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Profiles of the Godless PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Christina Stephens   

Back in early July, I argued in this Swift post that studies reporting greater health (especially mental health) among strongly religious people using a control group of nonbelievers were weakened by the fact that nonbelievers may be too heterogeneous a group to make an adequate comparison to strongly religious populations. I pointed out the need to study nonbelievers as a group on a larger scale in order to determine if there were any meaningful differences between different subtypes of nonbelievers.

As such, I was pleasantly surprised when the newest issue (August/September 2009) of Free Inquiry magazine arrived in my mailbox. Hiding in the pages of the magazine is an article reporting on the results of a study which did exactly that.

First, researchers conducted a pilot study with 333 members of the Center For Inquiry/Michigan branch e-mail and group newsletter and 325 individuals who were members of two local churches in the same community. The survey was designed to test for characteristics distinguishing religious and nonreligious individuals. Some of their initial findings were:

  • CFI/Michigan members were predominantly male, more highly educated, more likely to be never married or cohabitating, and had fewer children living at home.
  • 95% of the church group reported being absolutely certain that god existed, and members were divided between these three categories: "religious", "spiritual" and "theistic".
  • In the CFI group, 48% described themselves as atheist, and the remainder was distributed among agnostics, humanists, spirituals, and others.
  • Within both groups, reported life-satisfaction was within the average range for both groups, but church members reported themselves as having a greater degree of social support relative to CFI members.

The survey included a measure of personality, and on this the believer and nonbeliever group differed the greatest on one of the five major personality traits - that of "openness to experience".  The church sample reported a greater degree of "agreeableness" (a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational)

After this pilot study, researchers recruited an additional 5,831 nonreligious individuals to survey. Obviously, there are some weaknesses to this survey method. It is difficult to do random population samples of individuals who are a minority in the population, so researchers used "snowball sampling" by emailing active members of CFI and asking them to recruit other nonreligious individuals for survey. As such, the members of the survey were likely to be active members of secular communities. They were also more likely to report higher positive traits due to social desirability bias, though the same weaknesses can be found for surveys of religious individuals.

Some of their findings were:

  • Forty one percent of respondents had a master's degree or higher and 31% earned $100,000+ per year. The sample was 74% male, 53% married, and the mean age was 48.
  • Respondents were raised in a variety of childhood backgrounds. Fifteen percent of respondents reported being raised in a household in which religion was mildly or not at all emphasized, and 35% reported being raised in a household with strong or very strong religious emphasis.
  • Individuals with higher household religious emphasis were more likely to have poorer relationships with families.
  • self-labeled atheists and humanists reported that they were more emotionally invested in their philosophical views than agnostics or spirituals.

Regarding mental health, nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, especially relative to people with uncertainty or doubt. Life satisfaction was lower among people who labeled themselves "spiritual" as opposed to agnostic, atheist or humanist. Thus, the common assumption that greater religious belief leads to greater mental health may be overly simplistic as it appears that confidence in either belief or nonbelief is associated with greater emotional adjustment and mental health.

I think the most important part is not that these studies are giving those of us involved or associated with the "nonbeliever" community any new or surprising information about ourselves, but that they provide quantitative evidence against commonly-held stereotype that nonbelievers are less psychologically healthy than believers. We can, in fact, be happy without faith, religion, or purpose and meaning handed down to us.

Christina Stephens, OTD/s blogs at www.ziztur.com

 


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confidence
written by monstrmac1, August 14, 2009
"Thus, the common assumption that greater religious belief leads to greater mental health may be overly simplistic as it appears that confidence in either belief or nonbelief is associated with greater emotional adjustment and mental health."

Regardless of how things appear, there is no such thing as confidence in belief. Even those who appear to be 100% confident have huge doubts hiding in their conscience. They dare not express doubt while judging eyes are upon them but in quiet dark places they tear themselves apart because they know how fraudulent there belief is.

How do I know? I was a Christian, not only that, but I was a couple weeks away from completing an apprenticeship that would have led to my ordination. As confident as I appeared, I deeply felt that everything I believed was phony. Others do as well. Since then I have became "born again" into rational thought.

So when this study uses a phrase like "confidence in belief" you can assume its inherently flawed.,

Dusty
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@ monstrmac1
written by Human Person Jr, August 14, 2009
Your points are well taken. However, it doesn't seem possible (at least to this unlettered Human Person, junior grade) for a study of this nature to offer flawless data. People lie, and if they think they're helping their "cause," they lie even more vigorously, being infused with purpose and all.

Still, waddaya, I say waddaya, I say waddaya gonna do? You run the study and try for the most accurate results possible, given the subjective nature of the questions.

I too was once a crustacean, I mean a Christian. Once, when I was 12 years old, the preacher had me weeping copiously over my potentially "lost soul," while I was simultaneously thinking, "What a load of BS! And how could a grown man invest most of his life in this fairy tale?" So, there I was, lying my ass off, for pretty much no good reason except to please an adult.

(The minister retired later that year and move to Kingsland, GA, and made his income by performing marriages for underage kids. The local laws allowed it.)

I like the study and I salute the results (maybe because the whole thing massages my biases). Nahhhh, that ain't it.
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written by Andrew Wiggin, August 14, 2009
@ monstrmac1

I don't think it's fair to reject this study over the concept of confidence in belief. This is going to be rated by asking a question, i.e. 'rate your confidence in your belief system from one to ten, ten being completely certain, and one being extremely doubtful'. Just because a factor is internal doesn't mean that it can't be rated, or that it won't be accurately reported. Furthermore, your report of your own crushing doubts about your faith doesn't mean that everyone else who is certain shares your own internal experience but is lying. Internal experiences are unquantifiable for purposes of study but reports of internal experiences are completely quantifiable with the right survey.

This is similar to medical patients reporting pain, something I deal with every day in my practice. Pain is a completely internal phenomenon and there is no way to quantify the patient's internal experience, but the patient's external behaviors and reported pain rating can be quantified and recorded. If I have terrible pain, and choose to hide that pain for my own reasons, that doesn't mean that I'm justified in the conclusion that EVERYONE has terrible pain all the time and also cheeses not to report it. Even if they don't give an accurate report, I can't conclude that their reasoning is the same as mine. A more likely conclusion is that behaviors and reports do correlate with internal states.

Andrew
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Atheists with religious family
written by Kajabla61, August 14, 2009
I can easily understand and sympathize with the stereotype of "the angry Atheist" with low self esteem and life satisfaction. That has been my situation for most of my life - but allow me to explain.

I was brought up in a moderately strong religious family. I was sent to parochial school (yes, cathoholic) for 8 years and then pushed to go to catechism (optional religious training classes for kids going to public school) by my parents when parochial school was no longer an option - meaning there wasn't a cathoholic high school in our area, thank god. smilies/wink.gif

When I became a rational thinker and a person of reason during my college years, when real learning often creates a reasoning mind, I was at first quite distraught. All the lies I had been told were finally unraveling before my eyes and I felt betrayed. The worst was yet to come however. When I came out to my family as an Atheist there was hell to pay.

Naturally many of us Atheists are viewed as angry (though I have never been) by the believers, they just can't understand why I am so angry at god *sigh* that I would deny him. Of course my life has not been as blissful as before. Ignorance is bliss and if you aren't with the ignorant they assume you are against them.

I'm glad this is not the case for all of us but, if you come from a religious background, it is sometimes tough to stay on a speaking basis with family and this must surely reflect in the polls at times.
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written by Mark P, August 15, 2009
Regardless of how things appear, there is no such thing as confidence in belief.


This is pretty obviously untrue. I cannot but believe you are projecting your own experiences into others.

Some people will endure any pain or torment due to their unswerving beliefs. It might not be religious though, there's plenty of examples of Communist "martyrs" for example. They will die all the happier for never having lost confidence.

You only have to see the incomprehension some people experience when you challenge their ideas. They literally cannot conceive of how anyone could disagree, so strong is their belief. It is why so many religious people really cannot get their heads around atheism -- they assume that we must have underlying doubts we refuse to express -- turning our monstrmac1's views back a full 180°.

Back to the original post. The experiment has been done on a large scale. In the countries with the very highest happiness quotients the level of religious belief tends to be very low. The Scandinavian countries in particular, but also my own New Zealand.

In countries where atheism runs at 50% or so, it would become very obvious, very quickly that the religious were far happier than the irreligious. Living in a country like that, I can say that anecdotally the least satisfied are, indeed, the "spiritual" and the religiously uncertain.
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Confidence #2
written by monstrmac1, August 15, 2009
There is no such thing as confidence in belief. There are martyrs from every religion. Monks setting themselve on fire, Muslims blowing themself up, Christians crucified for not denying god. However, these are all signs of fear, not confidence. Even the most radical actions taken in the name of god are still based on fear. These people have such a fear of damnation that they are willing to undergo pain, torment and death even though they are constantly battling themselves over the absurdity of there own beliefs. This is not just my projecting, I've heard this from everyone who ever broke free of a religion.

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And there's the qualifying rub, isn't it?
written by Human Person Jr, August 16, 2009
@monstrmac1

You wrote: "This is not just my projecting, I've heard this from everyone who ever broke free of a religion."

How often have you heard of this "lack of confidence in a belief" expressed by someone who has not and will not break free of a religion? Remember the survey? It was the topic of this article, and there was no set or subset of people surveyed who converted either way, away from or toward belief, away from or toward non-belief.

You made a rash statement: "There is no such thing as confidence in belief." You seem determined to stick with that. The truth is, confidence in anything is stronger at times, not so strong at others. You can't possibly know that such a definitive statement is true. I'm slightly SKEPTICAL (but appreciative) of the study, but far more SKEPTICAL of your statement.
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written by AlmightyBob, August 16, 2009
monstrmac1 wrote:

"There is no such thing as confidence in belief....This is not just my projecting, I've heard this from everyone who ever broke free of a religion."

Now THERE'S a random sampling for you smilies/smiley.gif
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written by monstrmac1, August 16, 2009
And there's the qualifying rub, isn't it?
written by Human Person Jr, August 16, 2009

@monstrmac1

You wrote: "This is not just my projecting, I've heard this from everyone who ever broke free of a religion."

How often have you heard of this "lack of confidence in a belief" expressed by someone who has not and will not break free of a religion? Remember the survey? It was the topic of this article, and there was no set or subset of people surveyed who converted either way, away from or toward belief, away from or toward non-belief.


If they haven't and will not break free of a religion then obviously I haven't heard anything from them. But the fact they will not break free is just another sign of fear. Be as skeptical as you want of my comments, I'm not writing a thesis here I'm just offering my experience and opinion. In my opinion, only the 0 delusional could be condfident in their belief of something supernatural (like religion) everyone else is just putting on a show.
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written by Mark P, August 17, 2009
These people have such a fear of damnation


Nuh-uh. You see exactly the same commitment among Buddhists and Marxists, neither group being very big on damnation.

A lot of Moslem suicide bombers, far from fearing damnation, revel in the knowledge of certain paradise.
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written by monstrmac1, August 17, 2009
You see exactly the same commitment among Buddhists and Marxists, neither group being very big on damnation.

A lot of Moslem suicide bombers, far from fearing damnation, revel in the knowledge of certain paradise.


I'm not sure marxism counts as religion but it really doesn't matter. Every religion has some sort of fear related message at its center. If you didn't fear anything after death then no one would have need for religion, at least not for practicing religion.

Suicide bombers are completely committed, but committed is not equal to confident. If they carry out these acts they are only confident that they wont be in hell. In other words, if their religion is true, they will be in heaven, if their religion is false, the won't be in hell anyway. So you can't judge someone's confidence in their religion based on their committment to that religion.

I have no strong evidence supporting my evidence that all relgious people hide vast amounts of doubt so I don't expect to sway those who disagree. Personally, I feel there is not one sane person who is actually confident in their beliefs.
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written by LovleAnjel, August 17, 2009
If you didn't fear anything after death then no one would have need for religion, at least not for practicing religion.


There are plenty of belief systems that do not have a death. That's sort of the whole point of reincarnation.
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written by monstrmac1, August 17, 2009
There are plenty of belief systems that do not have a death. That's sort of the whole point of reincarnation.


I'm pretty sure they know that death occurs before reincarnation so there is still a fear involved. Every religion operates on some sort of fear to control their population.
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written by latsot, August 21, 2009
I can easily understand and sympathize with the stereotype of "the angry Atheist" with low self esteem and life satisfaction. That has been my situation for most of my life - but allow me to explain.


Thanks for your story, it's interesting. I think I can honestly report almost the opposite, however. I've never been so happy as the moment I realised I didn't have to pretend to believe in god any more. I'm not sure I know what 'bliss' is, but I wake up every single day eager to learn more about the world and am especially delighted when I find out I'm wrong about something. I've never stopped feeling elated about the simple liberation from doctrine, even after several decades.

Am I an angry atheist? I'm angry about the celebration of nonsense, certainly. I'm angry about the insanity carried out in the name of insane beliefs, to be sure. But I'm a very happy and satisfied person, entirely secure in my policy of believing only what the evidence supports.

Religion is a filter: it limits human experience to what I consider a drab degree. Casting off that filter is enormously liberating and seems to have a lot more substance than making a precious item out of belief.
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Angry Atheist
written by Kajabla61, August 26, 2009
"I think I can honestly report almost the opposite, however. I've never been so happy as the moment I realised I didn't have to pretend to believe in god any more."

I meant to imply that I was only seen as angry by the religious folks, mostly family. I, too, have been a much happier person by losing my fear of a nonexistent god and hell. I love to learn now (about science and history particularly) like I never did before when I thought only the afterlife mattered. I am in complete agreement with you latsot.
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