in Specific psychiatric disorders

Depression, religion and the atheist bus.

Over £50 000 has been raised for an advertisement campaign on London buses intended to spread the word of unbelievers. The slogan, ‘There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life’, whist not being particularly catchy, is interesting.

In dissecting it, there’s a connection implied between religion and anxiety, a plea made to end introspection concerning speculation of the existence of a supreme being – as if this enquiry was somehow reprehensible – and an implication made that religion is the root of all our problems, as if the only thing standing between mortals and earthly contentment is religious belief.

This small campaign, whether your agree with it or not, or whether like me you consider it only marginally less prescriptive than the religious advertisements it seeks to combat, at least feels like a levelling. The campaign, funded mostly by small contributions, represents a rare right to reply. As during so much of our day, we are assaulted with large advertisements, and beyond graffiti, there is scant ability to register our dissent or disapproval.

But what part does a religion belief play in mental well-being?

The best insight I’ve found on this is a 1999 literature review of 80 studies concerning the association of depression and religion. This suggests that people who are involved frequently in organized religion and who highly value their religious faith for ‘intrinsic reasons’ are at substantially reduced risk of depressive disorder and depressive symptoms. They also appear to recover more quickly from depressive episodes and are less likely to become depressed over time. On the other hand the authors say that people who are involved in religion for reasons of ‘self-interest’ are at a higher risk for depressive symptoms.

Two groups – Jews and people who are not affiliated with a religion – are at an elevated risk of depression and depressive symptoms and the authors speculate that these effects are ‘a result of trade-offs in how latent predispositions for psychopathology are expressed in certain religious cultures’.*

Private religious activity and particular religious beliefs, which probably equates to people saying that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’ (we’ve all met them), appear to bear no reliable relationship with depression.

The review states that these associations are modest, but consistent, and does flag up weaknesses in the evidence base. In terms of validity it concerns me that the difference between religious believers who have intrinsic and extrinsic beliefs and their relative vulnerabilities may essentially be a proxy for the personality types amassing under these banners.

* I’ve thought about this last sentence and I’m not entirely sure what it means. Can you help?


The origin of the campaign:

Comment is free: Atheists- gimme five

All aboard the atheist bus campaign

Donate to the campaign: Just giving


Religion and depression, a review of literature

Religion and spirituality, linkages to physical health

Religious involvement and depressive symptoms in primary care elders.

Religion, spirituality and medicine: Psychiatrists’ and other physicians’ differing observations, interpretations and clinical approaches

Related Books:

No Logo – Naomi Klein
Essential reading on corporate intrusion via branding

The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins God is Not Great – Christopher Hitchens
Current atheist calls to arms

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  1. That was so annoying, I wrote out my comment and the security code was invalid and I’ve had to start again. Here goes:
    The sentence was bugging me as well so I skimmed through the paper. The quotation also appears earlier in the paper when the authors are discussing explanations for the findings on religious affiliation and depression, eg genetic, sociological, religious and spiritual practices etc. and

    “trade-offs in the expression of latent predispositions for psychopathology that lead some groups (eg Jews) to have increased rates of depression, but lower rates of other disorders (eg alcohol abuse/dependence)”.

    One of the studies they looked at (Levav et al) compared data on the prevalence of depression and alcohol use/dependence amongst Jewish and non-Jewish men and women.
    The upshot of this study was “Since more conservative Jews tend to avoid the use of alcohol , Jewish men who have a disposition toward psychopathology might be at a significantly higher risk for experiencing depression instead of alcohol abuse or dependence. This might suggest that in the absence of a proclivity for alcohol abuse/dependence, Jewish men could be substantially more likely to ‘express’ their latent psychopathology through depressive symptoms”.

    So I can see why the sentence might make sense in the case of Jews and other groups that frown on alcohol consumption, but it less clear what it means for people with no affiliation.

    If their conclusions are correct (I’m not too great with this type of research) then religious/spiritual belief is not enough – it has to be intrinsic, organised and coupled with being fairly active in their affiliation. The private ‘spiritual types’ have no association with depression and depressive symptoms, and individual with extrinsic reasons for partaking in organised religion are at a greater risk for depression.

    I can’t really conclude very much from this study because it leaves so much unanswered. Comparing different religious groups is tricky. I want to know the intrinsic beliefs, some form of social endophenotypes that might be protective. The non-affiliated group will probably also have some forms of belief, even though they don’t fit into a particular belief system, and it would be more interesting to see how these discrete categories relate to depression.