What are the psychological effects of losing your religion?

GettyImages-497892997.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

For many, their religion is a core part of their identity, the meaning they find in life, and their social world. It seems likely that changing this crucial aspect of themselves will have significant psychological consequences. A devout person would probably predict these will be unwelcome – increased emotional distress, isolation and waywardness. A firm atheist, on the other hand, might see the potential positives – perhaps the “deconvert” will grow in open-mindedness and thrive thanks to their newfound free thinking and spiritual freedom.

A new study in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is among the first to investigate this question systematically and over time. The findings, which are focused on Protestant Christians, paint a complex picture. At least for this group, there is no single pattern of changes associated with losing or changing one’s religious faith, and the predictions of both the devout person and the atheist are, to some extent, accurate.

Harry Hui at the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues asked their Christian Protestant participants, all Chinese, to complete the same set of psychological questionnaires on six separate occasions over a three-year period. These questionnaires measured their personality, values, beliefs and psychological symptoms.

Over 600 participants provided complete data and, of these, 188 stopped describing themselves as Christian at some point through the study. Just over 82 per cent switched to describing themselves as non-believers, a few re-identified as Catholic, Buddhist or Taoist, and the remainder changed their self-label to “other”.

Hui’s team were most interested in any psychological changes that were different in kind or magnitude between those who lost or changed their religious identity and those that kept it (they ensured both groups were matched for gender and age and student status – a majority of both groups were students).

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no clear differences in personality change between the continuously religious and those that lost or altered their religious identity (for some reason the sample as a whole showed some decline in extraversion and agreeableness over time, but this was no different for the two groups). In terms of values and beliefs, the religious exiters increased more in “fate control” (believing that fate governs what happens in life, but that it is also possible to intervene in this process); and not surprisingly, they also showed a sharper decline in religiosity.

The most striking difference between the groups was that those who lost their Christian Protestant identity showed much greater variation in their mental well-being over time. About half of the “de-converts” showed a reduction in depression and anxiety compared with the consistently religious group, and about half showed a greater increase in depression and anxiety, although within these broad strokes were further variations in their precise emotional “trajectory”. The de-converts as a whole also showed a greater improvement in their sleep than the consistently faithful.

A key factor seemed to be the de-converts’ personality and psychological state prior to losing their religion. If they were more extraverted and had adequate psychological resources, losing their faith seemed to be an opportunity for growth and even greater psychological resilience. In contrast, those who were neurotic and more mentally and physically vulnerable prior to losing their faith were more likely to experience greater psychological distress after becoming a non-believer (or in a small minority of cases, a believer in a different faith).

“Any theory asserting that all faith exiters change in the same way should be viewed with suspicion,” the researchers said. “Religious disengagement does not reduce anxiety for all faith exiters; however a reduction does occur for some people.” This contrasts with research on converts to Christianity, which suggested a more straightforward picture in which most people showed improvements in psychological symptoms. “The process of faith exit should not be regarded as psychologically similar to or merely a reversal of religious conversion,” the researchers said.

The data also allowed the researchers to look for psychological differences at the start of the study among those who subsequently lost their faith as compared with those who stayed in the same religion. Those participants who exited their religion were more likely to start out scoring lower on emotional stability, to be less trusting of others, and they tended to place less value on conformity, tradition and benevolence, and more value on self-direction, hedonism and the pursuit of power.

It will be up to future research to see if these findings replicate with people exiting other religions in other cultures. The researchers added that “future research with a longer time frame should address questions such as how long the change in psychological symptoms would last and whether they are only transitory for some people.”

Psychological changes during faith exit: A three-year prospective study

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

10 thoughts on “What are the psychological effects of losing your religion?”

  1. One wonders how long the declared ‘established’ religion had been held prior to the study? Religious beliefs learned in early childhood are much harder to break, especially if they have been reinforced socially/culturally to become part of one’s self-identity.

    These were university students, studying what? Having recently completed a psychology degree myself during which I returned from a brief dalliance with Christianity to atheism, I found it incredible that studying a science about the brain could be compatible with either Islam or Christianity…

    The cross -cultural differences in reasoning appear to have been ignored. Christianity is not a traditional belief system in China, a collectivistic, holistic culture that I can see certain aspects of christianity appealing to, but not others.

    I also wonder about the strength and commitment to the declared beliefs – how enduring or permanent they were perceived to be.

    In the UK, the protestant church is more of a cultural/state, ‘official’ religion than a ‘charismatic’ Baptist /evangelical type. The emphasis is much less on belief per se and more on just turning up once a week, playing a part in church rituals and community events. It is quite possible to be an active member of a Protestant or Catholic church in the UK without holding a firm belief in the supernatural, just so long as you never let on about your doubts that is…!. Others form a growing band of self- declared ‘Churchless Christians’ where ‘organised,’ religion has been abandoned but people still identify with the person Jesus and try to follow the example he laid down in his own life. I wonder which of the 36 versions of Christianity currently practiced in 2018 were being tested?

    Also, in the UK we have a strong desirability bias towards declaring oneself a ‘Christian’ because the assumption that religion equates with ‘goodness’ and atheism equates with ‘evil’ is so strong.

    For me this is very personal. I have at various times declared myself to identify alternately with both christianity and extreme atheism, but never agnostic. These swings were, with the benefit of hindsight, the direct result of having two parents each at the polar opposite of belief and a desire to please one or other of them or a third party. In short, we can believe what we want to believe to be a true version of reality, to fit- in with our needs at the time – it’s adaptive in evolutionary terms, as I am sure victims of Boko Haram or someone near death would tell you.

    For me, abandoning religion meant freedom from guilt and permission to be me. I miss some of my friends from church and I miss the social gatherings, but not the endless seeking of forgiveness for ‘sins’ and the puritanical, self- righteous, pious, boring,repetitive rubbish that was typical Sunday- morning fodder for the deluded 🙂

  2. People lose religion but true Christianity is relationship. Anytime your faith/practices becomes group led/controlled will challenge a true believer who understands the autonomy or “priesthood” of the believer as the Bible teaches. When this happens, don’t lose faith due to men. Take a sabbatical and find a group of like-minded believers who understand this freedom.

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