By Lonna Murphy, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology,
Passaic County Community College

I was a secular humanist for years before I was a psychologist. That’s why when I was in college and graduate school my ears perked up the few times that religion, or lack thereof, came up in academic discussions about various psychological phenomena.

The two findings that always stuck in my mind are that people who have strong religious beliefs are also more psychologically healthy, and that having strong religious beliefs is the second highest predictor of death among older adults (physical health is the number one predictor).

As someone with no religious beliefs, I took this quite personally. No one wants to hear in a classroom or read in a textbook that they are at risk for mental illness or an early death. Thank goodness that a large part of training in the psychological sciences involves learning how to think critically.

As I started reading the actual research publications, I realized that the non-religious category was very broad and vague. When psychologists measure “religiosity” they ask questions about beliefs in a higher power and about church attendance. People who are labeled high in religiosity are people who strongly claim to have faith in a higher power and who attend church often.

This means that people who are labeled low in religiosity are a mix of people who 1) do believe in a higher power, but don’t go to church, 2) people who are not sure that there is a higher power, and may or may not go to church, and 3) people who do not believe and also do not attend church.

I think it’s pretty clear that atheists are very different from those people who believe but don’t act on those beliefs. I think of that group as “hypocrites”. These original studies not only lumped very distinct groups of people into one category, they didn’t tell us how many people were in each subcategory.

I am assuming (and it might be a big assumption) that there are more “hypocrites” than atheists in a typical American sample. I think that it makes sense that people who believe in some sort of god, but know that they are not doing anything about it might have more negative outcomes than people who are acting upon their deeply held beliefs. If they truly feel that their god wants them to attend church and they know that they are not attending church then that can cause some self-doubt.

Atheists, however, are not dealing with those issues. They do not believe in a higher power and therefore by not attending church they are being consistent with their views of the world. How can that be a bad thing?

Finally, a psychologist has come along to answer some of my questions. Dr. Luke Galen of Grand Valley State University did some research to better explore the difference between believers and atheists on measures of mental health and well-being. To further explore these issues, he compared very religious people, “religiously unsure” people, and people who are completely nonreligious. More importantly he also asked questions about their social networks and opportunities for prosocial behavior.

Dr. Galen found that unlike previous studies, the highly religious and the completely nonreligious were very similar in their mental health and general well-being. It was the religiously unsure who were at greater risk for mental health problems and reduced well-being.

What I found most interesting, however, were the findings regarding what components in the lives of religious and nonreligious seemed to promote mental health and general well-being. It’s the secular components of religious life that seems to help them: having opportunities to meet other people, expanding one’s social network (friends), having opportunities to participate in charity, etc.

This brings me to two conclusions.

First, it’s not that having a strong faith in a higher power protects people from life’s problems. It seems that having the opportunity to form tight-knit groups that allow social interaction and encourages prosocial behavior, such as charity, is what protects people.

Second, this implies that the secular community needs to encourage the formation of formal and informal groups for like-minded individuals. All people benefit from strong communities and opportunities to give back.

By Lonna Murphy, PhD
Assistant Professor of Psychology,
Passaic County Community College

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  1. mkb says:

    You left out one group. People who are atheists and go to church (often Unitarian Universalist churches, Ethical Culture Societies, or Humanistic Judaism congregations, but one study found that 5% of Catholics don’t believe in a god and surely some of them go to mass). My guess is that most atheists who go to church do so for the social interaction and the opportunities to participate in charity. Yesterday I was on a real high as I drove home from my first volunteer day with an ESOL class organized by my UU church for immigrants in our local area.

    I think that atheists can probably be divided into those who want a church-like structure and have found one, those who find their community and opportunities to serve elsewhere (maybe a local atheist/humanist group, but maybe a knitting club or community organization) and those who would like to find community and opportunities to serve in a somewhat church-like environment, but not too church-like. It’s only the third group for whom structures may need to be built.

    • Lonna says:

      The point of Dr. Galen’s work was not to perfectly capture all groups of people. The groups you talk about absolutely exist. I would argue that agnostics and their subsets would also count as more groups to examine. The point of Dr. Galen’s research was to explore if only religious people who practiced what they preach were able to have healthy outcomes, which is what previous (flawed) research had found. The beauty of his research was that you don’t have to be religious to achieve positive outcomes. Also, it’s not the religion that protects them, it’s the behaviors associated with religion and you can perform those behaviors without believing in a god. The take home message used to be that believing in a god was required to be mentally healthy. That’s obviously not true.

  2. Marius de Jess says:

    I would propose that psychologists study the ex Christians now vocal atheists.

    My suspicion is that Christians took up with being and calling themselves and acting as vocal atheists because they have gripes against God or more probably against people in their church who had caused them unwelcome developments in life.

    Anyway, addressing the author of this article, do you know of any such studies, namely, at what point in their life history did Christians who are now ex Christians turn themselves into open atheists and vocal ones at that, and what was their motivations, are these motivations emotional ones or intellectual ones?

    Marius de Jess

    • Lonna says:

      I appreciate the question. The problem is that what you are talking about isn’t really covered by the field of psychology. I supposed you are looking at the field of anthropology or something like that. Atheism is very understudied in the field of psychology because we psychologists study averages across groups. Social psychologists are interested in what is true of most people and clinical psychologists are interested in people with mental health disorders. Psychologists tend to try to get information that affects most people. American atheists are still a relatively small group. Sociology studies subcultures and that field might be interested in better understanding atheists and their pathway to making their decisions about a lack of religion. Most psychologists who study religion are pro-religion. I only know of two researchers (and one is a grad student) who are looking at atheism in a positive light. That’s why this research is so important. Psychologists assumed that religion was necessary for positive mental health. Most studies that supported that hypothesis were flawed in that they weren’t specific enough about what it means to be an atheist. The study I am talking about in this blog entry tries to clean up the confusion.

  3. Illya Yagiyayev says:

    Lonna, Hello!

    I’m a PhD-student at National Taras Shevchenko University of Kyiv, and my topic is the Well-Being of atheists. I appreciated your conclusions – yes, not religiosity itself, but subfactors of religiosity, such as social engagement, influence Well-Being. I haven’t got the results of my empirical studies yet, I’m going to test this hypothesis (not religiosity itself, but distinct factors invest to happiness).

    It’s also difficult to define atheism. Now I’m writing an article on (psychological) definition of atheism. I’m sure it’s not only “disbelief in God or gods” – atheism requires the rejection of the main statements of all religions, not only Abrahamic monotheistic and (poly)theistic (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism are not an atheism, even without non-human personal intentional forces). To my mind atheism is the disbelief in supernatural at all, but the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” also isn’t universal – it relates only to the Western culture. I’m also suppose atheist may participate churches and cult practices – it may give him aesthetic satisfaction, or he may do it because of practical reasons. But they remain unbelievers.

    Let’s speak and cooperate. I know our topic is too rare.

    Thank you!

    Illya, Kiev, Ukraine

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  5. Wardha says:

    I am from Pakistan and i am trying to do a quantitative research on atheism. I would like to discuss and talk to you about the topic further. Please email me on my id “” so that we can talk about it further. I would obliged for the assistance you provide.


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