Field of Science

People who are more anxious go to church more often and are less anxious (or something...)

Are religious people more, or less, anxious? The problem's not as simple as it sounds. In general, religion is supposed to make people less anxious. But, partly for this reason, the people who turn to religion are more anxious to start with. What's more, all religions may not be the same, and different aspects of religion might have different effects.

It's a surprisingly under-researched topic, but a couple of new papers have looked into it. The one in this post is from Northern Ireland and I'll cover the other one - from the good ole US of A - in the next post.

The political landscape in Northern Ireland is marked by a sharp sectarian divide between Protestants and Catholics. What Chris Lewis and colleagues found was that female Catholics were the most anxious, and that they also went to Church the most often. Counter-intuitively, they also showed that going to Church was most strongly linked to less anxiety in... Catholic women! Read on...

The study looks at data from the 2001 Health and Well Being Survey. Unusually for these kinds of surveys, it included the 12-item General Health Questionnaire, which is the gold-standard measure of anxiety. This survey found that people in Northern Ireland tend to report more anxiety than do people living in the rest of the UK (here's a detailed report, if you're interested).

Lewis & co split the survey group into four: male and female; Protestant and Catholic.

They found that men had lower anxiety scores than women, and Protestants had lower anxiety scores than Catholics. These effects were additive: male Protestants were the least anxious, and female Catholics the most anxious. The average differences were small (about 1.5 on a 36-point scale), but statistically significant.

Churchgoing habits matched this pattern exactly. Male protestants went to Church least often (every few months, on average), and female Catholics the most often (every fortnight, on average).

So then they looked at the correlation within these groups. What they found was that was that, within each group, people who went to church more often were less anxious. Male Protestant churchgoers were less anxious than male Protestant non-churchgoers, and female Catholic churchgoers were less anxious than female Catholic non-churchgoers (although still more anxious than male Protestant non-churchgoers).

Now, the effect was pretty tiny. But what was interesting was that the strength of the effect followed the same pattern as for anxiety and churchgoing across the four groups.

In other words, going to church had the biggest effect on reducing anxiety among female Catholics, and the smallest effect among male Protestants.

What to make of all this?

The simplest explanation is that being female and/or Catholic in Northern Ireland is a risk factor for anxiety. As a result, many Catholic women turn to the Church, and those that do have their anxiety levels reduced.

ResearchBlogging.orgLewis, C., Shevlin, M., Francis, L., & Quigley, C. (2010). The Association Between Church Attendance and Psychological Health in Northern Ireland: A National Representative Survey Among Adults Allowing for Sex Differences and Denominational Difference Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-010-9321-3

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. When I was younger and I concerned myself with these things, I concluded that religions were organic. By that I mean they evolved from and within their various human ecosystems. Not necessarily an original idea, no doubt, but to explain it a bit further, conditions that influence religions vary from the characteristics of different languages to the ever-changing limits of scientific understanding in various cultures. I bring it up because the simplest explanation seems to me to be Catholicism in Northern Ireland has evolved to appeal to anxious women. In other words, conditions in Northern Ireland have cause women to suffer from anxiety, and so the brand of Catholicism that is practiced in Northern Ireland has evolved to appeal to these women by relieving their anxiety.

  2. I think that's quite possibly true. Another thought that occurred to me is that Catholics and women might be 'expected' to go to Church - i.e. to face social pressures to conform. If that were the case, you might expect a small increase in anxiety in those people who did not feel able to go to church (because they cannot convince themselves that god exists).


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS