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