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.


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