Psychology of Religion: Religion – a Hell of a Lot of Fear and Depression

Psychology of Religion: Religion – a Hell of a Lot of Fear and Depression April 23, 2014

This article is taken from the excellent podcast Reasonable Doubts which itself borrows from source material and commentary from Tom Rees’ superb Epiphenom blog. Thanks to these two great sources for the bulk of this article.

Some interesting research has recently found out that there is a correlation between depression and religiosity. This goes against some research which suggests that religion makes people happier. It turns out that when you looks more closely, it is support structures and community which make people happy (ie not the religious content). As a tangent, it is worth noting that, other things controlled, the more confident in your beliefs, the happier you are (see terror management theory): there is a bell curve of unhappiness if you will whereby fundamentalists and hardline atheists are happy, more agnostic and wavering believers are less happy. The more secure you are, the more secure you feel against fears of death and suchlike and have better mental health.

There is much of interest about this other research that looked at some 8318 non-depressed people in a longitudinal study to track moments of depression. Some 7% of nonbelievers/secularist experienced major bout(s) of depression. Active practitioners of religion showed 10.3%. Those with a spiritual worldview, 10.5%. This is not a huge effect, but a statistically significant one.

What was fascinating was that when they adjusted for known variables which play a role in depression between groups (including age, sex, education, employment, social support, past history of depression and country) they found that the religious effect vanished. One clear predictor still stood out, though: those who said they had a spiritual worldview. “Only ‘spiritual world view’ (and not active religious participation) remained a significant predictor of future depression,” stated Rees. And the country where this effect was strongest was the UK. What was interesting about this group was that the more confident this group was, the more the risk of depression went up, bucking other research. The risk of depression for weakly religious was 7.4%, whereas for the strongly religious it rose to 12.5%. 

Tom Rees comments:

So religion doesn’t seem to protect people from depression, and spirituality in the absence of religious affiliation seems to be a positive risk factor – especially in the UK.

That chimes with other studies (including a recent one by King himself [see references below], and one showing that New Agers are particularly prone to delusional beliefs). What does that mean?

Probably only that people who are prone to psychological problems tend to drop out of organised religion…

What’s going on? Well, looking at another piece of research, light may be shed. Aggregated information from dozens and dozens of studies around the world about hell and heaven and happiness. It turns out that hell has a stronger effect on negating happiness than heaven has on improving happiness. Yet, how is it that certain highly religious populations were happy and others unhappy? What they figured out is that modern Christianity has to some extent jettisoned the idea of hell and retained the idea of heaven. This over-concentration on heaven has been termed a “heaven surplus”. They took the number of people who believed in hell and took it away from the people who believed in heaven, and standardised it, and they found that the heaven surpluses had the happier populations. The ones who believed in hell had less happiness and wellbeing in their lives.

This isn’t just from the data in the countries themselves, but was replicated in the lab, where, amongst other things, priming of hell was shown to have a great effect, even on atheists; however, priming on heaven had no effect.

Problems with the data are obviously potentially existent such that cultural differences in the idea of heaven could present problems. Studies like this report what is, and not necessarily why it is so. That is the job of theorising and, to some degree, of (coherent) speculating. One speculation could also follow that countries with greater safety nets and social welfare and wellbeing are more likely to drop ideas of hell. This obviously questions the direction of causality in such findings. Which one causes the other?

Tom Rees states of this:

Nevertheless, Shariff and Aknin reckon that this might explain why hell beliefs are on the wane. In the past people believed in hell in order to keep society safe. But, with the establishment of rule-following, well policed and governed nations, the need for hell ebbed away – so people dropped their sadness-inducing beliefs.

You could debate whether belief in hell actually reduces criminality – though Sharif has previously provided evidence that it does. Arguably, all that’s important for to maintain belief in hell is that people believe that it has this effect. So perhaps people give up on hell because they stop believing that it has any effect on behaviour

Another study which tried to isolate the causal direction of this relationship, shows a clear relationship between fear and hell. A team, led by Daniel Treisman of UCLA, wanted to create a fearfulness index of nations. They found that fear was a social construct which didn’t match up with reality. After controlling for general fear amongst people (people who fear one thing generally fear lots of things), they saw a relationship that showed that religious beliefs were a good predictor of fear. Catholic countries were more fearful than Protestant, with the Greek Orthodox Church topping even the Catholics. More prevalent was belief in heaven or hell, as supporting the earlier research in this article. Belief in heaven pushed fearfulness back a little, whereas hell pushed it higher to a larger degree. Thus the content of religion is actually important in driving emotional behaviour. As Rees says in one of his articles:

Those countries where a lot of people believed in Hell were more fearful across the range of potential threats. In fact, much of the apparent relationship between religious traditions and fear could be explained by the degree of hell-belief.

That chimes with some other research showing that British Christians are made less anxious by thoughts of death than are British Muslims, mainly because the Christians are less likely to believe in Hell.

So, even after adjusting for poverty, authoritarianism in the country, war, educational styles, cultural notions of masculinity and individualism, religion stayed as a prominent causal factor.

So when talking about happiness, there are mitigating aspects of religion which push up these results, such as social structures and suchlike, with the degree of confidence in your belief being second most important. But the content of your belief does indeed have an impact on your happiness; hell and all it entails makes people fearful and less happy, it seems, with secure populations appearing to drop the idea more readily.

Hell is  pretty depressing. If you want to be happy, eh, just forgeddabout it.


Aird, R., Scott, J., McGrath, J., Najman, J., & Al Mamun, A. (2009). Is the New Age phenomenon connected to delusion-like experiences? Analysis of survey data from Australia. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/13674670903131843

Leurent, B., Nazareth, I., Bellón-Saameño, J., Geerlings, M., Maaroos, H., Saldivia, S., Švab, I., Torres-González, F., Xavier, M., & King, M. (2013). Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort studyPsychological Medicine, 1-12 DOI: 10.1017/S0033291712003066

King, M., Marston, L., McManus, S., Brugha, T., Meltzer, H., & Bebbington, P. (2012). Religion, spirituality and mental health: results from a national study of English households The British Journal of Psychiatry, 202 (1), 68-73 DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.112.112003

Shariff, A., & Aknin, L. (2014). The Emotional Toll of Hell: Cross-National and Experimental Evidence for the Negative Well-Being Effects of Hell Beliefs PLoS ONE, 9(1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085251

Triesman, D. The Geography of Fear 


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  • Luke Breuer

    It strikes me that this is a bit one-sided. Many brilliant people with deep insight into human nature, like David Foster Wallace, also struggled deeply with depression. Wallace himself took his life at age 46, but he is not the first such person. I attended a talk by a Caltech professor on people in history who had bipolar disorder or the lesser version, cyclothymia. Many of these people had made fantastic contributions to science and culture. The professor herself has cyclothymia, and during one hypomanic episode, wrote a research paper in Russian (she did not know Russian), which later turned out to be salvageable. She did have to get the paper translated to English, first.

    Another suicide is Alfred Seidel, a sociologist who, after discovering the fiction upon which society is constructed, wrote a short book [in German] called “Conciousness as Doom”, then committed suicide. This is recounted in Ernst Bloch’s Literary Essays, and the entire section can be read in this Google Books preview. It is strongly reminiscent of Daniel Miessler’s Meaning is an Illusion, and also shows up in Healing Fiction.

    Jonathan, have you read Ernest Becher’s The Denial of Death? I wonder to what extent one experiences more depression when one does less denying.

  • Void Walker

    “Another study which tried to isolate the causal direction of this relationship, shows a clear relationship between fear and hell.”

    Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. When I became a Christian (I was 7), I did so in fear. I imagined the horrors of Hell, the separation from God and my loved ones, and broke down crying. I begged my mom to “show me the way”. What a sad, sad song.

    • Luke Breuer

      While I don’t discount your personal experience, the evidence indicates that it is not representative in a holistic sense. From The Psychology of Religion, Fourth Edition: An Empirical Approach (recommended by James Lindsay, author of Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly, which Jonathan reviewed):

      With respect to death and bereavement, one salient aspect of a religious schema might be belief in an afterlife. Apparently such belief is “associated with greater recovery from bereavement regardless of the cause of death” (Smith et al., 1991–1992, p. 222). In contrast, bereaved persons with little belief in an afterlife evidence less well-being in general, and poorer recovery from the bereavement in particular. Such people also make greater efforts to avoid thinking about the death in question. (199)

          Serious defects that often stemmed from antireligious perspectives exist in many early studies of relationships between religion and psychopathology. The more modern view is that religion functions largely as a means of countering rather than contributing to psychopathology, though severe forms of unhealthy religion will probably have serious psychological and perhaps even physical consequences. In most instances, faith buttresses people’s sense of control and self-esteem, offers meanings that oppose anxiety, provides hope, sanctions socially facilitating behavior, enhances personal well-being, and promotes social integration. Probably the most hopeful sign is the increasing recognition by both clinicians and religionists of the potential benefits each group has to contribute. Awareness of the need for a spiritual perspective has opened new and more constructive possibilities for working with mentally disturbed individuals and resolving adaptive issues.
          A central theme throughout this book is that religion “works” because it offers people meaning and control, and brings them together with like-thinking others who provide social support. This theme is probably nowhere better represented than in the section of this chapter on how people use religious and spiritual resources to cope. Religious beliefs, experiences, and practices appear to constitute a system of meanings that can be applied to virtually every situation a person may encounter. People are loath to rely on chance. Fate and luck are poor referents for understanding, but religion in all its possible manifestations can fill the void of meaninglessness admirably. There is always a place for one’s God—simply watching, guiding, supporting, or actively solving a problem. In other words, when people need to gain a greater measure of control over life events, the deity is there to provide the help they require. (476)

      • Void Walker

        Oh yeah, I agree. I was just stating one of the motivations for me, personally, when I became a Christian. Everyone has a reason, some of them line up, others are quite divergent.

        • Luke Breuer

          The spirit of this articles seems to be that we ought to ban sharp knives, because sometimes people misuse them. Your comment kinda seemed to support that spirit. :-/

          • Void Walker

            Oh no, that was certainly not my intent.

      • Andy_Schueler

        While I don’t discount your personal experience, the evidence indicates that it is not representative in a holistic sense.

        Seems to depend on what “holistic” is supposed to mean in this context. If “holistic” means “religious people in general / on average”, then yes, the evidence does indicate that that this is not a representative experience. If “holistic” means “people who believe in hell” however, then it doesn´t seem to be an unusual experience at all. It might be worthwhile for the people that study this to distinguish between different conceptions of what “hell” means, but that is probably hard to do methodologically.
        If “hell” means eternal conscious torment for people that happen to not believe in a particular set of beliefs, then it is not at all surprising IMO that this belief fucks people up – any moment of doubt about whether your religious beliefs might be true and any thought about a loved one who doesn´t share your religious beliefs would then be coupled with fear or even lead to an existential crisis, and that simply can´t be healthy.

        • Luke Breuer

          I might agree 100%. Let’s see. Or not, if you find my response too word-salady. Sadly, I don’t really have much in the way of Christians with whom to hone ideas like the below. Atheists and skeptics are often all I get. :-( Let me admit outright that I’ve never seen a compelling version of hell, although I haven’t looked past contemporary discussion on the matter. Perhaps folks like Aquinas have interesting things to say!

          I would want to see a study to demonstrate your “simply can’t be healthy”. For example, how precisely do we define ‘belief’? Is it merely mental assent, or does it actually flow out into actions? Mt 7:21-23 indicates that only beliefs which produce actions matter. These actions must match up with “the will of my Father”, whatever that may be.

          Recently, I’ve been challenging what I perceive as a long-standing orthodox Christian doctrine, that it is God who “puts people in hell”. This experiences some difficulties:

          “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (Jn 3:16-21)

          I don’t claim to understand all of this. That being said, I find two things curious:

               (1) Jesus didn’t come to condemn.
               (2) Condemnation is self-inflicted.

          The precise nature of condemnation is difficult for me to understand. I don’t accept the contemporary Christian answers I’ve come across; they focus almost exclusively on the afterlife, depending on “jump discontinuities” which I think are to be disliked on theological grounds (see philosopher (now PhD) Kenny Pearce’s Leibniz’s theistic case against Humean miracles, especially “The argument from divine rationality”). Pushing things off ’till the afterlife is just a kind of punting, a sleight-of-hand.

          I believe that humans construct hell(s), [partially] by failing to hate evil ideas instead of whole people. It’s almost as if the choices you make are what you consider ‘life’ and what you consider ‘death’. As you go through existence, you tighten up your two categories, putting people/ideas in each. At the end, you get what you most wanted—life, or death. People are often bundles of contradictions, but somehow one’s desires get sorted out and ‘snapped’ to one or the other.

          The simplest example of life vs. death is whether, when someone else espouses an idea, you attempt to give it life, or attempt to kill it. Giving it life can require pruning, but what is the holistic effect you have on that idea? I’m not saying that all ideas can be given life, by the way.

          I’m zeroing in on the idea that anyone who condemns other people [to hell] has set himself or herself up as an autonomous god, a person who does what God incarnate did not do. I find this to be a compelling rubric through which to read passages like Ezek 18:30-32 and Mt 7:1-2. This does actually match up with some Christian tradition of which I’m aware, which says that it isn’t God who creates hell. Whether or not my proposed mechanism (such that it is) matches up with said tradition, I do not know.

          And now for some fun speculation. The ‘heat’ and ‘fire’ which is often associated with hell is also found in simulated annealing, which can be seen as the “rightly ordering” of some system, or the “seeking of the best state”. Perhaps the ‘heat’ and ‘fire’ are the last-ditch attempts to reorient people’s sense of what is true/beautiful/good. This would inject a redemptive purpose into the idea of hell, which is the only kind of hell I believe God would allow to exist. One which could be escaped.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    In my Islamic education I was told that faith correlates with sadness. Because the most virtuous are the most God fearing and you cannot be “complacent” about your life when you always have fear in the back of your mind.