For the last three weeks I have been discussing the academic literature studying anti-atheist prejudice. My goal with this project is to eventually weave this research together into something that more closely resembles a discussion amongst social and psychological scientists. This is precisely the technique used in research: First, review the literature and find gaps in our knowledge, second… etc. In other words, this is the first step someone would take when conducting a major research project. This brings me to my next article and topic of discussion, “Arrantly Absent: Atheism in Psychological Science From 2001 to 2012,” The Counseling Psychologist 2014, Vol. 42(5) 628–663.
In this article Melanie E. Brewster (et al) do a beautiful job weaving previous research together in their introduction, exposing gaps and setting up their premises. They uncover — in their literature review — a monumental shift during the last decades of psychologists studying the benefits of religion on the mind to the exclusion of irreligion, which, they argue, has an implication of religion is good for the mind, atheism is bad. Indeed, the authors cite Kier and Davenport, who state, “such research could be used to support prejudice and discrimination.” And this brings me back to the idea of anti-atheist prejudice. The authors conduct this study because in their field prejudice has empirical consequences (see minority stress theory):
experiences of discrimination and stigma lead to increased psychological distress and physical health problems—a finding supported empirically across many oppressed groups (see Thoits, 2013).
On the other hand, they also point out a growing consensus that religion/spirituality is either not strongly correlated with mental well-being or, even worse, the correlation is plagued by shoddy methodologies.
The Meta Analysis
The authors therefore conduct a “content analysis of the literature about atheism and atheist-identified individuals” to determine theories about current knowledge gaps about atheists. They first gather articles about atheism published from 2001 to 2012 (n=1,444), review their abstracts to disqualify unrelated articles (leaving them with n=450), then reading the articles in full to further disqualify unrelated articles (final n=247). These articles were then coded to rank the level of attention to atheism, resulting in n=206; however, because about half of the articles came from a non-reputable source, over 100 articles were dismissed, finally resulting in n=100.
All 100 articles were coded based on whether they were nonempirical (e.g., literature review, editorial) or empirical (quantitative or qualitative study with data) and by their year of publication, journal of publication, the discipline of the journal in which they were published, and the topics addressed in the article.
After running their analysis, the researchers suggest a growing trend to study the mental health relationship with atheism, with the vast majority of articles published after 2008, culminating in the highest number of articles published in 2012. Despite this upwards trend, these numbers stand in stark contrast to the numbers of articles published each year studying the effects of religion/spirituality on the mind. Research into atheism is essentially nonexistent. Therefore, the authors ask a series of questions and review back to their results to determine the answers.
First, what are the methodologies and how were participants recruited? Over half of the articles are theoretical and non-empirical. Most participants were selected out of convenience or through secondary sources. Many were recruited through online polling.
Second, who do these studies represent? The authors conclude most were “highly educated” (what exactly that means, however, they don’t say) and white and in their 40s. Most articles compared atheists with Christian groups, but not non-Abrahamic religious groups.
Third, what topics are discussed?
attitudes toward atheists, comparisons of R/S [religious/spiritual] people with atheists, and psychological well-being, followed by stereotypes/stigma, bias in treatment, identity development, and psychological distress.
None of the articles examined racial and ethnic diversity or issues, and only one examined sexuality.
Fourth, what are the implications for mental health? The authors conclude:
Recent quantitative studies report no difference between atheists and R/S people on depressive symptoms, well-being, life satisfaction, locus of control, empathy, or ability to abstain from alcohol,
which directly contradicts the implication of studying religious/spiritual well-being to the exclusion of atheism. And they add:
To work competently with atheist clients, D’Andrea and Sprenger (2007) recommended that counselors honor differences between R/S beliefs and atheism (but also avoid making assumptions about how nonbelieving people see the world), validate experiences of oppression, and focus on personal responsibility in therapeutic interventions.
At first glance Brewster (et al)’s research is weakly associated with anti-atheist prejudice. On the contrary, however, this work uncovers a glaring form of it; excluding non-belief from research because of presumptions about the positive impacts of religion on mental health is to completely ignore the mental health needs of people who do not believe in a higher power. The authors point this out with brutal accusation.
I don’t think I have to remind you that belief is not a choice, so ignoring the mental health needs of a major population who has no control over what they do and don’t believe is akin to ignoring the mental health needs of a major population who has no control over their skin color.
Furthermore, as the authors point out, where proper research into the mental health of atheists is conducted, black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian American atheists are thrown under the bus. Atheism is not merely a thing for “highly educated’ whites in their 40s. If we are controlling for skin color in our experiments, then perhaps we need to do more experiments to address the wide spectrum of racial and ethnic identity.
This article uncovers an unintentional form of anti-atheist prejudice — the lab coat variety. I’ll admit that it’s extraordinarily difficult to develop a coherent methodology when the field is essentially unstudied. And for those critiques, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and expect future research. But for the rest of those psychologists who disregard non-belief; to dismiss the psychological needs of non-believers because you just assume religion offers something that can’t be found elsewhere is not only bad science; it’s also damaging to people who merely don’t believe in god stories.