Religion and Mental Health

Religion and Mental Health October 10, 2021


Pres. Nelson did this
The Sapporo Japan Temple was dedicated in 2016, by President Russell M. Nelson
(LDS Media Library)




I’m hoping that my travel commitments will slow down in 2022, and possibly even this year.  Happily, I’m in a small pause right now, which has given me a bit of time to reflect upon my writing goals and on how, if possible, to achieve some of them before I depart this vale of tears.


As things stand, I’m committed to twenty-six columns for Meridian Magazine annually.  Since by design and promise, they typically weigh in at somewhere between 1500 and 2000 (or 2000+) words per column, that represents a commitment to Meridian of approximately 50,000 words per annum.  And my commitment to Patheos is that my blog entries will generally run about 1000 words.  Madly, perhaps, I’ve been writing one blog entry daily.  So that totals approximately 365,000 words per year.  Add the two together, and you get roughly 415,000 words annually.


Considering that full books commonly run between 60,000 and 120,000 words in length, 415,000 words represents a pretty hefty commitment. (And I’m not even counting my frequent Introductions to volumes of Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.)  Yet I’m more interested in writing books than I am in blogging or even writing a column.  So, although I’m a pretty rapid writer, clearly something needs to change.  The tail is wagging the dog.


There are several plain options.  One is to give up my blog and/or my Meridian column.  I’m not inclined to do the latter, and I’m not overly enthused about the former.  On the other hand, I could greatly cut down my blogging.  In the end, it may come to that,  However, for the short term I’m going to try to make my blogging serve my (many) book projects.  And one of the obvious ways of harnessing the blog for my work on my books would be to use it largely as a place to save my reading notes for my books and sometimes the first drafts of passages that will eventually go into the books.  I’ve tried that before, rather occasionally, and I’m going to try it again for a while.


Accordingly, here are some notes.  Dr. Lynn Johnson has kindly been sharing with me articles on the relationship between religion and health that he (rightly) suspects will interest me.  I greatly appreciate this, and here I’m sharing some of the passages from them that I’ve recently marked up:


George W. Holden and Paul Alan Williamson, “Religion and Child Well-Being”

The influential founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Albert Ellis (1980), pronounced “Religiosity, therefore, is in many respects equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional disturbance” (p. 637).  (1141)

Religion is a powerful force in many people’s lives. It can motivate terrorists, cause wars, justify intolerance and prejudicial beliefs, promote antiscience ideologies, and be a regressive social influence. For most people, fortunately, religion serves as a force for decency and good. Broadly speaking, the world’s religions resemble each other in that they uphold behavioral ethics of not lying, stealing, committing adultery, or murdering. Further, religions in general promote virtues of humility, charity, and honesty (Smith 2009). One reflection of these teachings can be found in the fact that religious adults contribute to charities more and in more generous amounts than nonreligious people (Nemeth and Luidens 2003).  (1137)

there is increasing evidence that religion is indeed associated with many different manifestations of well-being in children and youth.  (1138)

The first empirical article that addressed religion and well-being in youth was by Brown and Lowe (1951) who explored the role of religion in college students’ beliefs, personality, and related variables.They found that students who were religious reported higher morale and better family relations, than did nonbelievers.  (1141)

In a meta-analytic review, Bergin (1983) concluded that, in contrast to Albert Ellis’ disparaging comments about religion, there was no support that religion was correlated with psychopathology; in fact, when there were significant findings, it indicated that the more religious someone was, the better mental health he or she enjoyed.  (1141-1142)

The first journal article directly attempting to link religion and well-being in adolescents was published by Smith et al. (1979). Using a cross-cultural sample of Catholic students, they found that religiosity was positively related to adolescent self-esteem in 75 % of the 12 samples of youth they collected.  (1142)

Eleven years later, the second pioneering study in the area was published. This study, of 201 low-income families, was the first study to systematically begin to examine the links between religion and child well-being. Researchers . . . determined that self-reported religiousness in parents was related to better functioning in both the parent and in the parents’ child-rearing behaviors.  (1142)

The third pioneering study is a recent contribution to the literature and by far the strongest empirical effort to date on the topic. It focused explicitly on how religion is related to children’s development in multiple domains, using multiple informants and a very large dataset. Bartkowski et al. (2008) analyzed a nationally representative, longitudinal dataset (Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-KindergartenClass) of more than 15,000 participants to examine whether religious attendance by parents was related to child functioning. They determined that more religious attendance by parents, both individually and together as couples, was associated with better child functioning in three domains: behavior problems, social interactions, and cognitive performance. For example, children whose parent or parents went to church showed greater self-control, better interpersonal skills, and fewer internalizing problems as well as externalizing problems at school.  (1142)

All three reviews [a different three than those referred to in the preceding quotations -dcp] found that religion or spirituality was strongly related to positive health behaviors. Rew and Wong (2006) determined that 77 % of the studies found exclusively positive relations between religion and positive health behaviors such as exercise, good sleep hygiene, seat belt use, use of birth control, and maintenance of healthy diets.  (1145)

King and Roeser (2009) similarly found a positive association of religion and a variety of salutary health behaviors.  (1145)

With regard to substance use, greater religiosity and spirituality is consistently related, in most studies, to less adolescent drug or alcohol use.  (1146)

Several dozen empirical studies demonstrate positive associations between religiosity and child or youth mental health or emotional well-being.  (1146-1148)

In a meta-analysis of 60 studies, Baier and Wright (2001) concluded that religiosity provides a moderate deterrent effect on youth criminality. Similarly, in a review of 40 studies, Johnson et al. (2000) determined that 80 % of the studies provided solid evidence of an inverse relation between religiousness and delinquency.  (1148-1149)

Although to date there are no reviews on the topic of religion and children’s cognitive functioning, we did locate three studies on the topic. Each reported a modest to strong positive association, as assessed by academic performance.  (1149-1150). [Also a positive relationship between religion and neurological function.  (1150)]

Table 39.1 summarizes the contributions of religion to child well-being, including more exercise, good hygiene, seatbelt use, healthy diet, and delayed sexual activity; less depression, anxiety, and suicidality; higher self-esteem; less delinquency and acting out and crime; fewer externalizing behaviors; higher grades and increased likelihood of earning a college degree. (1150)

Taken as a whole, the studies are consistent in that they predominately show that religion is indeed associated with children’s well-being.  (1150)

Religion and spirituality appear to buffer youth against mental health problems, externalizing behaviors, delinquency, and risky health behaviors. It has been determined that the positive relation between religion and various indices of mental health generally holds after controlling for sociodemographics and other covariates (Donahue and Benson 1995; Rew and Wong 2006; Schottenbauer et al. 2007).  Although Regnerus (2003) argued that, based on high-quality studies, the evidence tends to be modest, subsequent research has continued to find positive relations.King and Roeser (2009), when summarizing the evidence in this domain, concluded: “the current literature paints a clear picture of the protective relationship between adolescent religiosity and various risk behaviors” (p. 464). Religiosity also appears to promote academic performance and may even enhance cognitive development.  (1150-1151)

However, the [few] longitudinal studies that are available do indicate that religion and spirituality are predictive of good mental health and other positive developmental outcomes (e.g., Bartkowski et al. 2008; Schottenbauer et al. 2007).  (1152)

A few studies have shown intrinsic religiousness and existential aspects of religion (spirituality) in particular to be associated with better scores on mental health measures (e.g., Holder et al. 2010; Huculak and McLennan 2010).  (1153)

For example, in a sample of 2,992 British youth ages 11–19 years, those youth who had weak beliefs or who viewed religious practice as unimportant were more likely to have emotional disorders (e.g., anxiety and depressive disorders) compared to those with stronger beliefs or who held religious practice as important (Meltzer et al. 2011). There is now similar evidence beginning to emerge from other populations.  (1154)

Schottenbauer et al. (2007) found that families’ church attendance was associated with more positive social skills in third graders.  (1155)

Overall, the empirical data indicate that religion and spirituality are indeed likely to promote mental and emotional health in young people.  (1155)


Andrew H. Mannheimer and Terrence D. Hill, “Deviating from Religious Norms and the Mental Health of Conservative Protestants,” Journal of Religion and Health (September 2014)

numerous studies show that religious involvement is associated with favorable mental health outcomes”

Findings indicate that falling short of population average levels for church attendance and reading of religious scripture is associated with higher levels of psychological distress.”

“Indeed, a growing body of research indicates that religious struggles are associated with poorer mental health, including higher levels of guilt, shame, anger, anxiety, paranoia, depression, and nonspecific psychological distress.”

falling short of religious expectations for religious attendance and scripture reading can be psychologically distressing”



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