Open Thread AE 833: Religion & Depression

On the show I discussed the study published in Psychological Medicine that examined the relationship between religious beliefs and major depression. The prevailing view has been that religious belief provided some protective and/or mitigating effect on major depression. This study puts a serious dent in that view with its conclusion that “These results do not support the notion that religious and spiritual life views enhance psychological well-being.”

The study included over 8000 participants in seven countries and found that stronger religious beliefs were correlated with higher risk of depression. You can read the abstract of the study yourself here (unfortunately, you’ll have to pay if you want the full article), or you can read Tomas Rees excellent summary here.

Something I neglected to bring up on the show is the implication this research study has on the Army’s Spiritual Fitness program. As many of us foxhole atheists have known all along, religious belief is not some magic talisman that wards off depression, PTSD, or other mental health problems that may arise in humans exposed to traumatic events. In spite of this, the Army continues to promote a program that its own statistics show has, at best, had no effect on the suicide rate. At worst, this program may be exacerbating the suicide/depression rate among soldiers, if only by promoting something that doesn’t work over things that do work.

Anyway – open thread, so have at it.


  1. Plex says

    Makes sense to me! I’ve struggled with mental health issues myself and when I was a Christian it was worse because aside from the other sad thoughts, I also had to struggle with understanding why God didn’t just cure me. I honestly thought I was doing something wrong and deserved it, because if I didn’t then surely God would have healed me. I definitely don’t have to deal with that confusion anymore!

  2. unfogged says

    Interesting study… maybe people with some types of depression are drawn to the promises that religion makes; maybe people who want to believe end up depressed when they aren’t getting the fulfillment that they expected. If you think that your religion is going to “fill you with the holy spirit” and bring you peace and you have to act like it does when you don’t feel anything then you feel rejected. All idle speculation and there are probably many interwoven factors.

    The bottom line is that we already know that religion has a negative correlation with societal health and this makes it pretty clear that it doesn’t do anything positive for individual mental health. Combine that with the drag it has on education and scientific progress and we have the answer to the theist question about why we don’t just let them believe what they want to believe. Religion is a cancer.

    As an aside, this was the best line in the Rees summary: “one [study] showing that New Agers are particularly prone to delusional beliefs”. (I’d respond with “is the pope catholic?” but that’s starting to look like a shakier proposition.)

  3. says

    I my case it made the depression worse than my god ignored me. What did I do wrong? That led to a continuing downward spiral. I realize how ridiculous it was now but when you are told these things over and over and know absolutely no one who disagrees with them (and see almost no one who will disagree with that view in public) it really sinks in. It’s not that I never get depressed now, but it’s not nearly as bad. Instead of waiting for an imaginary friend to fix my problems, I realize that no one and nothing is going to make things better for me except for me. It’s liberating to embrace reality. It’s why religion works so hard to convince people that without god their life would be hopeless. They know that without that fear they have no power over people and that people will actually act in ways to make their lives better and not accept that things have to suck here so they can be better in another life (that doesn’t exist).

  4. says

    I’m glad you brought up the New Agers. We focus a lot on the Fundamentalist Christians because they are the most vocal in imposing their delusions on the rest of us, but I find the New Agers to be at least, if not more, frustrating. Several times a year I find my facebook feed cluttered with people freaking out because Mercury is in retrograde, as if mail is delivered on time the rest of the year? it’s a big pile of logical fallacies but it’s easier for them to repeat such nonsense than to actually think. And then there are the anti-vaxxers, homeopathy users and other nonsense. It’s a big pile of cray-cray and not all of it technically falls under the umbrella of religion.

  5. Transhumanist says

    Linas said: “Japan is a very developed country but Women are treated very badly…”

    I think he mixed up Japan with Saudia Arabia…

    I can mention several things that are wrong in Japanese society, where women are at a clear disadvantage but non of them I would phrase as Women are generally *treated badly” because that just gives a completely incorrect impression of what life over here is like.

    If you go to the countryside in Japan, yes there are places where the women are expected to serve the men who can sit around and drink all day, during family gatherings, but I would not be surprised if you find such places in Lithuania too. Still that does not even classify as bad treatment, perhaps back-ward mentality and unfair division of work.

    Being treated badly would be something like being subjected to derogatory language, not get enough food, be beaten or something. You don’t see men go around beating up women or calling them by nasty words (if they did the police would be there in an instant and take care of them because we have police boots (“koban”) everywhere, and the policemen are not only extremely friendly to nice people but they have lots of time and resources to take care of the bad apples.

    For your information Japanese women have the same rights and freedom as the men.

    In short I do not know what Linas is talking about…

  6. SeKara says

    You have to be beaten to be ‘treated badly’?
    I suggest you sit back and enjoy the incoming storm…

  7. says

    We just have to be careful: correlation does not mean causality. So, this correlation could mean that depressed people may be looking for religion to feel more confortable. Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be working as well…

  8. TimP says

    I was a christian for close to 30 years. For the last 10+ years, I dealt with depression. A little over 2 years ago I prayed out loud for God to remove this depression from me. I heard nothing back – absolutely nothing. It was then i realized my faith was gone. The next day, while sitting at my desk at work, I said to myself – I no longer believe in this. Immediately, it felt like a huge blanket and weight was lifted from me and my depression was gone.

    My depression was based on what I was told about hell and my dead father and sister were roasting in eternity – the worst part is that I was always taught that I am the only light some people will see, and if they go to hell – it is your fault.

    I am happier now without God, then I ever was with him.

  9. says

    I was very glad to see this article. There are many, many correlational studies attempting to prove the benefits of religious beliefs. To my knowledge (although I have not exhaustively reviewed the literature), these studies do not use a control group (which would, of course, be using atheists.) This study did use atheists as a comparison group, and I am glad to see it. Someday, when I have all of the time in the world for research, I would love to replicate several of the studies reporting to “prove” the beneficial elements of religion, although using atheists as a comparison group. They wouldn’t technically be “replications”, but would make a wonderful point. Any other research oriented mental health professionals interested?

  10. says

    A long time ago I actually had a Nurse Practitioner try to steer me towards a local church whose pastor had supposedly overcome serious depression with help from magic sky dude. I filed a complaint about it but got absolutely nowhere except that everybody I could tell was warned about her proclivities by me. The sad part is that she isn’t the only one with diminished capacity at that clinic. There’s another nurse practitioner that refuses to deal with birth control of any kind. If you make an appointment with her specifically for that purpose she won’t tell you that she refuses to deal with it until you’re already being seen so she gets paid for the visit anyway. At least that was the scam till a friend of mine had it happen to her and I wrote a letter to the paper, after that the clinic had to change it’s policies so that other people wouldn’t get hung up like that.

  11. Dara says

    I want to thank you for bringing up this topic. I am living with bipolar disorder and I go to a group that meets weekly at a church. At first I was leery about going as I didn’t want to have people tell me my illness can be cured or even made better with religion. It was brought up and I just said no, I won’t try that, and it was dropped (I was firm without being rude). I feel working on my issues without religion gives me more power over my illness. I alone do the work and don’t rely on a god to do it for me.

  12. says

    First of all, Ricardo, I was very careful during the show to note that this study does not mean that religious belief causes depression. In fact, I very clearly said what the study concludes – that religious belief doesn’t protect you from depression. I bloody well know that correlation does not mean causation.

    Second, if you read Tom Rees’ article, you’ll see that the researchers actually addressed the hypothesis that depressed people sought comfort from religion. That is NOT the case here. The researchers didn’t ask about religious beliefs after people got depressed. Participants had to declare their religious beliefs up front on a baseline assessment. The people reporting the strongest religious beliefs at baseline were those most likely to have suffered a major depressive episode during the study period. Those reporting weak or no religious beliefs were the least likely to have been depressed. This effect was even stronger once the researchers controlled for things like a previous episode of depression.

  13. says

    Charity, if you look at the studies that claim to show mental health benefits of religious belief, most of them use very small sample sizes, or they have samples that are so specific that they aren’t representative of anyone outside the sample demographic.

  14. says

    The show was awesome. I must admit I felt more than a little bit sorry for the Cat lady, she seemed sweet and very in need of direction. The call hit home how wonderful and needful TAE is. Again, thank you guys!

  15. says

    I would get depressed when I felt as if I somehow failed god or a test that I was presented with. Even after I left the church, I felt the pressure of god’s disppointment in me for years…it’s sick what religion does to a soul.

  16. says

    That is why I now vehemently oppose such indoctrination. Recall how Job’s supposed friends kept telling him that he must have done something wrong cause God does not afflict good people. Indeed, you were probably not the only one thinking this as you struggled. How horrid. To have to go through life self flagellating and having those around you thinking you deserve it. Religion makes us into emotional and social monsters in the name of good. No wonder it’s depressing!

  17. kestra says

    I find that “But *those guys over there* treat their women badly!” argument to be beyond-nose-bleed-inducingly obtuse. Oh, yah, *those guys* are barbarian savages who rape and beat and mutilate their women and force them into marriages and take away their rights… cause that shit *never* *ever* *ever* happens in MY good, godly community of righteous believers.

    You wanna lose all hope for humanity in general, insular religious communities in particular, and Old Order Amish/Menonite in specific? Read up on the sexual abuse going on in those communities. Here’s one where the complaining witness had all her teeth removed by her mother for reporting that her brothers (plural) were raping her:

    There’s always some other culture/religion you can point to as the evil degenerates in contrast to your godliness, but there’s also a little verse about motes and beams in Matthew you may want to acquaint yourself with.

  18. says

    For your information Japanese women have the same rights and freedom as the men.

    Reminds me of the “but women have jobs and go to college so feminism isn’t needed anymore” assertion.

    … there’s more to it than that. Having the rights != Being treated fairly, equally and respectfully. It’s a good step, but there’s still a lot of cultural crap that women still have to deal with.. and of course, any attempts to fix that crap results in “WOMEN ARE GETTING SPECIAL RIGHTS!” outrage.

  19. unfogged says

    The first supporting link is to the Heritage Foundation which is too biased a source to take at face value. The second link, showing that theists are “nicer”, notes this:

    A sobering note for believers is that this study reveals that the content of a person’s belief isn’t what matters so much as their level of involvement in a religious community. An atheist who comes to church to support her partner will rate as well as any believer on these scores. What can’t be denied, according to Putnam and Campbell, is that there is something unique about a religious community, that has an impact on people for good.

    What they have wrong is that it is the community part that is important, not the religious part.

    The article linked to demonstrate that we are “hard-wired for faith” shows no such thing.

    My favorite part of the article comes from the totally unbiased, rational conclusion:

    Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)?

  20. says

    While I agree with you, the devil is in the details and it may be that both of you are half-right. I can only go by what I heard about the study on TAE, I haven’t read it myself, but it’s entirely possible that people who are already depressed or who go through depressive episodes have turned to religion in the past as a means to combat them and while the study was ongoing, were more apt to suffer another depressive episode than those who were not so predisposed. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but based on what’s been said, it seems to be a possibility.

  21. says

    I haven’t read it myself, but it’s entirely possible that people who are already depressed or who go through depressive episodes have turned to religion in the past as a means to combat them

    Sigh. Perhaps you should read the study before you comment, then. They controlled for this, very specifically. As I said in my response to Ricardo, when they controlled for confounding factors (like past history of depression), religious/spiritual worldview (and not participation in a religious community) became a stronger predictor of future depression. In other words, the religious belief was an independent factor. It was not tied to a previous episode of depression, and the researchers took great care to isolate it.

    It amazes me the extent to which even atheists with go in order to give religion the benefit of the doubt.

  22. says

    My own hubby does this from time to time. Not to rag on him , cause I am not, but he has been guilty of nodding when I point out the double standards or stupidity of fellow atheists–and quite heartily I might add. But always appears to want to give me due “perspective” when I criticize religion in any way.

  23. Gary Walker says


    Just want to make a point about Linas’ absurd claim that there were no prohibitions against murder until Moses got the Ten C. from his invisible sky phantasm. Moses in Bible fact was a fugitive for the murder of an Egyptian when the Midianites gave him refuge. So, murder was a crime in Egypt long before Moses got his epiphany on Mt. Sinai or was it Mt. Horeb. The Bible speaks.

    That’s all folks,

  24. Red P. says

    I work in a Mental Health Centre in the UK, and certainly the number of churchgoers amongst the Service-Users is higher than would be expected for a group of that size. However my observation would indicate that it isn’t the Service-Users that seek the church, rather the church seeks the Service-Users.
    Proselytisers are attracted to the places where the Service-Users gather before the Centre opens.
    This happens day-in-day-out, year after year.
    By definition Vulnerable Adults are easy to influence and that sort of constant pressure will yield converts for a church.
    Once in they come under pressure to adopt coping strategies that are to the church’s interest and not those of the service user, eg. stop using alternative therapies to reduce stress.

  25. says

    That is excellen (*hugs*). I am glad they respected your wishes. A poor woman with severe post partum depression didn’t fare so well under her religion of choice. When she sought help she was asked to pray about it and not seek professional counsel. She killed all but one of her kids, herself and her hubby by stabbing everyone and setting their home on fire…

  26. Raymond says

    I always love when an article mentions the mountains of research supporting their position, but can’t be bothered to cite any of it. It’s almost like they are just making it up.

  27. fullyladenswallow says

    While I don’t think that religion / Catholicism created my clinical depression, it certainly seems that in continuing to attend mass every Sunday after realizing I was living a lie by trying to accept what my parents, teachers and priests were giving me as “facts”, doing so created an enormous amount of tension and self-loathing. This sort of thing doesn’t help. Being told that “God loves you” while also saying he’ll burn your ass forever for being curious about your own body, (then throw in all the other weird crap, like the concepts of mortal and venial sin, and how it applies to your conscious thoughts) it’s like telling a dog to sit and roll over at the same time. This is no way treat a young impressionable mind. I wouldn’t blame anyone who escaped religious dogma for feeling cheated and deceived.

  28. says

    The Christians call it,” Trial by fire”, and I call it,” Your god is an irresponsible douche bag.” With a friend like Jesus who needs enemies?

  29. says

    Exactly, thus making Linas comment a double absurdity–folks knew that killing was wrong prior to Moses coming down a mountain with stone tablets AND a whole lotta killin went on in the name o’ god after…theist logic at work!

  30. Lois says

    I suffer from PTSD I take prescription meds for it and although it helps religion seems to make me worse. I am an atheist although I gave religion a shot mainly christianty, but I dabbled in Buddhism, Daoism, and even visited an extremist christian church. What I have found is that the only times I really seemed happy was when religion was not such a current day big deal. I think seeing all the news headlines and listening to some of my ex christian friends speak about religion as the only way to improve the world was really irritating me. I kept quiet and held my views strong. When I decided atheism was really much more benificial to me I started improving mentally. An example would be when a family member askes at the dinner table “shall we pray?” I say “I will not” and that is a very small victory for me. I see a Phyke and she noticed and remarked how much better I seemed after I started standing my ground as an atheist. Today I am feeling good every day seems to get better emotionally. I still struggle with PTSD on a regular basis but I am not ready nor ever will be to give up the fight for my rights and stance on religion. I hope my comment was helpful or at least intresting. Love the show wish I could get the show on tv in my state~Bone

  31. says

    Indeed, cause when I want to test my friends I usually put them through all kinds of bullshit then act all uppity when they question my tactics—lol

  32. says

    Couple links below…

    Women being culturally treated poorly is practically systemically ubiquitous – wherever we look. What I’d really love to know is where, on the entire surface of this planet, this mythological gynecological utopia is, where women aren’t culturally or governmentally mistreated.

    I’m sure they’d love to know.


    Global Gender Gap Index 2012 – Japan ranked 101st in terms of least gender gap.

    Publication – pay wall and in Japanese – to at least establish it exists.

  33. says

    I can even site some of my own personal instances of racial or gender discrimination. I wouldn’t say it is as bad a some ladies have it abroad, not by a long shit, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have some work to do here.

  34. Corwyn says

    I was specifically requesting information that Japan was, or was not, specifically more discriminatory than other enlightened places. The conversation was getting way too abstract.

  35. says

    Many readers of the Bible don’t realize that the REAL solution offered in the Flood account wasn’t simply killing all the evil people: that was merely step #1 of a three-step solution to the problem of “evil inclinations in the hearts of men”. The last two steps occurred only AFTER the Flood, when God prohibited blood-shed AND delegated Divine authority to Noah to enforce the newly-minted “no bloodshed” rule, which applied to ALL humans (Genesis 9:5-6).

    Hence, mankind was blessed with God’s promise to demand an accounting for spilled blood (which reflects poorly on God, BTW: didn’t the killing of Abel give Him a clue that it MIGHT be a good idea to prohibit bloodshed?).

    (For the record, the 10 commandments and Mosaic Law were given some 1,500 later on Mt Sinai, and were applicable to the Israelites, ONLY, and was simply a reiteration of the Divine Prohibition given in the Noahide Covenant.)

    BTW, the first act that Noah engaged in was the institution of slavery, with his curse of Ham. So God deserves credit for that, since Noah was acting under the delegated authority of God.

    I’ve written on the various legal aspects in Genesis on my blog, including analyzing Adam/Eve, Lot, Noah, Cain and Abel. If you make it past the Genesis account and still believe, you’re not trying to think!


  36. Gribs says

    I empathize with the caller named Leslie. Dealing with grief, anxiety, and OCD are all real and difficult issues.

    Panic disorder and OCD run in my immediate family including me. I take an SSRI (paxil) to prevent, quite successfully, what for me were real debilitating panic attacks and to manage anxiety disorder. Once my panic attacks were managed, I realized that I had been having them my entire life, and that doubts concerning my (former) beliefs were a regular trigger; hence I tried for years to believe in order to cope. Being raised a Catholic and forced to attend an extremely conservative “fire and brimstone” sort of church was horrible for me. It just injected more stress. As an adult, I learned from one of my brothers who made friends with a Canon lawyer that the pastor was eventually forced to retire and banned from giving sermons by the bishop of our diocese for heretical teachings about hell. My brother went through brainwashing treatment therapy with a psychiatrist to help eliminate his anxiety related to our indoctrination as children.

    I try to tell people that accepting that I am an atheist due to lack of belief was one of the most positive and liberating experiences in my entire life.

    My wife is a non-religious deist. She clings to deism primarily as a coping mechanism to deal with missing her father and other people who have passed on. I feel the same as Matt regarding dealing with the grief of death of a close friend, relative, or pet (we are a cat-loving house, too!), but I respect my wife’s desire to hold onto her belief in a non-specific deity and a life after death. She has no religion, doesn’t go to church, doesn’t talk about the Judeo-Christian god or Jesus, doesn’t pray, etc., but just cannot accept the answer “I don’t know” at this time.

  37. blondeintokyo says

    I live in Japan, and women aren’t treated any worse here then they are in the US or other first world countries. There most definitely IS sexism, but Japan does have an equal rights amendment and if you ask any random Japanese person they would tell you that men and women are roughly equal. For what that’s worth, LOL.

    The point being, the caller was obviously not speaking from any real understanding of Japan or Japanese culture.

  38. blondeintokyo says

    The cat lady who called in was very brave, I thought. I hope she follows these comments, as I would like to express my admiration for her and let her know there are people rooting for her.

    From a fellow cat lady. 🙂

  39. says

    In my observation of religion it does nothing for the depression but rather it masks it like an addiction. Alcohol did nothing for me except to cloud my mind, just like religion did. The only difference between false hope and no hope; is a lie.

  40. says

    There so much from my childhood that I didn’t deal with when I was in the church–suicide attempts followed–the inclination stopped after I started letting go of god (although that process has it’s own pitfalls). Coincidence – -I don’t know…but it’s odd that I concede to being far happier than I ever was in a church.

  41. Kit Russell says

    Leslie, if you’re reading this, I completely understand. When I lost my cat Hobbes, last year, I was still clinging to the idea of an afterlife, where I would see my loved ones (two-legged as well as four-legged) again. It was the last bit of supernatural belief I had, because I couldn’t believe I would never see her again. When I finally reached the point that I could no longer rationalize that belief, I went through another period of mourning, because I had to admit to myself that I would never see her again. (((hugs)))

  42. Rosalie Brown says

    I was all depressed as a single mom, my former husband left town…there was no support system. So I joined a church. I was a member for about 7 years. Often I’d cry there from the emotional catharsis of just not being alone. No, I didn’t believe in god. I was exhausted and lonely and that was the only place for a few hours I felt like I wasn’t alone. However, when I wasn’t there I felt my aloneness even more acutely. I moved back to my home town, had a complete breakdown, and finally got counseling, which helped a lot. The ‘church’ wasn’t a solution, and ‘moving’ wasn’t a solution, attending to ‘me’ has started me on the road to a more pleasant life. ( I am so glad I stumbled on this wonderful atheist community site!) Depression stinks but it is not a personal failing, counseling helped, religion didn’t. In fact I believe my early Catholic upbringing set the stage for guilt and feelings of worthlessness. (This is just my experience.)

  43. Gabriel says

    I don’t think the Cat-lady is real.

    I have heard that exact same voice, with that exact same laugh several times.
    One time she was homosexual, now she has OCD. There is always something extra ontop of her atheism and her name appears to change as well.

    I don’t understand why someone would do this though… A very confusing caller.

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