I sleep fairly well — as I’ve gotten older, I sleep less, but most nights I go to bed, read quietly for an hour or so, and within minutes of turning out the lights, I’m out. Then I’ll typically wake up around 5:30am. I get between 6 and 7 hours of solid sleep most nights, which is about what I need. That’s my pattern, I’m sticking with it.
Clearly, the reason I sleep well is because I’m an atheist — you know, unconflicted by storms of Catholic guilt or Protestant sanctimony. At least, that’s the implication of a study. After all, when it’s called a “study”, you know it’s serious business.
A new study out of Baylor University finds that 73% of atheists and agnostics sleep at least seven hours a night, compared to only 55% of Baptists and 63% of Catholics. Atheists and agnostics also reported fewer difficulties falling asleep at night. The findings held even after controlling for details like age and socioeconomic status.
Gosh, it fits my personal experience as an atheist, so I get that little buzz of confirmation. I don’t have any personal experience sleeping as a Baptist or Catholic, but I still get a little buzz at the idea that the Others are tossing and turning at night. And now, when my religious friends (if I had any!) show up at work tired and red-eyed, I get the smug satisfaction of being able to tell them they ought to become an atheist so they can get a good night’s rest for a change.
If I were an idiot.
I took a look at the study. They’re just mining a bigger data set for correlations, which is not a kind of science I care much for. In other words, there was a survey that asked a large collection of semi-random questions of religious and non-religious people, and then afterwards they fished for anything that might show a difference. It could maybe be useful if they followed through and figured out what caused the difference. But they don’t; this is just a cold wet plop of an observation from a data set.
Another thing that always bugs me is that when a study is reported in the popular press they always strip out important qualifiers that at least the original work includes.
Religious affiliation was associated with sleep duration, but not in the predicted direction. Atheists/Agnostics (73%) were significantly more likely to report meeting consensus sleep duration guidelines than religiously-affiliated individuals (65%), p< .05. For example, Atheists/Agnostics reported better sleep duration than Catholics (63%, p< .01) and Baptists (55%, p<.001). Atheists/Agnostics also reported less difficulty falling asleep at night than Catholics (p=.02) and Baptists (p< .001).
Notice the word I highlighted: these are the results of a self-reported survey. They don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean. It could mean that atheists are very insecure and like to lie positively about their health and confidence. Go ahead, Baptists! You can read it that way! Even if I know in my heart that you are tormented by your god-belief.
That’s the only thing that jumped out at me about this trivial and mundane study. It’s a great example of how the press likes to file the serial numbers off a paper: they report “atheists sleep better” when the actual paper says “atheists report that they sleep better”. In this case, they’re making a change that’s favorable to the godless, but it’s also what they do with studies that go the other way. This paper even begins with a statement of the common presupposition!
The psychology of religion literature indicates that religious engagement is beneficial to physical and mental health.
I don’t trust that interpretation any more than I do the suggestion that atheism is beneficial to your sleep.
Also, it’s a Templeton funded study.