Field of Science

Being closer to god linked to more depression

Religion is supposed to be good for your mental health. People who have a good dose of religion tend to be happier, for example. And earlier this year researchers including Joanna Maselko (at Temple University in Philadelphia) reported that women who stop going to religious services are three times as likely to suffer generalised anxiety disorder or drug/alcohol abuse as are women who keep up their attendance (men, on the other hand, are actually less likely to suffer depression if they stop going to church). But is it actually religion that helps you to keep happy, or is it having an extended network of friends who are there for you in time of need?

Now Maselko is back with another study where she and her colleagues dig a little deeper into this issue. They assessed nearly a thousand New Englanders as part of a study, begun in the 1960s, that is following these people from cradle to grave (the New England Family Study). What they've found is that, as expected, those people who attended church regularly had a lower lifetime history of depression (by 30% in this case). However, when they asked the subjects to rate their relationship to god (using the religious well being scale), those who rated themselves closer to god had suffered 50% more depression in the past.

Now, they controlled for other factors when they did this analysis, so it seems likely that this relationship is real. But what it doesn't tell you is which comes first - do high levels of religiosity lead to depression, or do depressed people convince themselves that they feel close to god? What's interesting is that people with high levels of existential well being (a self-assessment of one's sense of life purpose and life satisfaction) had much less depression (by 70%). Maselko explains it like this:
"People with high levels of existential well-being tend to have a good base, which makes them very centered emotionally," said Maselko. "People who don't have those things are at greater risk for depression, and those same people might also turn to religion to cope." (Science Daily)
Clues in this direction were reported in another study earlier this year by Maria Norton and colleagues at the University of Utah. What they showed was that Mormons are at twice the risk of depression as non-Mormons, but that those Mormons who attend church regularly have their risk for depression returned to normal levels.

Maybe we should take these results with a pinch of salt. A review of 11 studies, published in 2003, found that on average high religious well-being was associated with a lower risk for depression (Smith et al). But it's not clear whether the studies adequately controlled for religious attendance (since the two are obviously related). And another recent study (this time in cancer patients) found that existential well being, but not religious well being, was linked to lower anxiety and depression (McCoubrie and Davies, 2006).

So what to make of all this? Well, my interpretation is this. People who go to church are less depressed, but people who are very religious are more depressed. So it seems that the best defence against depression is to get involved in a community activity, but take all this religion stuff with a pinch of salt.

J. Maselko, S. E. Gilman, S. Buka (2008). Religious service attendance and spiritual well-being are differentially associated with risk of major depression Psychological Medicine DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708004418

Norton et al. Church Attendance and New Episodes of Major Depression in a Community Study of Older Adults: The Cache County Study. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63:P129-P137 (2008)

Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough, Justin Poll (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129 (4), 614-636 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.614

Rachel C. McCoubrie, Andrew N. Davies (2006). Is there a correlation between spirituality and anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer? Supportive Care in Cancer, 14 (4), 379-385 DOI: 10.1007/s00520-005-0892-6


  1. If you get the chance check out the items for that existential well-being scale. While its hard to tell if the scale is measuring what it claims to be measure, it is hard to believe that that set of items wouldn't be related to less depression.

    As for the causal relationship, there is that research from earlier this year by Nick Epley and colleagues that manipulated loneliness (different than depression, but related) and found that those with higher manipulated loneliness believed in a more anthropomorphized god - something the religious well-being scale assumes.

  2. This is clearly consistent with the view that its the social dimension of religion that provides most of the health benefits.

    It sounds reasonable to say "the best defence against depression is to get involved in a community activity, but take all this religion stuff with a pinch of salt." but it's my (unscientific) observation that groups with an external purpose, whether political or religious, work better AS SOCIAL GROUPS than those that don't. This is consistent with the generally weak state of local humanist groups.

    I think it likely that our old friend the placebo effect is working here, ie you have to believe in the religious stuff to get the full benefit. This might also be because it claims spiritual (thus non-refutable) benefits for attendance.

    What we really need is some solid research on the direction of causation.

  3. Hi Mark, apparently Maselko is going to look into the time sequence to see which way round it goes. But I would imagine that it's something that sets in during late childhood/early adulthood. Although religiosity tends to increase with age. It would be interesting to see the two scales - I don't have access to them because of the copyright!

  4. David, that would fit with the hypothesis that religion evolved as a way to encourage group adhesion and commitment. Religion gives you just the group of dedicated friends you need. But it's interesting that the relationship between religiosity and church attendance is actually quite weak in many countries - especially the poorer ones.

  5. I wonder whether we're wrong to see religion as a single phenomenon? There seem to be at least the following flavours:
    1. Belief contrary to evidence.
    2. 'Spiritual' experience
    3. Communities reinforced by norms that demand communal activities and mutual support
    4. Deference to state/tribal/religious authorities
    5. Insistence on ritual purity (eg halal, kosher).
    6. Private observance, eg prayers.

    Although the incidence of these overlap - doubtless all the correlations are positive - there doesn't seem to be much logical dependence - except between 1 and 4.

    As humanists we generally focus on 1 and 4 but many religious people do not. That's one reason, I think, why they so often accuse us of not understanding them.

    Is there a standard list of such 'flavours'? Could we review the literature in terms of which flavours are studied?

  6. Hi David, there's a large anthropological literature trying to tie down what, exactly, religion is - and no real consensus, as far as I can tell. Definitely something for more research and reading! Incidentally, I've been reading Theology for Pilgrims by Nicholas Lash, a theologian. He seems to define religion as the act of worship (although he's a little hazy). Though clearly that's a very culture-specific definition.


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