People who think about leaving religion but don’t are more likely to feel depressed and hopeless

New research suggests that sticking with a religion you have doubts about is associated with depressive symptoms. The findings were recently published in the journal Society and Mental Health.

“Social scientists give a lot of attention to the nonreligious because of this group’s recent and rapid growth, but even more people consider dropping out of religion and do not actually leave,” said study author Matthew May, an assistant professor of sociology at Oakland University.

“My goal was to understand how these people (stayers) differ from the people who leave (leavers) and the people who do not consider dropping out of religion (stable affiliates).”

May examined data from the the Portraits of American Life Study, a nationally representative longitudinal study of American adults. Of particular interest, the survey asked participants about their religious affiliation. It also asked if they had “seriously considered dropping out of religion altogether.”

He found that participants who had considered dropping out of their religion but had not changed their religious affiliation were more likely to report feeling depressed, worthless, and hopeless — compared to do participants who never considered dropping out of religion altogether, participants who were never affiliated, and participants who actually left.

“Religious involvement is not uniformly positive for everyone,” May explained to PsyPost. “People who never consider dropping out of religion report the fewest depressive symptoms, but people who consider dropping out of religion report fewer depressive symptoms when they leave than when they stay.”

He acknowledged the study had some limitations.

“Data limitations prevent me from exploring why people considered dropping out of religion in the first place and why they decided to stay or leave,” May said. “Answering these questions will likely help explain why people who stay report more depressive symptoms than people who leave.”

“My measure of depression is based on three questions about respondents’ feelings of depression, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Do stayers always experience fewer returns on their religious involvement? Answering this question requires additional research on the other dimensions of health and well-being.”

“Religious affiliation is more complicated than ‘Are you affiliated?’ or ‘Are you not?'” May added. “It is important to develop survey questions that gauge the stability of the affiliation over time in order to understand the impact religion has on our health and well-being. ”

The study was titled: “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Religious (Dis)Affiliation and Depressive Symptomatology“.