Study suggests belief in demons and evil spirits is harmful to mental health

Belief in demons and evil spirits is linked to poorer mental health, according to research published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

The study used data from 3,290 Americans who participated in the National Study of Youth and Religion to uncover that the belief in demons was a strong predictor of poorer mental health among youth and young adults. However, poorer mental health did not lead to greater belief in demons.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Fanhao Nie of Purdue University. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Nie: There is a lack of sociological research on the dark side of religion to health. Most prior research tends to confirm the conventional wisdom that religion makes one better off in health. Even among the relatively fewer number of studies on the negative religious effects on health, researchers tend to ignore a very important element to most religions—the demons or evil spirits.
However, beliefs in demons or evil spirits is not only integral to many major religions but also vividly experienced by most of us in our everyday life.

During childhood, we were told that demons exist and they may tempt us to do things evil. To children and even many adults, we may fear that demons are watching us from behind and attack us off guard when left alone in a dark room. To people who are burdened or dismayed with life issues, the demons-cause-my-misfortune belief might be well accepted. So are demons really that bad? Can our everyday lived experience with demons be scientifically tested? These observations, experience, and questions led me to study this topic.

What should the average person take away from your study?

The main results in our study suggest that even after controlling for benevolent beliefs (beliefs in a close, personal God), a strong belief in demons still leads to poorer mental health. Meanwhile, the demonic effect on mental health is one of the strongest among all measures of religiosity.

A take-away message for the readers is that our religious belief system is a double-edged sword to our mental health. In reality, the darker side of our religious beliefs may be even darker than we have previously considered. Individual believers and the religious communities may want to pay more attention to this fact and act accordingly in their religious life. For instance, parents and church authorities may want to emphasize less of demons during the religious socialization of adolescents because the darker side of religious beliefs may turn out to be quite harmful to mental health.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Readers should note that mental health is a diverse construct which has been measured in various ways in different studies. Due to data limitation, our measures of mental health tend to focus on one’s social, interpersonal concerns (feeling alone and misunderstood, ignored, and unaccepted). Thus, we hope that the demonic influence found in our study may also apply to other aspects of mental health, such as the somatic symptoms of depression.

Despite this limitation, we still believe that this emphasis on the social side of psychological distress suits the adolescent and young adult subjects very well since social relationships and being accepted by peers is a major concern and source of anxiety for people during this life stage.

The study, “Demonic Influence: The Negative Mental Health Effects of Belief in Demons“, was also co-authored by Daniel V. A. Olson.