Religious nonaffiliates who have high certainty in the existence of God or a higher power (theistic nones) have grown rapidly in size in the U.S. in the last 30 years, and are now the fourth largest American religious or secular category. This subgroup has been overlooked in prior research on religion, secularism, and health. We build on recent work on religion and health by distinguishing between atheists, agnostics, and nonaffliliated theists when examining the link between religious or secular identification and self-rated health. Specifically, we advance research on the heterogeneity of secular individuals and health by splitting nonaffiliated theists into two subgroups: those who report certainty in their beliefs about God or some higher power (i.e., theistic nones), and those who are less certain about their beliefs in God (i.e., doubting nones). We analyze 13 waves (1988–2018) of pooled data (N = 15,349) from the General Social Survey (GSS), a large, recurring, and nationally-representative sample of U.S. adults conducted on a periodic basis. Using the GSS, we assessed self-rated health across religious and secular categories in a well-controlled model. When compared with conservative Protestants, theistic nones and atheists had significantly higher levels of self-rated health, whereas agnostics and low-certainty nonaffiliated theists (doubting nones) did not report significantly higher levels of self-rated health. This study adds to previous research by differentiating between theistic and doubting nones among nonaffiliated theists in relation to overall health differences. The results suggest that the level of certainty in beliefs about God or a higher power are an important factor among religious nones for predicting health outcomes. These findings highlight the necessity of analyzing heterogenous subgroups within secular populations in studies of health and well-being.
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The GSS was administered on a yearly basis (with the exception of 1979, 1981, and 1992) until 1994. Between 1994 and 2018 it was conducted every other year. Since the “belief in God” question was not included in the 1989, 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2004 GSS questionnaires, these waves of data are not included in our analytical sample. The GSS is not without its weaknesses, and the current study’s findings should be replicated using more targeted samples of underrepresented groups in the U.S., as well as samples from other countries.
Although self-rated health clearly involves some level of subjectivity, research suggests that it is an important health outcome because it is indicative of an individual’s global sense of physical well-being. Self-rated health has been shown to be predictive of mortality (Mossey and Shapiro 1982; Kaplan and Camacho 1983; see DeSalvo et al. 2006; Benyamini and Idler 1999 for reviews), because it serves as an indicator of other health problems as well as having an independent effect on mortality (Fried et al. 1998; Jylhä et al. 2006).
Income was missing on 9.90% of all responses. Additionally, occupational prestige had 4.83% missing data and religious affiliation was missing 4.83%. All other variables had less than one percent missing data. Additional analyses using multiple imputation (not shown) revealed the same substantive findings.
A multilevel model allowing for random intercepts by year yielded substantively identical results. For ease of interpretation, we present the single-level ordered logistic regression. Additional analyses including religious affiliation by survey year interaction terms were not significant, suggesting that the relationship between religious/secular identification and self-rated health has not changed significantly over the time period covered in this study.
The difference between theistic nones and doubting nones in self-rated health is not statistically significant (p = .14). Although we cannot definitively say that nonaffiliated theists differ in self-rated health depending on level of certainty, the difference between conservative Protestants and theistic nones would not be revealed had nonaffiliated theists been used as an undifferentiated category.
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Walker, M.H., Drakeford, L., Stroope, S. et al. Health Differences Between Religious and Secular Subgroups in the United States: Evidence from the General Social Survey. Rev Relig Res 63, 67–81 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00430-1