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Religion good for mental health shock

Religion good for mental health shock

Dr Faithful reviews a new study on whether religion is good for you.

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You’ll find the ‘religion–is–good–for–your–mental–health–and–wellbeing’ story in a box on the second shelf, just next to the ‘religious–extremism–is–terrifying–and–growing’ box. Every six months or so, when the latter is looking a bit empty and tattered, you can reach into the former and pull out a script. Please remember to change the sample sizes, exact statements used, and the names of academic institutions in question before you go live with it. 

If you are really struggling for time, you will find a series of responses in there too. Professor Precision from the Advanced Institute for the Study of Things will tell you that the results are “interesting” and “indicative” but that they can’t be taken to prove that the moon really is made of cheese. Dr Faithful from the religious think tank Dreamworks will comment that this research shows what a wonderful thing religion (sic) is and how we’d all be much happier if we were all religious (sic). However, Mr Bump from the British Association of Secular Humanist Atheist Sceptics United for Reason against God, Superstition and Ouija Boards and will say that such surveys don’t show anything but what they do show is that it’s actually being human that makes us happy and in any case haven’t we all forgotten that religion is evil and misogynistic and bronze age and flies planes into buildings whereas science can now fly a plane to Pluto.

All that being so, it was with some interest that last week I read (and commented on) this study by Erasmus MC and the London School of Economics and Political Science. It has hallmarks of The Script, but with a few novel details. First, its size, breadth and composition (9,000 respondents, Europe–wide, aged 50+). Second, its timeframe (four years). And third, most interesting, its results: not that being an active participant in a religious group improves mental health (most studies show that) but that being such an active participant does so much more impressively and consistently than being an active participant in other forms of associational activity.

The argument, so often and so cogently made by Mr Bump and his mates, is that it isn’t believing any of this cobblers that makes a difference, but simply meeting up with other people regularly. You might just as well believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster – remember him? – just as long as you meet regularly with other people to talk about him. It’s a good argument, even when devoid of its–rapier like wit, largely because meeting up with other people clearly does constitute the most significant positive impact on mental health and wellbeing.

What is different about this study is that it appears to show that the nature of that associational activity matters. Not only did the research not find any short–term benefit from participation in sports and other such social activities, but it found that joining political and community organisations only provides short–term benefits in terms of mental health, and (remarkably) appears to lead to an increase in depressive symptoms longer term. “One of the most puzzling findings,” remarked the epidemiologist in charge of the study, “is that although healthier people are more likely to volunteer, we found no evidence that volunteering actually leads to better mental health. It may be that any benefits are outweighed by other negative impacts of volunteering, such as stress.”

I find some of these findings – no uplift from sports and participation in other social activities?! a negative impact from joining political and community organisations?! – hard to swallow. But however accurate they are – and all such studies need for confirmation, clarification and correction from other research – what this study does is move the debate on from what appears to be the accepted finding (A) that associational activity protects and improves your mental health, to the more contested issue (B) of what kind of associational activity does this best.

Point A is not only consistent with, but supportive of the Christian tradition, in spite of what the Mr Men like to claim. The irreducibly social nature of the human is a cornerstone of Christian anthropology. Of course being with others improves our mental health. That’s what we made for.

Point B is a challenge. Being with others is not always and invariably the same kind of activity. Not only are some forms of associational activity only weakly correlated with mental health and wellbeing (as this study indicates) but others might be strongly correlated whilst being morally dubious (exclusive clubs, gangs, paramilitary outfits). The kind of associational activity favoured by Christians – also known as churches – should be not only opportunities to meet together, but to meet together in hospitality, generosity, support, and love. Are they?

Image by David Mark from, available under this Creative Commons Licence

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 13 August 2015

Mental Health, Religion, Well–being


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