Is Atheism A Mental Illness?

Sean Thomas at the London Telegraph seems to think so….

Thanks to a couple of surveys, it’s being put about in certain circles that atheists have higher IQs than believers. That may or may not be the case, but…Let’s dispense with the crude metric of IQ and look at the actual lives led by atheists, and believers, and see how they measure up. In other words: let’s see who is living more intelligently.

And guess what: it’s the believers. A vast body of research, amassed over recent decades, shows that religious belief is physically and psychologically beneficial – to a remarkable degree.

In 2004, scholars at UCLA revealed that college students involved in religious activities are likely to have better mental health. In 2006, population researchers at the University of Texas discovered that the more often you go to church, the longer you live. In the same year researchers at Duke University in America discovered that religious people have stronger immune systems than the irreligious. They also established that churchgoers have lower blood pressure.

Meanwhile in 2009 a team of Harvard psychologists discovered that believers who checked into hospital with broken hips reported less depression, had shorter hospital stays, and could hobble further when they left hospital – as compared to their similarly crippled but heathen fellow-sufferers.

The list goes on. In the last few years scientists have revealed that believers, compared to non-believers, have better outcomes from breast cancer, coronary disease, mental illness, Aids, and rheumatoid arthritis. Believers even get better results from IVF. Likewise, believers also report greater levels of happiness, are less likely to commit suicide, and cope with stressful events much better. Believers also have more kids.

What’s more, these benefits are visible even if you adjust for the fact that believers are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. And let’s not forget that religious people are nicer. They certainly give more money to charity than atheists, who are, according to the very latest survey, the meanest of all.

So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?

Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.  MORE

 

What is “Mental illness”  – Does Atheism Fit?


There is a lot to this.  Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no generally accepted definition of the terms “mental health” or “mental illness.”  Readers might be surprised to learn that most therapists can complete their training and not once have a meaningful discussion in class about what mental health or mental illness actually is.  We learn categories of illness and symptom checklists, but there is no generally accepted understanding of what actually constitutes a mental illness in the first place.  In order for Thomas’ assertion to be more than a slur against atheists, we need to look at what mental illness could actually be defined as.

Psychiatrist and brain researcher,  Dr. Daniel Siegel, argues that mental health represents the degree of integration within and between the mind, the body and our relationships.   He further argues that mental illness can be described as the falling out of  this state of integration and lapsing into a relative state of increased rigidity, chaos or both.  These are probably the best definitions of these terms I’ve ever encountered.

Seen in this light, I think there is a case to be made that atheism could be a mental illness.  There are many more studies like Sean Thomas points to that strongly suggest that religious believers have significantly better integration with regard to health, mental health, relationship satisfaction, and pro-social behavior.  We also know that there is strong comorbidity between atheism and high functioning autism.  In general, while the occurrence of agnosticism or personalized spiritualities is quite high, the incidence of atheism stands at 1-5% in the general population, which is consistent with other mental disorders.

Can Belief Systems Be Disorders?

It isn’t enough to say that, because atheism is a belief system it should be exempt from being considered a mental illness.  The belief that one is Napoleon is clearly evidence that something  is not right.  Also, I’m not picking on atheists, I would argue that any belief system that significantly inhibited the integration between or within one’s mind, body, and relationships was representative of, if not outright mental illness, than at least poorer mental health.  And, in fact, there are types of religiousness (aka, “extrinsic religiosity” which tends to be characterized, not by internal conversion, but rule-bound judgmentalism and angry tribalism) that have been shown by a great deal of research to be associated with poor mental health.

So, seen from this perspective, considering the relatively lower rates of mental, physical and social well-being enjoyed by atheists, it really isn’t unreasonable or inappropriate to ask if atheism either is a mental illness itself or is a contributor to poor mental well-being.

 

About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Roki

    So many questions:

    Are there differences between atheisms? e.g., philosophical atheism vs. practical atheism vs. autistic atheism?

    Is atheism itself a mental illness? Is it inherently a dis-integration of mind, body, and relationship?

    Is atheism a symptom of mental illness(es)? e.g., a common but not universal symptom of autism?

    Is atheism a contributing cause of mental illness(es)? e.g., a reinforcer of depression?

    etc.

    I think it’s probably simplistic to state that atheism is a mental illness, but it seems likely that atheism is part of some mental illnesses.

  • Joe Cogan

    “They certainly give more money to charity than atheists, who are, according to the very latest survey, the meanest of all.”

    Bill Gates and Warren Buffett may be surprised to hear that.

    • gpopcak

      So, your point is that there are exactly two very generous atheists? And are they atheists or agnostics? There’s an important difference. Bill Gates wife still claims to be Catholic. How much of their philanthropy is because of her influence?

  • erikcampano

    If atheism is a mental illness, then 78% of Norway is mentally ill. That must explain why it ranks #1 on the human development index.

  • Alan Nixon

    These studies are probably not all that surprising in earlier periods, as it has been quite difficult to be an atheist in most places up until now and can still be difficult, if not deadly today. However, I found that most of the younger Western atheists (up to 40) in my samples had far less animosity and felt far more content in their atheism. I believe that this will be a pattern that increases as we see further generations of self-confident and supported atheists come through. Most of the studies that cite bad mental or physical health see social integration as a major factor. This would have been the same for homosexuals and other races in white societies in the past I don’t believe this will be a problem in a world where atheism is accepted and supported. Labeling atheists as ‘mentally ill’ will not help to achieve such acceptance and support, it will only exacerbate the negative effects of which you speak. I and many others are very happy in our atheism and I for one find it insulting to be labeled mentally ill because I do not have a religious worldview. Life is wonderful as it is, why do you need a fantasy to improve it, isn’t /that/ closer to a form of mental illness?

    • Ssdf

      Well as Gabe below said:

      “I think many atheists are mentally ill. Consider the fact that the extremist atheists on the internet only ever talk about religion and God and obsess with it to the point where it becomes an addiction. Observe YouTube atheist behavior and they spend countless hours debating over the existence of God who in their minds (and claims) is non-existent.

      A non stamp collector doesn’t talk about how he doesn’t collect stamps does he? If atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god then it really requires no dialogue whatsoever. The true atheist is an apatheist who doesn’t care. There are only a few of there. These atheists on the internet (new aggressive atheism) have their own code and their system. They even stage conventions where they meet to talk about their “lack of faith in God”! You don’t hear about non stamp collectors staging meetings to talk about how they don’t collect stamps do you?

      Another common trait among atheists is that are Darwinists. Darwinists are different from evolutionists in that they worship Darwin and talk a lot about evolution. There is no conflict between evolution and belief in a god but the fact that people now have labels for what they believe explains the origins of species (evolutionist, creationist, etc) explains how atheists are more religious than they realize. I accept The Big Bang and gravity because of the evidence but I don’t go around calling myself a Bangist or Gravitationist.

      All research and evidence leads to the conclusion of these facts:

      +Atheists are deeply depressed.

      +Atheists have the higher suicide rate out of any belief system.

      +Atheists suffer from social anxiety and negative perception (confidence issues).

      +Atheists have an irrational hatred and obsession with religion leading to more social problems.

      +There are no mental health benefits of atheism. It is devoid of rational thinking and mental protection.”

      Sources:

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2008.00520.x/abstract

      https://iasp.info/pdf/papers/Bertolote.pdf

      http://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/publication/2050070

      http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10943-011-9541-1#

  • Gabe

    I think many atheists are mentally ill. Consider the fact that the extremist atheists on the internet only ever talk about religion and God and obsess with it to the point where it becomes an addiction. Observe YouTube atheist behavior and they spend countless hours debating over the existence of God who in their minds (and claims) is non-existent.

    A non stamp collector doesn’t talk about how he doesn’t collect stamps does he? If atheism is simply a lack of belief in a god then it really requires no dialogue whatsoever. The true atheist is an apatheist who doesn’t care. There are only a few of there. These atheists on the internet (new aggressive atheism) have their own code and their system. They even stage conventions where they meet to talk about their “lack of faith in God”! You don’t hear about non stamp collectors staging meetings to talk about how they don’t collect stamps do you?

    Another common trait among atheists is that are Darwinists. Darwinists are different from evolutionists in that they worship Darwin and talk a lot about evolution. There is no conflict between evolution and belief in a god but the fact that people now have labels for what they believe explains the origins of species (evolutionist, creationist, etc) explains how atheists are more religious than they realize. I accept The Big Bang and gravity because of the evidence but I don’t go around calling myself a Bangist or Gravitationist.

    All research and evidence leads to the conclusion of these facts:

    +Atheists are deeply depressed.

    +Atheists have the higher suicide rate out of any belief system.

    +Atheists suffer from social anxiety and negative perception (confidence issues).

    +Atheists have an irrational hatred and obsession with religion leading to more social problems.

    +There are no mental health benefits of atheism. It is devoid of rational thinking and mental protection.

    Sources:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2008.00520.x/abstract (The Association of Suicide Rates with Individual-Level Suicide Attitudes: A Cross-National Analysis)

    https://iasp.info/pdf/papers/Bertolote.pdf (A global perspective in the epidemiology of suicide)

    http://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/publication/2050070 (Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates)

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10943-011-9541-1# (Psychological Distress Among Religious Nonbelievers: A Systematic Review)

  • James Patton

    No comments? I would have thought that the mentally ill would have flocked here to proclaim their sanity…:)

    P.S. I am an atheist…:D

  • Alan Nixon

    Not accepting any comments huh? Are you afraid of criticism? Sure seems like it….

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    The studies cited are not terribly convincing. The articles’ suggestion of a link between atheism and mental illness represents a classic case of mistaking correlation for causation. It’s just as likely that the same mental processes, conscious or unconscious, that drive one to be a believer also have beneficial effects on mental and physical health in general. If that is the case, then being a person of faith isn’t what makes you healthier; it may be that whatever it is that makes you healthier also makes you more receptive to faith-based messages.

    I’m not an atheist. In fact, I head the lay pastoral action team in my Catholic parish. But I also have a degree in psychology. I would suggest taking with a large quantity of salt any media report that suggests a link between atheism and mental illness.

    Bottom line: the studies referred to (but not actually CITED) appear to suggest that there is some kind of positive connection between religious faith and physical and mental health, but there is nothing in these articles (this one and the quoted article from the London Telegraph) to suggest what is CAUSING that relationship or WHY the relationship exists. Without that information, it is irresponsible to suggest, as the title of this article does, that there is a link between atheism and mental illness.

    At the very least, go to the original scientific reports to see what the researchers actually had to say on the subject. Popular media do a notoriously poor job of reporting on scientific matters, often completely missing subtleties in the discussion of results in favour of the more sensationalistic content.

    • gpopcak

      I didn’t cite links because the studies were cited in the original article. That’s the original author’s job, not mine. That said, thanks to a little thing call Google, you are free to look them up yourself!

      I do know that the original author was being honest in his reporting of the findings he mentions.

      At any rate, my point wasn’t to prove anything. It was to start a conversation. Atheists have no problem suggesting religious believers are crazy. The problem is that there is actually more data suggesting the opposite to be true.

      Here’s NYU psych prof Dr. Paul Vitz on the subject. http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth12.html


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