Atheists and agnostics tend to be just a healthy and satisfied with life as their religious counterparts, according to new research published in Journal of Religion and Health. The findings cast doubts on the theory that religion and spirituality enhance personal wellbeing.
Study author David Speed sought to test the belief-as-benefit effect, which describes a broad pattern of findings where religious beliefs and behaviors are positively associated with health outcomes. Much of this research has failed to include non-believers.
“There is an enormous literature addressing religion and health, there are literally 10,000s of article connecting belief, religious attendance, prayer, religiosity, etc. with a variety of health outcomes,” explained Speed, an associate professor at the University of New Brunswick. “However, there is a shortage of research addressing atheists, despite this population consisting of millions of Americans and Canadians.”
Speed used data from Canada’s General Social Survey to examine whether religion predicted physical and/or psychological wellness in a representative sample of Canadians. The survey collected data regarding religious identity, religious attendance, prayer frequency, and religiosity (“How important are your religious or spiritual beliefs to the way you live your life?”). The survey also included assessments of self-rated stress, self-rated physical health, life satisfaction, and self-rated mental health.
The sample included 455 atheists, 215 agnostics, 2,080 individuals who identified as “nonreligious,” 6,205 Catholics, 5,685 Protestants, 595 Eastern Religion practitioners, and 430 who identified their religious beliefs as “other.”
After controlling for sex, age, household income, marital status, language, minority status, education level, and geographic region, Speed failed to find any evidence that religious believers had better levels of stress, physical health, life satisfaction or mental health compared to non-believers. Additionally, religious attendance, prayer, and religiosity were generally unrelated to all four outcomes.
“The average person should be skeptical of claims that religion is inherently healthy or inherently health-promoting,” Speed told PsyPost. “While some religious people are undoubtedly healthy, the same can be said of some nonreligious people. Whatever advantages to life religion may (or may not offer), health simply isn’t one of them.”
The findings remained the same even after Speed compared the most nonreligious atheists, agnostics, and “nones” to the most religious Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Religion practitioners, and “other” practitioners.
“I’ve published a fair bit in this field so my findings weren’t particularly surprising to me,” Speed said. “But, my findings do run counter to an enormous literature that extols the health benefits of religion. My research program regularly shows that there are few (if any) health benefits to religion. This may surprise individuals who are only passingly familiar with the field.”
The findings are mostly in line with a previous study, which examined data from more than 15,000 U.S. residents. But as with any study, the new research includes some limitations. Speed noted that the General Social Survey did not collect data on two factors that could have important effects: social support and personality.
“Research addressing religion and health is almost always correlational, this means that we can’t figure out if religion is actually causing health differences,” Speed said. “For my money, I’d wager that the religion-health relationship is an indirect effect of social support or coherency.”
“We need to explore whether nonreligious groups (e.g., atheists, agnostics, Satanists, etc.) are systematically less healthy than the religious – if we can’t find a consistent difference this would suggest the field has deep problems.”
The study was titled: “Throw BABE Out With the Bathwater? Canadian Atheists are No Less Healthy than the Religious“.