Are atheists being ignored in religiosity and well-being studies?
- Published on 06 December 2011
- Written by Daniel Ansted
- Hits: 1885
Are studies that show a relationship between religion and health flawed? Is there any direct connection between religiosity, spirituality, and well-being? Karen Hwang, Joseph Hammer, and Ryan Cragun (Center for Atheist Research) argue that most studies in the area of religion and health have serious flaws. Specifically, according to these authors, the studies show flaws in construct validity, sampling difficulty, problematic analyses, and lack of atheist control samples.Construct validity deals with how the “construct,” in this case religiosity or spirituality, is defined in any particular study. For the most part an individual researcher can stipulate any reasonable definition for their “construct.” Of course the definition stipulated should match up reasonably well with reality. Hwang et al. argue that the definitions stipulated in many of these studies do not line up reasonably well with reality, but instead only focus on a small aspect of religiosity or spirituality—church attendance. This is particularly problematic in the case of religiosity and health, they argue, because it is only those who are healthy that are likely to attend church on a regular basis. In addition, the research has focused mostly on Christian and Jewish faiths, and there may be different expressions of religiosity in other traditions.
Sampling difficulties in the study of the relationship between religiosity, spirituality, and health center on the fact that most of this research is conducted with volunteers, which may bias a sample. Those who want to participate in such a research study may have different characteristics than the overall population.
The analytical issues that Hwang et al. cite are that various authors overstate the implications of a particular study. Many studies establish a correlation between religiosity, spirituality, and health, but do not establish a causal relation. The authors indicate that they do not have a problem with correlational studies per se, but authors of research studies in this field often infer causation from studies that only warrant correlational claims. In addition, they argue, some studies downplay the possible neutral and detrimental effects of religiosity or spirituality on health in favor of the beneficial effects.
The last problem these authors discuss is a lack of atheist control samples. The authors acknowledge that there are comparisons between high religiosity and low religiosity; however, a low religiosity rating neither entails nor implies greater secularity. Simply put, atheists and secularists might interpret these scales differently than a Christian or a Jew. Furthermore, grouping individuals as “religious nones” or “religious independents” creates a catch-all category where the members might not have very much in common. Atheists, according to the authors, are an identifiable group who generally share common beliefs and ideologies and thus would serve as a better control than “nones” or “independents”.
Comparing atheists with believers in the realm of health and well-being brings its own challenges and possibilities. Defining atheism or developing a methodology to identify atheists is problematic. Many people who are functionally atheistic do not self-identify with the term because of social pressure, instead using terms like secular humanist and freethinker when they self-identify at all. However, even with these problems the authors imply that what might be driving the phenomenon of increased health in those with high religiosity is that atheists, particularly those who de-convert from Christianity or Judaism, may experience diminished social ties. These diminished social ties could directly lead to a decrease in mental health and indirectly lead to a general lesser well-being. However, research on atheists as a group needs to be completed to explicitly make this claim.
Finally the authors suggest improvements in the study of religiosity and spirituality in the realm of health and well-being. These include reconceptualizing the spiritual; specifically warning against using an over-inclusive conception; recognition of atheists as a distinct socio-political group; constructing a model of the development of secular identity; and acknowledging the possibility of adaptive qualities of a secular worldview.
The authors make a convincing case that researchers should spend time rethinking their methodologies and thoughts concerning religion and health. The authors are not suggesting that secularism promotes well-being more than religiosity or spirituality, but rather point to areas in which atheists and those with a secular worldview have been ignored in the health literature. These critiques should be kept in mind when reading any future studies concerning religion and health.
See here for Hwang et al.'s article, "Extending Religion-Health Research to Secular Minorities: Issues and Concerns," in the Journal of Religion and Health.