame and abandonment.”

While Anderson’s observations focused more on practitioners and clients, Dr. Joshua Grubbs, an associate professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University, provided a more theoretical and research-focused perspective. Noting that some prior research has found “that the confidently nonreligious and the confidently religious tend to have comparable levels of life satisfaction, with the less confident religious having notably lower life satisfaction,” Grubbs, who like Anderson is an exvangelical, told RD that the additional consideration of “person-to-context fit” in the work of Pöhls, Schlösser, and Fechtenhauer represents “an important addition.” 

Expanding on that comment, Grubbs clarified, “Finding that religion versus non-religion is not particularly related to life satisfaction once you account for the context of the country is a powerful argument against the notion that, universally speaking, religion is a benefit to wellbeing.” Having lived both in Indiana, where being an atheist is widely equated with being “un-American,” and Silicon Valley, which is one of the most atheistic regions in the world, and, thinking back to the Secular Survey, I would add that country may also be too broad of a category in at least some cases, and that it might be useful for scholars to conduct regional studies.

Asked why the prevailing scholarly consensus has up to now failed to account for social and cultural context, Grubbs suggested that one reason is the less sophisticated statistical techniques that shaped earlier studies. But, he added, “The second piece, I think, is that people are now more willing to acknowledge the idiosyncratic nature of their own beliefs. In past generations, we probably didn’t see as many people willing to acknowledge that they didn’t match the beliefs of the dominant culture.”

As an atheist who grew up in, and was harmed by, evangelical Christianity, I find hope in that comment. Changing the national conversation can change political and social possibilities, and individual stories that fall outside of the mainstream can incite the kind of self-reflection, and even empathy, that can contribute mightily to that process, if they can just get a hearing. The voices of those harmed by religion, and especially by Christianity, have mostly been silenced up to the present. But given that religion can do harm, and that there is no universal, linear relationship between religion and wellbeing, there’s no justification for the silencing of those voices or the invalidation of the experiences behind them.

I believe we are, thankfully, beginning to see a positive feedback loop between scholarly research and the lived experiences of the nonreligious, the impact of which is already reaching, if haltingly, even the legacy media. The more this continues, the more likely it is that we can achieve a more democratic, pluralist future for America, one in which we can reduce and hopefully ultimately overcome the stigma attached to atheism in so many areas of our society.