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mattbrowne's avatar

Thought-provoking hypothesis: Diminishing or eliminating religion will further increase the depression epidemic - Agree or disagree?

Asked by mattbrowne (31595points) May 13th, 2011

Many experts believe that depression has become an epidemic. By some estimates, clinical depression is ten times more likely in 2010 than it was in 1910. The WHO predicts that by the year 2020 depression will be the second-leading cause of mortality.

There are many factors that seem to contribute: the goal that our lives should be perfect, our increasingly individualistic culture, job insecurity, the unraveling of the social fabric, the diminished feeling of belonging and commitment to our families and communities, and less social support and fewer meaningful connections to others.

Source: Sonja Lyubomirsky

Suicide rates for the Amish of Lancaster County were 5.5 per 100,000 in 1980, about half that of the general population and a third the rate of the non-religious population.

Epidemiologist William Strawbridge and his co-workers followed 5286 Alameda, California, adults over 28 years. After adjusting for age and education, the researchers found that not smoking, regular exercise, and religious attendance all predicted a lowered risk of death in any given year. Women attending weekly religious services, for example, were only 54 percent as likely to die in a typical study year as were nonattenders.

In a national health survey financed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, religiously active people had longer life expectancies.

Although the religion-health correlation is yet to be fully explained, Harold Pincus (1997), deputy medical director of the American Psychiatric Association, believes these findings “have made clear that anyone involved in providing health care services…cannot ignore…the important connections between spirituality, religion, and health.”



Does religion/spirituality make us healthier?

Does tolerant religion (free of zeal and hatemongering) make us healthier?

Does aggressive atheism make us less healthy?

Is the attempt to eliminate tolerant forms of religion a risk for society?

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31 Answers

ragingloli's avatar

The real reason for depression in my estimation is the western culture. Consumerism, families where both parents have to work for a living, millions of people who have to work 2 jobs to survive, societial expectations of behaviour, fashion, beauty, possessions.
All that religion could do against that is based on either “ignorance is bliss” or the placebo effect resulting in certain mental states that can also be induced by drugs.
You could just as well take anti depressants and use the sundays to relax.

What you also do not consider is the fact that the amish have completely different lifestyles that are opposed to western culture as mentioned above, and that non-religious people/atheists, have to hide their atheism because they have to expect discrimination based on their non-belief. Atheists are the least trusted minority in the US.

cockswain's avatar

Great question. I haven’t the time to analyze the study for flaws, but I’ll accept the notion that those without religious beliefs may as a whole be more depressed for the sake of this discussion. Besides, your question is about our opinions anyways.

I think it seems reasonable to assume that those without religious beliefs would find their existence less meaningful, and possibly this could cause those with a predisposition towards depression to display more symptoms. My personal experience of transitioning from Catholic to atheist has at times caused me to contemplate the futility of morality or the value of my existence. If Mother Theresa and Hitler had identical fates in death, what the hell is the point in being good? When one thinks there is nothing after death, this could cause despair.

But is this a bad thing? Or is it just growing pains for a society to view our existence more rationally? Will it hurt to go from one mentality to the other? Sure. But I think that if all of us led our lives with the mindset that we are 100% going to end without question, we could have less illusions about the nature of who and what we are. We can ask better questions without these illusions or crutches to fall back on as explanations for the machinations of our universe.

So yes, some would be absolutely crushed by this notion. Some will despair, but others will be stronger, more resolute, and lead more effective lives than ever with this new point of view. I definitely don’t think we should have religion for the sake of our mental health. If these notions are never planted in our childhood brains, we may never suffer the pain of realizing that reality is not structured in the ways religion teaches.

mattbrowne's avatar

@ragingloli – But it’s not just about lifestyles. It’s about meaning and being part of something bigger. How can antidepressants create meaning? They are very useful of course and capable of saving many lives.

ragingloli's avatar

“It’s about meaning and being part of something bigger.”
Something easily supplied by family, friends, maybe some sort of club of like minded people?
But that is however becoming increasingly difficult in today’s western lifestyle.
How about changing society so people have more time for family, fun and leisure?

mattbrowne's avatar

I agree, @cockswain, that we shouldn’t have religion for the sake of our mental health. But since religion in all its forms is part of our reality today, what would be the benefit of eliminating all forms of it, even the ones doing no harm and improving people’s health? Some people seem really keen on achieving this elimination. Have they thought about all the consequences?

marinelife's avatar

I don’t think religion has any effect on clinical depression.

cockswain's avatar

Well, how your define “reality” is important here. It is part of our human reality on planet earth as a social construct in our minds, but not any sort of fundamental force of nature in reality.

I don’t see any benefit to forcing people to halt a non-invasive personal practice, so we’re in agreement there. None of my business, we shouldn’t tell others what harmless practices in which they choose to engage themselves. I think aggressive atheism is far worse than passive observance of a religion. In fact, I view passive, peaceful observance as a bit foolish at worst, and fostering a strong sense of community and charity at best. Aggressive atheism is inappropriate. I understand their motivations, but their approach is horrendous.

I think there should be zero obstacles in educating people about all views, the pros and cons of each, and allowing the individual to select the philosophy which suits him or her the best. Personally, I think if all members of religious faiths freely chose atheism as a result of thinking and discourse, I would find that to be ideal. But I abhor one who will go out and force that view.

wundayatta's avatar

It is pretty silly to think that such a correlation means something. What is “religion?” Perhaps people who belong to more groups and have tighter connections with other people will be less likely to be depressed.

Correlation is not causation, as we all know. Religion may only be related because it is related to something else that actually is the cause of the effect. No one really knows what religion is, at least, not in a social scientific way. Sure, we use it as a variable all the time, but we don’t know what it means nor what we are measuring when we look at religious participation.

So I’d guess that diminishing religious participation might be associated with increased depression rates, but I would assume religion was the cause. I’d take a page from the “Bowling Alone” concept and suggest that participating in groups is what is important.

crisw's avatar

In reality, what the research has shown is that it’s those who aren’t sure what they believe- the weakly religious and the weakly agnostic- who have the high depression rates. The strongly atheist have depression rates that are no higher than the strongly religious. The podcast Reasonable Doubts has covered this issue in detail several times; one of the participants is working on a large study of this very issue.

cockswain's avatar

@crisw And doesn’t that make perfect intuitive sense that it would be that way too?

everephebe's avatar

Diminishing or eliminating religion will further increase the depression epidemic?Disagree.
Does religion/spirituality make us healthier? No.
Does tolerant religion (free of zeal and hatemongering) make us healthier? Possibly.
Does aggressive atheism make us less healthy? Probably not.
Is the attempt to eliminate tolerant forms of religion a risk for society? No.

mazingerz88's avatar

I’d rather be depressed than embracing something I doubt but i don’t think losing religion will increase cases of depression. It could be that religion caused the depression in the first place.

ratboy's avatar

Aggressive atheists are just the “missionaries” of nonbelief; by not coming to my door to inform me that my beliefs are somehow deficient, they set an admirable example for missionaries of all persuasions.

Kardamom's avatar

If you try to take away religion from people who believe, then those people will surely become depressed.

If you try to force religion onto people who are certain about their disbeliefs then you are likely to cause them to become angry, and maybe by default, to become depressed.

Depression itself is not caused by religion or lack of religion. There’s all sorts of factors involved with depression, mostly brain chemistry, that are compounded by one’s particular set of circumstances (being the victim of a trauma, being abused or neglected, dealing with a substantial loss etc).

Religion can and does help people who believe in it, but it also harms and disgusts people who don’t believe in it. I guess if you are the doctor, it would be helpful if you were able to ascertain which people are whom (is that the correct grammar?).

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

“Does religion/spirituality make us healthier?”
In my opinion, religion/spirituality does not make us healthier, but a sense of belonging does. Humans are a social species, and religion tends to bring like-minded people together. This can lead to positive self-esteem, as you get a weekly pat on the back for being ‘right’.

“Does tolerant religion (free of zeal and hatemongering) make us healthier?”
Tolerance in religion should only sharpen the effects of what I said above, since focussing on the wrongs of other people decreases the sense of belonging. Tolerant religion on the other hand makes people feel part of a wider social group, because they are perfectly okay with people disagreeing with them.

“Does aggressive atheism make us less healthy?”
Probably. Since aggressive atheism employs many tactics similar to religious zealots, it should cause the same effects. For example, Richard Dawkins openly states that he wants to convert people away from religions, and many of his lectures are essentially atheistic sermons. However since atheists rarely join together and discuss their lack of belief, the ‘belonging’ factor is also missing.

“Is the attempt to eliminate tolerant forms of religion a risk for society?”
Definitely. Where tolerant religions are removed, less tolerant forms see an opening. When these less tolerant forms take hold, a free society is under a huge threat.

I don’t think any of this is a reason to promote religion. Rather, it gives us a better understanding of depression and how to counter it. For an atheist, it is not enough to simply not believe. The lack of belief needs to be replaced with a calm self-assurance, an awareness of their own innately moral nature, and the ability to deal with life’s problems on their own terms, rather than trusting in the supernatural to see them through it. Religion may have some health benefits, but I believe all of these will be present, possibly even superior, in a truly well adjusted atheist. An assumption based purely on my own experience.

_zen_'s avatar

Does religion/spirituality make us healthier?

Does tolerant religion (free of zeal and hatemongering) make us healthier?

Does aggressive atheism make us less healthy?

Is the attempt to eliminate tolerant forms of religion a risk for society?

It’s difficult to answer these questions and hypotheses. Does it make us healthier? I think for the vast majority of people who turn to religion, there is a certain placebo effect – and we all know that the placebo effect works.

Does it make us healthier? If all religions were tolerant, then there would be no need for religion at all – and in its stead, there would be traditions, many overlapping and inclusive, and what a wonderful world this would be.

Agressive anything makes us less healthy.

Nope. It’s vital.

everephebe's avatar

@zen What about an aggressive stance on the necessity of oral hygiene? :D ^

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@everephebe That would quickly lead to aggressive resistance, and poorer health for those who resist. Aggression is always answered with aggression.

_zen_'s avatar

This is Social, but a Matt question and not far in the thread.

mattbrowne's avatar

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Where to begin?

Placebo effect:

A placebo is a simulated medical intervention. It works because people believe in the effectiveness of a fake pill or fake surgery without knowing that it’s fake. Most of the religious practices or rituals have little in common with this mechanism such as celebrating Easter or celebrating the holy communion. The only exception are prayers of the form:

Dear Lord, give me strength and help me overcome my illness.

When people believe in the efficacy of such a prayer it can have an effect similar to believing in a homeopathic pill.


Correlation is not necessarily causation, yes. But this doesn’t mean whenever researchers find a correlation we can rule out causation. Now that would be silly. Smoking correlates with increased risk of lung cancer. Now it could also be causation or not. The same applies to the studies I mentioned above.

Aggressive atheists:

Nobody said anything about going door to door. But this still means that atheists can choose to be aggressive or not when debating with believers. Because some people are even worse doesn’t make aggressiveness right.


The hypothesis acknowledges that there are several factors contributing to depression. It’s a fact that the disease has increased tenfold over the past hundred years. Almost certainly this cannot be tied to a single cause. I find it very interesting that some atheists look at the evidence in a way that fits best with their worldview. Theory influences observations. When you have a theory of something, you interpret the results inside your theory. So when Columbus arrived in the New World, he saw Asian spices and roots. His theory said he should be in Asia.

I suggest we keep an open mind. So despite of certain risks, diminishing or eliminating religion might also have the potential to further increase the depression epidemic, whether we like it or not.

And we might learn a thing or two from the Amish after all.

ratboy's avatar

It might be instructive to compare the number of deaths in the past decade directly attributable to religious beliefs and practices to the number directly attributable to atheism.

cockswain's avatar

That’s a no brainer, but @mattbrowne asks specifically about, “Does tolerant religion (free of zeal and hatemongering) make us healthier?”

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@mattbrowne “I find it very interesting that some atheists look at the evidence in a way that fits best with their worldview.”

In what way would the evidence not fit with an atheistic world view? If religion itself reduces the risk of depression, that doesn’t really tell us much. Religious belief is a complex set of ideas, and cannot in itself be the root cause of anything. The root cause of the lower depression risk may be due to the idea that god(s) will make everything okay in the end, or that this life is a practice run training us for heaven, or that karma will reward a well lived life, or it could be a combination of these and other factors.

Each potential cause within the religious ideology has an atheistic analogue, except one. The idea that god(s) will make everything okay in the end is similar to believing that personal resilience is enough to overcome any obstacle. The idea that karma will reward a well lived life is analogous to the belief that a good life will benefit humanity even when the individual has died. The only way I can think of where religious belief in and of itself may lower the risk of depression is if God rewards his followers with direct supernatural happiness, and curses the non-believers with depression. Of course this is a possibility, but it is only one of many.

So I don’t see how any root cause within religious belief could be unique to religion, or how that could pose a challenge to atheistic ideas, unless God hates non-believers (which does not reflect the tolerant religions we are discussing). All this shows is that atheists need to develop an ability to deal with difficulties on their own terms, since they have no god to make sure things will turn out in their favour.

augustlan's avatar

I think it’s probably not religion per se, but the social bonds that religion often comes with that is the important factor. In addition, transitioning from belief to non-belief is often the result of or a precursor to an existential crises – which can certainly lead to a short-term depression. (I myself am considerably more at peace with my non-belief than I ever was with my belief, but that wasn’t an instantaneous thing… it took some time.)

It’s too complicated and interwoven to really say if the elimination of religion would be harmful or beneficial, overall. If religion disappeared, but other social groups arose simultaneously, it might have no effect on society whatsoever.

I do think aggressive anything probably isn’t the healthiest thing, for people or societies.

AdamF's avatar

@mattbrowne “I find it very interesting that some atheists look at the evidence in a way that fits best with their worldview.”

And theists like yourself aren’t?! Frankly, that’s funny.

You’re a theist who wants to believe that atheism is linked to lower levels of happiness.

There might be a relationship. Okay. But let’s sit back and check to see whether the evidence is clear cut, before pre-emptively branding people with motivated reasoing.

1. We know there are surveys which suggest that atheists are the least trusted minority in the U.S. The data you provide are from the U.S. Could it be that being ostracized from friendships might be depressing? Could it be that not being trusted by your neighbours if you’re honest, or having to hide your views, might be depressing? I know my family was ostracized, simply because we didn’t go to church when we lived in the U.S. We didn’t get depressed about it. But with a big enough sample size, some patterns may come out of it. What about all those sons and daughters who grow up not getting what their parents get. Because of the generational change, most non-religious in the U.S. probably have religious parents.

But the question should arise, what about the rest of the world, where the society has largely made the transition to irreligosity….but perhaps the data there isn’t quite so appealing to theists.

2. We know that non-religious countries consistently score among the highest on happiness indicators. Why are the Swede’s and Danes happy nations, with so many atheists? How is that even possibly if there is any depth to your “thought provoking hypothesis” that tries to imply that non-religious world would be plaged by depression? And if you say that that’s a product of the culture or society, then how do concurrently get to claim that the Quaker example you provide is a product of the religion, rather than the unique society they’ve created.

You can’t have it both ways.

also, if you have a problem with materialism, that’s got inherrently to do with secularity. google “prosperity theology” if you feel like a laugh.

Anyways, societies dominated by the non-religious do really really well. How do you account for that?

You should also have a read of this article. Zuckerman provides links to his published relevant studies on his webpage.

“While many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is showing that the relationships among atheism, theism, and mental health and well-being are complex. After all, Denmark, which is among the least religious countries in the history of the world, consistently rates as the happiest of nations. And studies of apostates — people who were religious but later rejected their religion — report feeling happier, better and liberated in their post-religious lives.

“Nontheism isn’t all balloons and ice cream. Some studies suggest that suicide rates are higher among the non-religious. But surveys indicating that religious Americans are better off can be misleading because they include among the non-religious fence-sitters who are as likely to believe in God, whereas atheists who are more convinced are doing about as well as devout believers. On numerous respected measures of societal success — rates of poverty, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, drug use and crime, as well as economics — high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in first-world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America.”

Are depressed people who have a fear of burning in hell for all eternity if they kill themselves, likely to register lower on rates of suicide. Probably.

Are people who are a least trusted minority and face prejudice in the workplace, or from their own families, likely to more subject to depression in religious societies? Probably.

Are people who believe they’re destined for an eternity of bliss, and all the problems of this world are not really important, likely to find some benefits from these beliefs. Probably.

Are people who belong to a collection of like minded individuals who all embrace the same group think, likely to benefit from the support base. Probably.

But, are societies with non-religious people consistently ranked in the top of societal happiness indicators. Yes.

And that last stat throws one hell of a bloody big spanner in your argument.

So how is it again that fighting the depression epidemic will benefit from moving away from societies dominated by the non-religious…when those are the happiest societies we know of?

mattbrowne's avatar

@AdamF – I am a theist who wants to believe that atheism is linked to lower levels of happiness?

How do you know that? Did you hack my brain? I won’t continue debates that get personal. I wanted to discuss empirical evidence and look at arguments. I very much appreciated @crisw‘s links for example. I also appreciate your link to the Washington Post article. But personal allegations and the use of strong language (‘one hell of a bloody big spanner’) are unacceptable and a clear signal to leave a debate.

AdamF's avatar

“I find it very interesting that some atheists look at the evidence in a way that fits best with their worldview.”

“Food for thought: perhaps the attempt to eliminate religion altogether is a grave risk to our societies.”

How is it reasonable for you to assume that atheists are only looking at the evidence in a way that best fits their worldivew, but it is unreasonable for me to assume (in direct response) that you as a theist are promoting this data in several threads because it fits with your worldview?

With respect to your feelings regarding “strong language”, I have a hard time seeing that as anything but seeking offense on your behalf.

mattbrowne's avatar

In my earlier comment was talking about some atheists, which means I didn’t allege that all atheists or all atheists in this particular thread or one particular atheist in this thread is unable to look at evidence in a way that is independent of his or her worldview. Because I can’t look into other brains. I can only mention a particular impression that I have and this means I could be right or wrong about what a person really believes. I will not know unless the person shares it with me. And I can assure you that I treasure having an independent view when looking at empirical evidence. If there’s evidence and there are good arguments contradicting my hypothesis then that’s how it is. It won’t disappoint me. On the contrary, new insights obtained during debate is a good thing. It’s always a good thing to challenge our assumptions once in a while. And this applies to both atheists and theists. Nobody has got a monopoly on truth.

Psychologists are still struggling to find the root cause of the depression epidemic. All strong correlations are worth exploring. Some might turn into causal links while others don’t.

And we can have a civilized debate about it without having to throw in big spanners, which to me has the connotation of stopping a running cog-wheeled powered machine. End of debate. Period. Is this what we want?

AdamF's avatar

Okay, if we are going to emphasize style over substance…here’s my perspective, while doing my utmost to be more sensitive than I would ever normally be to how you phrased the issue. try not to take it too seriously

1. Discussing “The attempt to eliminate religion” welcomes the impression that a forceful conversion is currently in the process of taking place. News to me, especially as the most popular works on the problems of religion never indicate anything other than voluntary conversion by conversation. yes I know, that’s not what you meant. But vagaries can be used to purposely provide false impressions, and to propagate negative stereotypes.

2. “The attempt to eliminate religion” also belies the current state of reality. If you take Phil Zuckerman’s estimates then around 7% of the world’s population is atheist or agnostic, I very much doubt the 93% of the world’s population that are theists, all 6.5 billion of them, are at any imminent risk of disappearing. Considering that atheist’s are already the least trusted minority in at least some parts of the world, this strikes me as purposely pretending that the majority position (theism) is in the vulnerable position, rather than in the position of utmost dominating power. A common tactic used by those with power, for further ostracizing those in the minority position.

3. The repeated juxtaposition of “eliminating religion”, with exagerated statements like “grave risk to our societies”, or potentially real threats like “depression epidemic” is very effective, regardless of whether it is done in a statement or as a question, at forming a mental association between severe societal problems and a lack of religiosity when I am not aware of any scholarly support for such a link. Better yet, by making it a question one can create the association between the concepts with actually having to defend one’s position…“ie. it was only a question?!”. For instance, “How can we stop the child abuse epidemic without fighting theism, if religous parents are statistically more likely to beat their kids than atheists?”

4. You did write “some atheists”, which I can only presume is referring directly to individuals writing at this thread (I think that is reasonable considering the context). You did not state your quote as an “impression” (If that excuse works for you, then feel free to let me use it too). You state: “I find it very interesting that some atheists look at the evidence in a way that fits best with their worldview.” You are therefore not only claiming to look into one person’s brain, but multiple peoples. I hope you’ll agree that if it’s wrong to do it to one person, it doesn’t make it better by doing it to lots, and then use the excuse…“but it wasn’t personal”. May I also remind you that my comment did not occur in a vaccuum, but was in direct response to your statement.

On a far more relevant and less tedious note. There may not even be a depression epidemic for atheist’s to be blamed for exacerbating, via the inevitable success of their evil plans for world domination and forceful conversion of their helpless theist victims to their deeply depressing worldview.

I have no idea though whether the authors are merely contrarians, or actually have a solid case, perhaps a bit of both.

Some conciliatory points.

I didn’t see anything aggressive in my “one hell of a bloody big” comment. It is common language for an Australian and your reaction to it honestly surprised me. I have no idea if that was a sincere reation on your behalf (surprise…I can’t read minds…), or merely an effective way of sidesteping my arguments (“taking offense” is a very effective technique in discussions for putting the opponent on the defensive). Either way, although I don’t think I have anything more of any use to say, it in no way was intended to end the discussion.

mattbrowne's avatar

Thank you for your very thoughtful and positive response, @AdamF !

My main concern was the “You’re a theist who wants to believe that atheism is linked to lower levels of happiness.”

I’m glad that we got this resolved, because I am a theist who wants to explore and understand the world including human nature. Good empirical evidence is key to me. And let me assure you I don’t want to believe that atheism is linked to lower levels of happiness. In fact I am under the impression that most atheist think deeply about the world and do live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Diminishing or eliminating religion is about people who used to value religion or belong to a religious community and no longer are. They don’t necessarily become atheists. Maybe they are just individuals trying to have fun without being interested in fundamental questions and being tied to communities.

But it is a reality that some people perceive religion as a threat and firmly believe that the world will be a better place without it. Therefore I’m interested in what researchers have to say about it. Keeping people in religious communities can very likely have health benefits. It is faith? Or is it perhaps just the social aspect of religion? Something else? Why is depression on the rise (you mentioned that it might not)? If yes, has it to do with a more individualistic culture?

I will check out the Scientific American article.

augustlan's avatar

I’m impressed with you two. Well done, sirs.

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