Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 51, Issue 1, pp 72–86 | Cite as

Psychological Distress Among Religious Nonbelievers: A Systematic Review

  • Samuel R. Weber
  • Kenneth I. Pargament
  • Mark E. Kunik
  • James W. LomaxII
  • Melinda A. Stanley
Original Paper

Abstract

Studies of religious belief and psychological health are on the rise, but most overlook atheists and agnostics. We review 14 articles that examine differences between nonbelievers and believers in levels of psychological distress, and potential sources of distress among nonbelievers. Various forms of psychological distress are experienced by nonbelievers, and greater certainty in one’s belief system is associated with greater psychological health. We found one well-documented source of distress for nonbelievers: negative perceptions by others. We provide recommendations for improving research on nonbelievers and suggest a model analogous to Pargament’s tripartite spiritual struggle to understand the stresses of nonbelief.

Keywords

Religion Atheism Agnosticism Mental health Psychological distress 

References

  1. Baker, P., & Cruickshank, J. (2010). I am happy in my faith: The influence of religious affiliation, saliency, and practice on depressive symptoms and treatment preference. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12, 339–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brinkerhoff, M. B., & Mackie, M. M. (1993). Casting off the bonds of organized religion: A religious-careers approach to the study of apostasy. Review of Religious Research, 34, 235–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Edgell, P., Gerteis, J., & Hartmann, D. (2006). Atheists as “other:” Moral boundaries and cultural membership in American society. American Sociological Review, 71, 211–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ellison, C. G., & Lee, J. (2010). Spiritual struggles and psychological distress: Is there a dark side of religion? Social Indicators Research, 98, 501–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Exline, J. J. (2002). Stumbling blocks on the religious road: Fractured relationships, nagging vices, and the inner struggle to believe. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 182–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smith, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 129–148.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Lobel, M. (1999). When God disappoints. Journal of Health Psychology, 4, 365–379.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Exline, J. J., Yali, A. M., & Sanderson, W. C. (2000). Guilt, discord, and alienation: The role of religious strain in depression and suicidality. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56, 1481–1496.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Gervais, W. M. (2011). Finding the faithless: Perceived atheist prevalence reduces anti-atheist prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 543–556.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Herzbrun, M. B. (1999). Loss of faith: A qualitative analysis of Jewish nonbelievers. Counseling & Values, 43, 129–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hunter, J. A. (1998). Inter-group evaluative bias and self-esteem among Christians. Current Research in Social Psychology, 3, 74–87.Google Scholar
  12. Hunter, J. A. (2001). Self-esteem and in-group bias among members of a religious social category. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 401–411.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. James, A., & Wells, A. (2002). Death beliefs, superstitious beliefs and health anxiety. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41, 43–53.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Jenks, R. J. (1986). Perceptions of two deviant and two nondeviant groups. The Journal of Social Psychology, 126, 783–790.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Koenig, H. G. (Ed.). (1998). Handbook of religion and mental health. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  16. Koenig, H. G., Cohen, H., Blazer, D. G., Pieper, C., Meador, K., Shelp, F., et al. (1992). Religious coping and depression among elderly, hospitalized medically ill men. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 1693–1700.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Koenig, H. G., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Religion and mental health: Evidence for an association. International Review of Psychiatry, 13, 67–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Koenig, H. G., McCullough, M. E., & Larson, D. B. (2001). Handbook of religion and health. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Krause, N., Chatters, L. M., Meltzer, T., & Morgan, D. L. (2000). Negative interaction in the church: Insights from focus groups with older adults. Review of Religious Research, 41, 510–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Krause, N., Ellison, C. B., & Wulff, K. M. (1998). Church-based emotional support, negative interaction, and psychological well-being: Findings from a national sample of Presbyterians. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 725–741.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Krause, N., & Wulff, K. M. (2004). Religious doubt and health: Exploring the potential dark side of religion. Sociology of Religion, 65, 35–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lundh, L., & Radon, V. (1998). Death anxiety as a function of belief in an afterlife. A comparison between a questionnaire measure and a Stroop measure of death anxiety. Personality and Individual Differences, 25, 487–494.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Meisenhelder, J. B., & Marcum, J. P. (2004). Responses of clergy to 9/11: Posttraumatic stress, coping, and religious outcomes. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43, 547–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mochon, D., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2011). Who benefits from religion? Social Indicators Research, 101, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Nielsen, M. E. (1998). An assessment of religious conflicts and their resolutions. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 181–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. O’Connell, K. A., & Skevington, S. M. (2010). Spiritual, religious, and personal beliefs are important and distinctive to assessing quality of life in health: A comparison of theoretical models. British Journal of Health psychology, 15, 729–748.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Pargament, K. I. (2001). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  28. Pargament, K. I., Koenig, H. G., Tarakeshwar, N., & Hahn, J. (2004). Religious coping methods as predictors of psychological, physical and spiritual outcomes among medically ill elderly patients: A two-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 713–730.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pargament, K. I., Murray-Swank, N. A., Magyar, G. M., & Ano, G. G. (2005). Spiritual struggle: A phenomenon of interest to psychology and religion. In W. R. Miller & H. D. Delaney (Eds.), Judeo-Christian perspectives on psychology (pp. 245–268). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  30. Pargament, K. I., Smith, B. W., Koenig, H. G., & Perez, L. (1998). Patterns of positive and negative religious coping with major life stressors. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37, 710–724.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Pargament, K. I., Tarakeshwar, N., Ellison, C. G., & Wulff, K. M. (2001). Religious coping among the religious: The relationships between religious coping and well-being in a national sample of Presbyterian clergy, elders, and members. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40, 497–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2009). Faith in flux: Changes in religious affiliation in the U.S., online at http://www.pewforum.org/.
  33. Riley, J., Best, S., & Charlton, B. G. (2005). Religious believers and strong atheists may both be less depressed than existentially-uncertain people. QJM: Monthly Journal of the Association of Physicians, 98, 840.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Schmidt, S., Sotgiu, I., & Tinti, C. (2007). The effects of religious involvement on short-term psychological reactions to the death of Pope John Paul II: A study on an Italian sample. Social Behavior and Personality, 35, 417–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Smith, B. W., Pargament, K. I., Brant, C., & Oliver, J. M. (2000). Noah revisited: Religious coping by church members and the impact of the 1993 midwest flood. Journal of Community Psychology, 28, 169–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tonigan, J. S., Miller, W. R., & Schermer, C. (2002). Atheists, agnostics and Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 63, 534–541.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Trevino, K. M., Pargament, K. I., Cotton, S., Leonard, A. C., Hahn, J., Caprini-Faigin, C. A., et al. (2010). AIDS and Behavior, 14, 379–389.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Whitley, R. (2010). Atheism and mental health. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 18, 190–194.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Wilkinson, P. J., & Coleman, P. G. (2010). Strong beliefs and coping in old age: A case-based comparison of atheism and religious faith. Aging & Society, 30, 337–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samuel R. Weber
    • 1
  • Kenneth I. Pargament
    • 2
  • Mark E. Kunik
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
  • James W. LomaxII
    • 5
  • Melinda A. Stanley
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of PsychiatryThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Bowling Green State UniversityBowling GreenUSA
  3. 3.VA HSR&D Houston Center of ExcellenceHoustonUSA
  4. 4.Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical CenterHoustonUSA
  5. 5.Baylor College of MedicineHoustonUSA
  6. 6.VA South Central Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical CenterHoustonUSA

Personalised recommendations