Only the Godless Die Young


With apologies to Billy Joel, new research from Harvard shows that, irrespective of the state of their general health, only the godless die young.

Over the last 20 years, research has gradually accumulated suggesting that religious service attendance is associated with better physical and mental health. For example, research articles have indicated that regular religious service attendance is associated with a 30 per cent reduction in depression, a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide, and a 30 per cent reduction in mortality, over 16 years of follow-up.

There have been a number of prior studies on religious service attendance and longevity. Many of these had been criticised for poor methodology, for instance allowing the possibility of reverse causation — ie, that only those who are healthy can attend services, so that attendance isn’t necessarily influencing health. 

Papers recently published out of Harvard University have tried to address this concern by using repeated measurements of service attendance and health over time to control for whether changes in health preceded changes in service attendance. The associations between religious service attendance and longevity, suicide and depression were all robust. Results indicated that compared with women who never attended religious services, women who attended more than once a week had a 33 per cent lower mortality risk during the study period. Those who attended weekly had a 26 per cent lower risk and those who attended less than once a week had a 13 per cent lower risk. (The data comes from women who worked as nurses in the US, most of whom identified as Catholic or Protestant, so most of the religious services would be at churches. However, the definition encompassed a range of different places of worship.)

NOT Just Social Benefits

Although historically researchers have suggested that the positive health benefits of religious involvement could be largely attributed to the social aspects of church attendance–socialization being an established contributor to well-being–more sophisticated statistical analysis shows that the social dimensions of faith account for only about 20% of the life-extending benefits of religion.  According to researchers…

Other mechanisms might also be operative. The development of self-discipline and a sense of meaning and purpose in life have been proposed in the literature as potential factors. The association between service attendance and health seems not to be explainable by just one mechanism alone. Rather, there appear to be many pathways from religion to health. Religious service attendance affects many aspects of a person’s life and the cumulative effect of all of these seems to have a substantial influence on health.

Of course, studies can’t statistically account for, y’know, that grace thingy.

“Spiritual Not Religious” Dying Sooner As Well.

The research also had some bad news for all the “spiritual but not religious” folks out there…

it appears to be religious service attendance, rather than self-assessed religiosity or spirituality or private practices, that most powerfully predicts health. 

You can read the rest here.  For more on how you and your kids live longer more faithful lives, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.

What Faith Stage Are You? The 6 Stages of Seeking Meaning, Significance, and Transcendence.


The following article is adapted from Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids

Most people think that faith is something you either have or you don’t.  But research by Emory University’s Dr. James Fowler revealed that faith evolves in discernible stages throughout our lifespan.  At each stage, a person’s faith needs to be nourished in different ways if it is to grow and mature into the next stage. If we don’t receive the right kind of support, faith development can stall or even wither.  Because Fowler viewed faith as a natural and essential part of every human person’s search for meaning, significance, and transcendence, Fowler’s Stages of Faith track with other developmental stages you might remember from your Psych 101 class, such as Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.

What Stage of Faith are you at?  And what do you need to do to more effectively continue your search for meaning, significance, and transcendence?

STAGE 0: Primal Faith (Infancy)–  People might be surprised to realize that babies have faith.  It’s true that they don’t have a conscious experience of faith and can’t articulate specific beliefs,  but this stage is tremendously important because it sets the stage for baby’s view of God and the world.  If parents respond to baby’s needs promptly, generously, and consistently, baby learns the basic, gut-level sense of trust that is necessary to believe that when I call out, God will answer. If parents delay responding to baby’s cries, baby develops gut-level insecurity that anyone will respond when I cry out or that there is anyone to bother crying out to in the first place.

Stage 1: Intuitive Projective Faith (Early Childhood)–This is the “feeling stage” of faith.  Children of this age are not capable of abstract thinking.  They understand everything in terms of “does it feel good or does it feel bad?”  Parents do well to make the child’s experience of faith at this stage as warm, loving, pleasant, and even “cuddly” as possible.  Whether or not a parent does this determines whether the child envisions the idea that “God is watching over you” as a positive, loving, and safe thing (“How wonderful, a loving God is looking out for me!”) or a judging, condemning, scary thing (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me!“).  Everyone eventually outgrows Stage 0 and Stage 1 but the gut-level lessons they take from these stages often stay with them throughout their lives, making faith development a joy or a constant struggle depending upon the experiences they have had up to this point.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal Faith (Primary School Age to Adulthood)– This is the “story stage.”  The stage of fables and bible stories and rules.  These stories and rules form the basic structures of a child’s faith system.  At this stage, God is a “person” in the same sense that Superman or Santa Claus is a person.  A “larger than life” being with superpowers to help him maintain order in the universe.  Again, depending on how parents present their own faith story (i.e., how they live and explain their own faith life to their kids), God could either be perceived as a benevolent ruler of the universe or a tyrant.  Either way, for the person at this stage, following the rules, doing things “just so” and working hard not to upset God are the prime motivators and primary ways faith is expressed. Generous amounts of parental affirmation allow the person to move through this to the next stage.  By contrast, adults who become stuck at this stage tend to be fairly scrupulous in their approach to faith and overly concerned with liturgical rules, moral rules, and proving themselves to be “good enough”.  For these individuals, faith can become an exhausting trial of constantly trying to prove themselves to God or the people they imagine to be the “official judges of goodness.”

Stage 3: Synthetic Conventional Faith (Adolescence to Adulthood)— This is the “relationship stage” of faith.  A person at this stage tends to decide that something is “true” if it makes their relationships easier and makes people feel affirmed.  By contrast, it is “false” if it makes relationships more complicated or makes people feel challenged or guilty in some way. The hard and fast rules of the mythic-literal stage are now revisioned in light of one’s relationships and the need to affirm others where they are at in their present struggles. Many adults remain at this stage for their entire lives.  Community is very important at this stage.  The down side of this is that faith can be a bit tribalistic (i.e., us v. them), even within a particular denomination.  A faithful, supportive community will enable people to sustain their faith at this stage, the absence of such a community,or the presence of an angry, judgmental community could cause the loss of faith.  Regardless, a person will tend to be faithful to the degree that the people around them are faithful and affirming of their efforts.  They have a harder time feeling confident in their faith and values without a cheering section.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith (Early-Middle Adulthood)–This is the “Questioning and Seeking” stage of faith.  The person at this stage owns their faith, is not worried about whether people approve of them or not, and begins questioning many basic assumptions they had previously accepted as gospel.  The person at this stage is “kicking the tires” of their faith, asking hard questions to see what will stand and what may fall away.  Often the people around this individual consider them to be backsliding and are threatened by this individual’s willingness to question the structures of rules and relationships that people at the lower stages of faith need to hold onto for security. At this stage, the person is much more concerned with internal conversion than with outward expressions of piety and righteousness. They tend to withdraw a bit from others, both needing less affirmation and more time to reflect and consider where they are in their journey and who God is asking them to be moving forward. The downside is that they can be a bit smug, looking down their noses at those who they consider to be less evolved. The other danger is that many people at this stage come to believe that the act of questioning is an end in itself and that actually finding actual answers is somehow beneath them.  The process of “seeking and questioning” though imminently valuable and necessary, can become its own idol.  In classic terms, this stage marks the end of the Purgative Way and the beginning of the Illuminative Way.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith (Middle-Later Adulthood)–This is the “wisdom stage” of faith.  The person at this stage has achieved what seems to others to be an almost effortless integration of their faith and life.  Things seem, somehow, genuinely less messy for them than for other’s lives.  Others may be tempted to write this off as “luck” but in reality, this is the result of decades of struggle and effort.  The person at this stage has achieved a true, authentic, integration between what they profess and how they live.  This is essence of wisdom; the practiced knowledge of how to live their beliefs–authentically, honestly, and effectively–in the real world.  People at this stage aren’t interested in proving anything.  They also experience a “willed naivety” which allows them to revisit beliefs and practices that they formerly rejected as somehow beneath them.  Also, unlike people at the answer-phobic individuative-reflective stage, people at the conjunctive stage accept that although there may not be perfect answers to the “Big Questions” there are often “very good answers” that are almost universally applicable.  In classic terms, the person at this stage is squarely in the Illuminative Stage of the spiritual walk and perhaps the beginning of the Unitive Stage.

Stage 6: Universalizing Faith (Later Adulthood)–For want of a better way to describe it, this is the “saintly stage.”  Without any attempt on their part to put on a show,  people at this stage are acknowledged by those around them for being living, breathing, examples of faith and virtue and an inspiration to others. People at this stage can still be polarizing and challenging to others, but there is a compassion that comes with these challenges that tempers any sense of condemnation others may feel. There is a simplicity to outward expressions of this person’s faith that belies the depth of belief and wisdom that lies beneath the surface. This person is in at least the beginning stages of the Unitive Way.

So, what stage are you?  Where would you like to be? Negotiating the challenges of these stages can be difficult on our own.  That’s where a spiritual director can be a great help.  If you’d like to learn more about how spiritual direction can help you navigate the challenges of these stages and achieve greater confidence in your spiritual walk, contact us at  And, for a more in-depth look at each of these stages and how you, as a parent, can help your kids grow up to have a healthy, mature faith, check out, Discovering God Together:  The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids


Challenging the Atheist Narrative: Study Says Religious Faith Prevents Violence


For the study, 555 Palestinian adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 were presented with a classic “trolley dilemma” that involved a Palestinian man being killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish-Israeli or Muslim-Palestinian. The participants responded from their own perspective and then again from Allah’s perspective. 

The results showed that although Muslim-Palestinian participants valued their own group’s lives over Jewish-Israeli lives, they believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of members of both groups more equally. In fact, thinking from Allah’s perspective decreased the bias toward their own group by almost 30 percent.

“Our findings are important because one precursor to violence is when people believe that the lives of members of their group are more important than the lives of members of another group,” said Dr. Jeremy Ginges, associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

“Here, we show that religious belief — even amidst a conflict centered on religious differences — can lead people to apply universal moral principles similarly to believers and non-believers alike.”

“Beliefs about God seem to encourage an application of universal moral rules to believers and non-believers alike, even in a conflict zone,” added Nichole Argo, a research scientist in engineering and public policy and social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. “Thus, it does not seem to be beliefs about God that lead to outgroup aggression.”  READ MORE

FAITHLESS: Why Don’t Millennials Believe?


          Why are “nones” on the rise?  The answer might surprise you.

I recently gave a radio interview about the latest Pew Center finding that “nones” (unchurched/”spiritual not religious”) are the fastest growing demographic on the religious scene.  The interviewer asked me if I thought the increasingly secular culture was responsible for both the loss of faith and the breakdown of the family.  I surprised him by saying that the research suggests it just might be the other way around–that the rise in both nones and a more secular culture can be more directly tied to the high divorce rate.  Here’s why.

Seekers VS. Samplers

Today’s Millennial “nones” are different than nones of the past.  Previously, the unchurched were seekers.  While they often spent some part of young adulthood unaffiliated with any denomination, they almost always landed somewhere–usually the church of their childhood.  By contrast, today’s nones are resistant to landing.  Rather than seekers, they are perpetual samplers, cobbling together their own hybrid spiritualities from the religious buffet.  This difference in the character of contemporary “nones” speaks to a deep sense of spiritual ambivalence.

The Root of Spiritual Ambivalence

            Ken Pargament, professor of religion and psychology at Bowling Green University has conducted ground-breaking research into what might be considered spiritual disorders; that is, unhealthy approaches to the natural human drive for meaning-making and significance.  He found that spiritual ambivalence tends to be rooted in too-early disillusionment in one’s parents.  While healthy development requires that every child eventually realize his or her parents aren’t perfect,  when this disillusionment happens too early, children become spiritually self-protective. Part of a parent’s jobs is to help children make sense of the world.  Premature disillusionment tends to cause children to distrust any authority figure’s role in helping them find meaning and significance in life.  These children tend to believe that they and they alone have the right to decide what is and isn’t true.  Letting anyone else help them in this role can make them feel too vulnerable and even violated.  They become, not sincere spiritual seekers, but rather perpetual spiritual samplers–happy to taste from the religious buffet but eternally afraid to commit.  A perfect example of this is Reba Riley’s book, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome:  A Memoir of Humor and Healingwhere she describes sampling 30 religions before her 30th birthday; a spiritual quest set off by her religious parents’ divorce which caused her to discount and even resent the spiritual security she trusted in her early years.

Between Two Worlds

But why would divorce–especially if it is a so-called “good divorce” (characterized by low conflict and relatively good parent-child rapport) cause such disillusionment?  Elizabeth Marquardt’s study of over 1700 adult children of divorce points to an answer.  She found that even in the best of circumstances, divorce causes children to live between two worlds–Mom’s World and Dad’s World.  When living in Mom’s World, kids don’t talk about life in Dad’s World for fear of upsetting mom.  Vice-versa when living in Dad’s World.  The only place these two all-important worlds come together is inside the child’s own head. No matter how much they love their children, the divorced mom and dad can do very little to give their children a narrative that helps their life make sense.  The child must learn to do this for him or herself.  Having taken on this incredibly difficult role traditionally reserved for adults, is it any wonder that these children are loathe to let anyone besides themselves makes sense out of life, the universe, and everything?  After all, they’ve already been doing it for themselves their entire lives.

Likewise, in an intact family, religious rituals help bind the family together.  But in a divorced family they often become one more point of conflict between Mom’s World and Dad’s World. In this scenario, religion actually becomes a burden–just one more difference between mom and dad that a child has to sort out for him or herself.


            Does this mean that all children of divorce are doomed to be spiritual wanderers?  Of course not.  But there is no question that divorce places an unappreciated spiritual burden on children.  Seen in this light, it is not at all surprising to see an article written by a group of adult children of divorce appear in America Magazine opposing easy solutions for readmitting the divorced and remarried back into communion on the grounds that “children need…the church to stand with them and to speak the truth about what their parent or parents have done.”

The bottom line is that a Church that wants to transform the culture and open hearts to Christ can never be soft on divorce. And the people who subscribe to such a faith could do much to save the world by turning their attention homeward and saving their marriages.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including the new, revised and expanded 2nd edition of For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.  To learn more about his books, radio program and telecounseling services, visit

Holding Children Hostage to Doubt

Interesting article on the soul-searching of religious “nones” and whether they should saddle their children with their own doubts.

What if the religion you rejected was a rich and wonderful part of your own childhood that made you feel protected and safe? Should you attempt somehow to recreate that feeling, along with transmitting your secular perspective, so that your children can make their own decision? But how can you do that with integrity if you no longer believe what you were taught?  Continue Reading

Separate But Equal? Why “Freedom of Worship” Makes Religious People Sit at Back of the (Church) Bus


In light of my earlier post advancing a secular, empirical argument for the value of public prayer, I’ve been engaged in an interesting discussion with a couple of atheist bloggers at Patheos on what religious freedom really entails (Note: the discussion occurred on a private forum and I don’t have permission to share their thoughts so I will refrain from naming  or quoting them or the other participants).   I realize that politics is outside the usual purview of this blog, but I thought this was important enough an issue to post here.

In the course of our conversation my atheist colleagues pointed out that several theist bloggers, who had also joined the discussion, were also opposed to so-called, “civic deist” prayer (i.e., public prayer that does not require adherence to any particular god, religion, or dogma).  I observed that the two theist bloggers in question, who both felt that people should be allowed to pray in church or “in their heart” but not at a school board meeting, of congress,  for instance,  demonstrated the common and dangerous misunderstanding that freedom of religion is limited to freedom of worship.   (It’s understandable.  The President shares this confusion.  Hence the HHS Mandate)

Freedom of Worship V. Freedom of Religion:  What’s the Difference?

A society that limits freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship is a society in which religious persons are considered separate but equal. It is a society that says, “You can only pray in these (communion) lines and at this (baptismal) water fountain.”  Freedom of worship requires religious people to check expressions of their faith at their church door (or the door of their hearts).

Freedom of religion, by contrast, is broader. It is akin to freedom of speech. If I have freedom of speech, I may speak my mind wherever I am and whomever I am with. I may even give offense as long as I don’t directly endanger others. In the same way, true freedom of religion allows me to live, speak, and act upon my religious beliefs in whatever context I find myself–even if doing so gives offense to others–as long as doing so doesn’t represent a direct endangerment to others. 

Freedom of Worship Tells Religious People to Sit At the Back of the (Church) Bus

If I am only free to speak my thoughts “in my heart” or in this section of the (church) bus, I do not have true freedom of speech. Yes, many religious people been socialized by our present culture to believe that they must settle for freedom of worship instead of a robust freedom of religion,  but just because some African Americans were content to sit in the back of the bus prior to Rosa Parks’ brave protest doesn’t mean segregation was right or just.

A Call for True Pluralism

Freedom of religion is really about the free expression of belief in the public square. A truly pluralistic, democratic society doesn’t require that we listen to and/or accept what one another has to say, but it at least prevents us from trying to silence each other. 

A truly religiously pluralistic society allows me to pray publicly and you to scowl disapprovingly at me while I do it or, vice versa,  allows you to hold a meeting where you make fun of prayer while I scowl disapprovingly at you  for doing it,  and then encourages us to all go out for drinks after. People who want to limit freedom of religion to freedom of worship don’t want true pluralism.  Rather, they want religious segregation where religious people may be free…as long as they stay in their parish ghettos.

If that’s what passes for the secular/atheist vision of tolerance. You’ll understand if I take a pass.

Prayer Works: A Psychological Case for Public Prayer and Graceful Governance


On the Patheos Atheist Channel, Jeffrey Jay Lowder posted an article titled, “Question for Theists:  Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?”  I appreciated the honest and respectful attempt to engage believers on this controversial issue–especially in light of Canada’s high court ruling that such prayer is impermissible— so I thought I would attempt a purely secular, non-theist, research-based response to the question.   There actually is a purely psychological argument for the benefits of public prayer. To start, we need to look at some research on a surprisingly powerful strategy for resolving marital conflict.

The Marriage Hack

A team of resaerchers led by Eli Finkel at the University of Chicago recently identified a conflict resolution strategy Finkel calls, “The Marriage Hack.”  (You can watch his TED talk here.)  The short version is that researchers asked couples who were in conflict to imagine what a third party, who loved them both and wished the best for both of them, would advise them to do about their conflict.  This simple intervention had two surprisingly powerful results.

First, when compared to the control group who did not use this strategy, this technique enabled couples to stop being so concerned with their own agendas and made them more willing to seek mutually satisfying solutions. Second, and again, compared to the control group, couples who used this strategy were able to experience significantly more harmony in the relationship over time, actually arresting the normal decline in relationship satisfaction most couples normally experience as the years go by.

The Marriage Hack and Prayer

I would suggest that prayer serves a similar psychological function.   There is, after all, considerable evidence that couple-prayer bears tremendous fruit both in terms of relationship happiness and stability.   Even if we were–for the sake of argument–ignore any effect that grace might have, simply taking a moment to reflect, in prayer, on what God–the person who loves each of us and desires the best for all of us–would have us do before a conversation allows us to be more generous toward others, more accommodating of other’s agendas, and more egalitarian than we might otherwise prefer to be.

The Significance of Public Prayer

Would this benefit extend to public prayer at government meetings?  I would suggest that it does.  Again, for the sake of argument, leaving out any potential supernatural benefit of prayer, even simple civic deism (i.e.  pro forma displays of public spirituality that do not necessarily represent a specific belief in any doctrine or creed) causes the people praying to pause and reflect on how God–as the participants understand that concept–would want them to behave in a more pro-social manner than they might otherwise choose to behave if they were solely focused on their own agendas.  Whether the person believes in Jesus Christ, Allah, the Bab, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is, for the sake of this argument, irrelevant.  The simple act of reflecting upon how a being that loved us all and wished the best for us has been shown to promote pro-social behavior.  Believers, of course, call this activity “prayer.”

I would suggest that people naturally intuit the social benefits of even pro-forma prayer which is why they feel so passionately about doing it in the first place.  A basic principle of evolutionary psychology argues that customs don’t develop in the absence of a perceived benefit.  My suspicion is that people’s experience tells them that prayer works, not just because of wishful thinking, but because even without considering the power of grace, the simple act of pausing to reflect what a loving, benevolent, third-party would wish us to do makes us more agreeable and helps us get things done in a more–*ahem*— graceful manner.

An Atheist Alternative

I suppose you could theoretically argue that you could get a similar benefit to civic deist prayer by simply asking the participants of a meeting to, “Please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave”  but I’m not really sure how that would be different than what civic deist prayer already is and does.

A friend of mine, Patheos blogger, Mark Shea, often remarks that society could do with a bit of insensitivity training.  That is, we could all benefit from indulging in a little less of a tendency to actively seek out opportunities to feel offended, slighted, and put out, and instead look for ways to be generous in our interpretations of the behavior of those around us.  Considering this, perhaps a modest suggestion for those who are offended by civic deist prayers could simply pause and imagine what a third party who loved them and all the others in the room would wish from them?

But I’m not sure if we really have a prayer of that happening.

Is Atheism A Mental Illness?

Sean Thomas at the London Telegraph seems to think so….

Thanks to a couple of surveys, it’s being put about in certain circles that atheists have higher IQs than believers. That may or may not be the case, but…Let’s dispense with the crude metric of IQ and look at the actual lives led by atheists, and believers, and see how they measure up. In other words: let’s see who is living more intelligently.

And guess what: it’s the believers. A vast body of research, amassed over recent decades, shows that religious belief is physically and psychologically beneficial – to a remarkable degree.

In 2004, scholars at UCLA revealed that college students involved in religious activities are likely to have better mental health. In 2006, population researchers at the University of Texas discovered that the more often you go to church, the longer you live. In the same year researchers at Duke University in America discovered that religious people have stronger immune systems than the irreligious. They also established that churchgoers have lower blood pressure.

Meanwhile in 2009 a team of Harvard psychologists discovered that believers who checked into hospital with broken hips reported less depression, had shorter hospital stays, and could hobble further when they left hospital – as compared to their similarly crippled but heathen fellow-sufferers.

The list goes on. In the last few years scientists have revealed that believers, compared to non-believers, have better outcomes from breast cancer, coronary disease, mental illness, Aids, and rheumatoid arthritis. Believers even get better results from IVF. Likewise, believers also report greater levels of happiness, are less likely to commit suicide, and cope with stressful events much better. Believers also have more kids.

What’s more, these benefits are visible even if you adjust for the fact that believers are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs. And let’s not forget that religious people are nicer. They certainly give more money to charity than atheists, who are, according to the very latest survey, the meanest of all.

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.  MORE


What is “Mental illness”  — Does Atheism Fit?

There is a lot to this.  Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no generally accepted definition of the terms “mental health” or “mental illness.”  Readers might be surprised to learn that most therapists can complete their training and not once have a meaningful discussion in class about what mental health or mental illness actually is.  We learn categories of illness and symptom checklists, but there is no generally accepted understanding of what actually constitutes a mental illness in the first place.  In order for Thomas’ assertion to be more than a slur against atheists, we need to look at what mental illness could actually be defined as.

Psychiatrist and brain researcher,  Dr. Daniel Siegel, argues that mental health represents the degree of integration within and between the mind, the body and our relationships.   He further argues that mental illness can be described as the falling out of  this state of integration and lapsing into a relative state of increased rigidity, chaos or both.  These are probably the best definitions of these terms I’ve ever encountered.

Seen in this light, I think there is a case to be made that atheism could be a mental illness.  There are many more studies like Sean Thomas points to that strongly suggest that religious believers have significantly better integration with regard to health, mental health, relationship satisfaction, and pro-social behavior.  We also know that there is strong comorbidity between atheism and high functioning autism.  In general, while the occurrence of agnosticism or personalized spiritualities is quite high, the incidence of atheism stands at 1-5% in the general population, which is consistent with other mental disorders.

Can Belief Systems Be Disorders?

It isn’t enough to say that, because atheism is a belief system it should be exempt from being considered a mental illness.  The belief that one is Napoleon is clearly evidence that something  is not right.  Also, I’m not picking on atheists, I would argue that any belief system that significantly inhibited the integration between or within one’s mind, body, and relationships was representative of, if not outright mental illness, than at least poorer mental health.  And, in fact, there are types of religiousness (aka, “extrinsic religiosity” which tends to be characterized, not by internal conversion, but rule-bound judgmentalism and angry tribalism) that have been shown by a great deal of research to be associated with poor mental health.

So, seen from this perspective, considering the relatively lower rates of mental, physical and social well-being enjoyed by atheists, it really isn’t unreasonable or inappropriate to ask if atheism either is a mental illness itself or is a contributor to poor mental well-being.


Six Types of Atheists?

According to the University of Tennessee, in what is, reportedly, the first-ever attempt to classify different types of atheism, researchers have identified 6 types of atheists.  If you are an atheist, what flavor are you?  Is there a category they didn’t think of?  If you are close to someone who is an atheist, do you recognize them in these types?

1. Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic–The true believer (er, non-believer) who seeks to develop his non-belief through reading and other intellectual pursuits related to atheism.

2. Activist– The evangelists.  It isn’t enough to reject God.  They need to convert others.

3. Seeker-agnostic– They embrace uncertainty.  They’re pretty sure there is no God, but they are open to the possibility.

4. Anti-Theist– Antagonistic to religion.  Equates religion with ignorance.

5. Non-Theist– Not concerned with religion at all.  Just don’t think about it.   Apathetic.

6. Ritual Atheist–Doesn’t believe in God, but thinks religious rituals serve a healthy role for personal growth and social stability.

Read the article.


Will Your Kids Stay Catholic? (UPDATED)

Most parents hope that their adult children will remain in the faith in which they were raised.  Lisa and I often hear, both on the radio and in our counseling practice, from parents who are profoundly upset that their adult children have left the Church.

Obviously, parents can never guarantee that children will follow in their footsteps with regard to their beliefs but there are things that can be done to stack the deck.  When it comes to raising kids to stay Catholic, the research is pretty clear.  Being religious yourself and having a religious home isn’t enough.  Religious education is important, but the strength of the attachment between the parents and children appears to be the factor that decides whether your children stay faithful or not.  That said, there are some interesting details in how the relationship between religious education and relationship plays out.

Religiousness and Relationship: Two Theories

There are two theories of how a child’s relationship with his parents affects religious belief.  The “compensation hypothesis”  asserts that insecurely attached children are more likely to be religious as adults because they are seeking to compensate for their lack of connection with a parent by connecting with a heavenly parental substitute.

The  “correspondence hypothesis” states that the likelihood of a parent passing on their values to their children is dependent upon the strength of the relationship between the parents and the children.  Logic here is that children who have a healthy relationship with their parents are less likely to challenge or reject the values they were raised with.

So which is true?  Both are.    Here’s how things tend to break down according to the research.

The Results:  Religious, Not Religious, and “Spiritual but not Religious”

If a child is securely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult.

If a child is insecurely attached to religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will not be religious as an adult  (there is also a fair number in this group who fall into the “spiritual but not religious category.  Mostly because their attachment issues make them suspicious of what researchers call, “social religion”  [i.e., organized religion]).


If child is insecurely attached to non-religious parents there is a greater likelihood that child will grow up to be “spiritual but not religious.”  (for the same reasons as above.)

Finally, children who are securely attached to highly religious parents are the most religiously attached of all groups as adults.

The Bottom Line

Now, granted, there are going to be individual variations on the above themes.  Not everybody fits into neat categories.  That said, the evidence is pretty clear that the best way to increase the likelihood that a child will retain the faith of his youth as an adult (even if that is “no faith”) is to both practice the faith intentionally in your home and make certain that you have a strong attachment with that child.


A Consideration for Evangelization: 

One interesting question for me that comes out of the research is how to evangelize those who are “spiritual but not religious.”  If the data is correct that many “spiritual but not religious people” are really  can’t be reached simply by hearing the message of the Gospel.  They need to experience a relationship that heals the attachment wound first.  Something to keep in mind for all my budding apologist readers.  All the best arguments in the world can’t substitute for an authentic relationship that leads another person to Christ.

The same is true, really, for religious adults who are in a frustrated relationship with irreligious adult children.  If your kids aren’t impressed with the power of your arguments, the answer isn’t seeking better arguments.  The answer has to be healing the damage in your relationship.

UPDATE:  I’ve had a few people asking to see this alleged research to which I’m referring.  I actually anticipated the objection, but decided not to post anything at the time because I’m summarizing about a half-dozen different studies over the course of 20 years.  That said, it was certainly a fair challenge.  For those interested in further reading–assuming you don’t have access to an online academic database–this is a pretty good article summarizing the highlights of the data.  For those who do have access to an academic search engine (like Academic Search Premier or PsyArticles), use the key words “attachment style” and “religiousness” and dive in.

OF COURSE…If you are a parent and less interested in the academic side of things and more interested in how to stack the deck in favor of YOUR kids being faithful Catholics as adults, please be sure to check out Parenting with Grace for tips on building a family around the principles of the Theology of the Body and Beyond the Birds and the Bees, a book not just about talking to your kids about sex, but rather about forming your kids’ moral conscience from birth to young adulthood.