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14 May, 2009 13:37

Is Atheism healthy? – Studying the Godless

Is Atheism healthy? – Studying the Godless

Religion is undoubtedly good for the soul. It offers itself as a panacea to the problems the world throws at us, but does that mean the atheists among us are doomed? Are secular societies to be feared and avoided?

Over the past decade there has been a raft of academic research on religiosity and its effects on those who follow. Religion, we are told, can prolong our lives and help keep our society in check. However, there has been a new movement in the academic world and now it is the atheists and secularists that are coming under the microscope.

Is non-belief bad for your health? Do secular societies descend into chaos and throw up nightmare states? In order to balance the scales, academic research is concentrating on the effects of atheism and secularism on people. They are spurred on by figures that show the number of US atheists has doubled in the last decade, and they say that the non-religious can deal with dilemma just as well as, if not better than, true believers.

Barry Kosmin is a sociologist, research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College, Connecticut, and co-author of “One Nation Under God”. He was also the Principal Investigator of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, which raised eyebrows in March this year when, having surveyed 50,000 American adults, it showed that the number of those who report no religious affiliation had almost doubled: from 8% to 15%.

This huge jump has focused the attention of academics onto the secular and how their beliefs affect their lives.

Kosmin explains that these atheists still are only a portion of the secular society:

“Atheists are not the majority of people who are secular. Secularism in many parts of the world means completely different things. In Turkey and France it means privatisation of religion and dominance of the national state over religion, for example. In the US it means separation of church and state. Then there is civil society secularism – people who think about this world – not the next. They concentrate on making the world in which they live to make it better”

Kosmin, along with Ariela Keysar, founded the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in 2005, the first of its kind in America. However, since then, the number of those who are researching the effects of secularism has increased almost as much as the rate of atheism itself. What is more interesting is that their research shows that not only are the non-believers well equipped to deal with anything life throws at them, but also that the most civil societies are those with the lowest levels of religiosity.

In his book “Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment,” Phil Zuckerman seeks to understand how Denmark and Sweden enjoy strong economies, low crime rates, high standards of living and social equality despite being the least religious countries in the world. While others argue that godless societies devolve into lawlessness and immorality, Zuckerman attempts the flipside of the debate.

“The best societies were some of the least religious countries in the world. They have the lowest church attendance rates, also the lowest rates in belief in God or Jesus or the Bible. If they did believe, that belief was weak.”

How did Zuckerman measure either the level or religion or what makes a good society. “It’s tricky to determine how religious a country is,” he explains, “but we looked at church attendance and strength in belief of God as measures. To determine what makes a good country we included quality of life, indices of levels of infant mortality, life expectancy…normal sociological measures.”

However Zuckerman is quick to point out the meaning behind his 14 months of research: “My argument must be qualified – I’m not saying that atheism causes societal progress or good countries. My argument is that a high level of atheism does not hinder social progress. The only reason I make that claim is to counter those who say we must have God or religion to have a good society. That claim is completely unsound.”

Barry Kosmin feels this correlation of secularism to a well developed society can be explained in another way: “Secure people are less believing,” he says, “Insecurity leads to belief. People living in comfortable situations in Denmark or Sweden don’t have a great need to believe in anything, they don’t have a lot of stress. If you get sick or become unemployed, the state will look after you.”

It’s a fair point. Secularism is more than likely an outcome of a progressive society, rather than the cause of it. However, there are some proven benefits to atheism. Or, at least, atheists fare as well as believers in coping with life changing events.

Take Karen Hwang’s research for example. Recently, Hwang from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey interviewed atheists suffering from spinal cord injuries and revealed that their risk of depression in them was no different compared to those that were religious believers.

But is this an off-shoot of secularism per se?

“Becoming debilitated strengthened their convictions, and their convictions strengthened them,” said Hwang. "It doesn't matter so much what a person believes in, but how consistent and cohesive their worldview is.”

Perhaps this is the central point. People with strong beliefs, whether it is in a God or no God at all, are equally well equipped to deal with problems that arise and those problems usually strengthened their own convictions that they are right.

While religion does add fuel to the flame of discrimination and sexual inequality in some societies, it also is of course a great force for good in the world and acts as a great motivator for some people involved.

The question is not really whether those who believe are better off than those who don’t, but the answer seems to be that if you are strong in your beliefs, whatever they are, you are more likely a secure person, that you’ll live your life to a standard that is acceptable by others and the society around you.

As Karen Hwang concludes: “People with strong feelings of atheism are just as happy, healthy, and well adjusted as those with strong religious beliefs.”

Ciaran Walsh for RT