Citing previous research that ignored secular groups, this month researchers Jon T. Moore and Mark M. Leach published a study that seeks to explain “the relationship between religion and various facets of mental health” (p. 1). Their paper, titled “Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and the Secular,” appears in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (April 2015, advanced online publication).
Moore and Leach, while combing through the previous literature, noticed a trend; practically all studies support the idea that as religiosity increases, quality of mental health increases. But they also noticed other trends, and they were thusly able to categorize previous studies into two problematic groups: 1) some studies either controlled for secular groups (that is, they ignored them), or they lumped them together with low religiousness (which is wrong because one group believes in god to some degree while the other does not), and 2) some studies focused solely on Christian groups and dismissed all other groups. Therefore, Moore and Leach conducted a study that analyzes 4,667 respondents who identify as atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and non-religious spiritual “to determine the relationships among general dogmatism levels, existential dogmatism, religiousness, and 5 indicators of mental health” (abstract).
Four Main Findings:
First, existential dogmatism (certainty that god does/does not exist) was expected to be positively correlated with all five mental health indicators. While the study indicates their hypothesis holds merit (p. 5) they note,
Given the high amount of statistical power in the current dataset, the detection of significant correlations becomes problematic. As such, the relationship between existential dogmatism and the five mental health variables would be considered small effects … and statistical significance is not necessarily noteworthy given the minimal magnitude of shared variance.
In other words, the sheer volume of data produced predictable results; however, this necessarily means causal effect is difficult to determine. This first hypothesis is without an answer.
Second, they hypothesize that religious people with high levels of existential dogmatism will score higher than atheists with high levels of existential dogmatism. They find (p. 5),
Overall, existential dogmatism, be it theistic or atheistic in nature, ended up accounting for very little unique variance in the mental health variables when covariates were included in the model.
In other words, this hypothesis fails. There is little to no discernible difference here between highly existentially dogmatic theists and atheists.
Third, they then test religiousness but come up with similar findings to existential dogmatism (p. 6):
Hypothesis 3 was not supported given that religiousness and existential dogmatism had similar standardized regression weights … both approximating the cutoff for a small size effect…
Fourth, they test dogmatism (certainty of beliefs in general) “to mediate the relationship between existential dogmatism and mental health” (p. 6). This test, too, produced no meaningful results (p. 6):
Hypothesis four was not supported.
The authors conclude (p. 9):
Grounds for declaring that there is a substantial mental health disparity between religious and secular groups were not supported in the current study.
In other words, the conventional wisdom that religious people have higher qualities of mental health is not supported by the current literature. Indeed, this study finds that atheists have “similar” levels of mental health as their religious counterparts. That is to say, religion is not a necessary coping mechanism. Without indicating why, atheists appear to have comparable abilities to cope.
The article itself does contain a short list of methodological limitations, and Moore and Leach therefore remind us that future research is needed along other or similar lines of inquiry — some of which might not even test for religiousness. For example, the authors cite belonging to tight knit social structures as being a strong predictor in mental health. But limitations aside, the relative methodological strengths — at least compared with previous research — gives us the best insight yet into the disparity between the mental health of theists and the mental health of atheists… which is negligible to say the least.
Tom Jacobs, writing for Business Insider, has his own take on this study here.
This post is part of my Science Sundays series.