Thursday, August 15, 2013

Are atheists mentally ill?

That was the question posed by Telegraph blogger Sean Thomas, and he says "yes": I quote directly: "the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness."

So, what evidence is it that he speaks of?

Well, the piece was prompted by research which shows that generally, atheists are more intelligent than religious people (who from now on I'll call believers for brevity).

Before we go on I must paraphrase something I have written before:

We need to be clear that this research is not saying that atheists are smart and religious people aren't.

When talking about differences in populations, you're never far from cries of some sort of -ism, be it racism, sexism etc. This is because people tend to think of traits of populations as discrete points, and not overlapping bell curves. People misinterpret a saying like "Women are better at visual memory" as meaning that all women are good at visual memory, and all men are bad at visual memory.

Here's a simple example. Men are taller than women. Here's a graph to show this:

As you can see - men tend to be taller than women, but there is considerable overlap with their heights.

So it is with this research - atheists tend to be more intelligent than believers, according to a meta analysis of 63 studies that set out to answer that question. However, some atheists will be less intelligent than their religious counterparts, and vice versa.

Reading Thomas' article, I get the impression he is not aware of the above point.

Thomas decided to ditch measures of intelligence and instead chose to see how intelligently atheists and believers lived their lives. He says that believers:

i) have better mental health.
ii) live longer.
iii) have better immune systems and blood pressure.
iv) have better outcomes when going to hospital with broken hips.
v) have better outcomes from breast cancer, coronary disease, mental illness, AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis.
vi) have better IVF results.
vii) have lower suicide rates and ability to cope with stress.
viii) have more children.

All of which he says is true, even when smoking, drink and drugs are factored in (which, so we're told, believers do less of).

He also says that religious folk are nicer, as they give more to charity.

He hasn't linked to, or cited, his sources for all of this research, so I do not know its validity. But that is not important to my argument here, which is: even if all of that were true, it does nothing to demonstrate the truth claims of any religion. The reason I (and many other atheists) reject religion, is that there is not a jot of evidence for us to base any religious belief on. Thomas may not be aware of this concept too.

For me, assuming these data to be true, I would like to know what it is about being a believer that leads to these benefits, and can they be replicated for all (including believers - maybe some religions do better in some of the above metrics than others)? However, Thomas instead asks:

"So which is the smart party, here? 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)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?

Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.

And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness."

This seems to be the "Ignorance is Bliss" argument for religion - which seems a slight twisting of Pascal's Wager. It doesn't matter if a religion is true or not, but I might as well believe in one for my health.

This argument cannot persuade me though - even if, as an atheist, I miss out on a heap of health benefits, there's not much I can do about it. There is still no evidence put forward to back up any religions claims, so it seems I shall have to stick to watching what I eat and exercising regularly.

Even if I just went through the motions and attended religious observances, I'd just be living a lie, which isn't helpful given my commitment to not lying.

Thomas follows his statement "the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness." by saying:

"And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.

Therefore, being an atheist – lacking the vital faculty of faith – should be seen as an affliction, and a tragic deficiency: something akin to blindness."

This, however, is a very flawed argument. Donald E Brown has a list of "Human Universals", in which he lists all those traits that have been found in all studied human societies. Conflict, rape and weapons are all on that list. Just because our brains are hard wired for something, does not mean that that is necessarily a good thing. Which of these universals (and you can read the list here) do we need to have to be "fully functioning" humans, and which can we drop? Also, when it comes to our brains, we can do nothing to escape optical illusions like this (the green and blue in this image are in fact both the same colour):

Our brains can be easily fooled, as evidence by religious and supernatural belief also appearing on that list.

I'll just finish with some of the answers to my questions: What is it about belief that can improve ones health?

Well, some research has been done this, and I'll quote a couple of times from the excellent Epiphenom, which blogs about research to do with atheism and religion. There's plenty of research on health and religion over there, and, what's great is that every blog post links to the original journal that did the research, so you don't just have to take the author's word for it.

I'll just draw your attention to a couple:

Firstly, a meta analysis looked at what it was about being religious that led to health benefits.

"three factors that do not connect religion and health.
  • If you are a man, then it seems like being religious isn't connected to being more healthy - or if it is, the effect is quite small.
  • Intrinsic aspects of religion (belief in a god concept, religious/spiritual well-being, religious/spiritual experience, and religious motivation/orientation) have no effect on health.
  • Although organisational activities (such as going to Church) seem to have a big effect, non-organisational activities (prayer, meditation, or sacred book study) do not."
It turns out that the community aspect - turning up to church, has the benefit, not the beliefs per se.

Secondly, there was a study into health, religion and education, it found that "for the less well educated, the risk of dying goes down as church attendance goes up. As you would expect.

Surprisingly, however, for the educated the effect is exactly opposite! Educated people who go to church often are actually more likely to die young!"

So religion isn't quite the health tonic it was made out to be.

Also, charity and religion isn't as clear cut either. It also appears that the community side of religion promotes charitable giving. Religious people who go to church more tend to give more than religious people who go to church less.

It may be that us atheists can reap some of these benefits by being actively involved in a community.

Of course, if one is to look at societies as a whole, we see that atheistic ones tend to fair better.

Not bad for populations of people who live "short, selfish, stunted little lives".


  1. It's amazing what the human mind is capable of, for better and for worse. The same boundless minds that are able to conceive of extraordinary scientific advances can be reduced to useless masses of gray matter by a single, simple idea.

  2. "Also, charity and religion isn't as clear cut either. It also appears that the community side of religion promotes charitable giving. Religious people who go to church more tend to give more than religious people who go to church less."

    Now i don't know how they measured the amount of giving (if it was just a survey then it may have issues with it) but, MOST CHURCHES ARE CHARITIES! So it's not exactly surprising that people who regularly attend meetings for a charity, which frequently ask for money from them (supported by a divine claim to be acting for a good cause)give money to charity.

    This is more likely to be a finding that people who regularly attend meetings held by charities give more money to charities, which is hardly a surprising conclusion. Unless they had an atheist comparison group who were actively connected to a non religious charity with regular meetings, then the results are meaningless.

    1. No, most churches are not charities. Most of the money that goes into that collection plate week after week is *not* going to charitable causes. It's going to things like, oh, keeping the lights on, keeping the building maintained and the mortgage paid, paying the pastor's salary and paying for his/her residence, and paying others who are regularly involved in setting up and managing worship activities. Of course, we don't know the exact numbers, since churches (unlike 501(c)3 organizations) don't have to open up their books or otherwise account for their expenditures. One example I saw pegged the total charitable giving of one particular church over the course of a month at about 2.1% of their total spend. So defining a church as inherently charitable is, well, somewhat overly charitable.

  3. Actually, the increase in charitable giving from believers extends to secular charities - it's not just that they give to their church more.

    1. Could you provide a source for that please? I heard otherwise. I read that if you count things like tithing religious people give more to charity but if you don't count tithing than irreligious people give more.

    2. I've just remembered this which includes my above link on charity, and more

      Try searching Epiphenom too - sorry for the lack of links, don't have time for a big search just now, and I've read a lot about charity over the years!

  4. Being more intelligent is also correlated with less children and higher incidence of depression. You'd have to control any religious study with intelligence to truly make any connection.

    Here's a funny, sourced article with the downsides of high-intelligence.

  5. I'd recommend reading this article: Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings
    of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and

  6. People like to belong to a group, no matter how stupid the premise may be. Some people choose to believe something entirely unprovable which has no impact on their lives at all and write blog posts to evangelise how their particular group differs from other groups.

    So sad.

    1. The trouble is, religious belief does have an impact on my life. Unelected clerics sit in the house of lords, and are able to influence the law of the land. This puts us on a par with Iran. It has been less than a month since gay marriages were allowed in the UK - before that, they were help back by religious prudery. On a grander scale, in Germany, a rape victim was denied help in a Catholic Hospital.

      It is my belief (and I'm happy if some one wants to pursued me otherwise - I didn't always think that, but reading The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith changed my mind on the matter) that religion does more harm than good, hence my outspoken atheism.

    2. I think he meant that believing in general had no effect on the persons life. Like if religions vanished overnight we would still have the same jobs and morals, religion doesn't contribute directly to a persons life (praying didn't get you that job, working hard in school did). But yes, the presence of religion in many countries greatly (and sometimes fatally) affects the lives of its citizens. Even when they themselves don't follow the same doctrine.

  7. Great response. Either way, the interesting question to ask is how can we replicate for the extended life-span effect in atheists (the social aspects of church-going that is) to expand the benefit to more people. All in all, very informative research, too bad people get so very stuck in atheists vs. believers when at the end of the day each has something valuable to learn from the other, speaking from the point of view of a Psychology major. Psychological research, while at times politically motivated is done not to allow one group to feel superior over the other but to inform and learn. Gotta love controversial results, they're ones that push the human race forward.

  8. A very well written, logically sound article. You even use sound arguments supported by citations and links. As a humanist I found the "short, selfish , stunted little lives"statement was incredibly offensive and very unprofessional, completely compromises the integrity of the "argument". I like to think that atheists aren't broken mentally as believers would claim they must be. "Why wouldn't everyone believe in God, its all right here." I think we just have sharper critical thinking skills and are a branch of people that refuse to take everything at face value. We must be supplemented with evidence and analyses before we willingly accept an idea. So my atheist brain was very satisfied to you're well written rebuttal, very civil.

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  10. I am not sure but think so. Anyway if so the should go to assisted living for mentally ill.

  11. Strongly agree here.

    And it's really ironic for him to conclude that believers like him are nicer people while posting such an offensive article.

    I hate to throw back the stone but in truth, I never found these religious people nice. they only try to do so because they 'want their souls to be saved in the afterlife' that they believe in.

    And no, I definitely don't find them being that intelligent. They are but people who are afraid of making mistakes and regretting the 'wrong' things that they have done in the past.

    I just do not know how he concluded that believers live happier lives than non believers do. Happiness is such a broad and subjective word. Judging one's level of happiness by his/her beliefs just seems so narrow and absurd.

    Im pantheist. But I have really deep respect for atheists as well. I don't have any source here. Just wanted to drop by with this opinion.


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