Back in early July, I argued in this Swift post that studies reporting greater health (especially mental health) among strongly religious people using a control group of nonbelievers were weakened by the fact that nonbelievers may be too heterogeneous a group to make an adequate comparison to strongly religious populations. I pointed out the need to study nonbelievers as a group on a larger scale in order to determine if there were any meaningful differences between different subtypes of nonbelievers.

As such, I was pleasantly surprised when the newest issue (August/September 2009) of Free Inquiry magazine arrived in my mailbox. Hiding in the pages of the magazine is an article reporting on the results of a study which did exactly that.

First, researchers conducted a pilot study with 333 members of the Center For Inquiry/Michigan branch e-mail and group newsletter and 325 individuals who were members of two local churches in the same community. The survey was designed to test for characteristics distinguishing religious and nonreligious individuals. Some of their initial findings were:

  • CFI/Michigan members were predominantly male, more highly educated, more likely to be never married or cohabitating, and had fewer children living at home.
  • 95% of the church group reported being absolutely certain that god existed, and members were divided between these three categories: "religious", "spiritual" and "theistic".
  • In the CFI group, 48% described themselves as atheist, and the remainder was distributed among agnostics, humanists, spirituals, and others.
  • Within both groups, reported life-satisfaction was within the average range for both groups, but church members reported themselves as having a greater degree of social support relative to CFI members.

The survey included a measure of personality, and on this the believer and nonbeliever group differed the greatest on one of the five major personality traits - that of "openness to experience".  The church sample reported a greater degree of "agreeableness" (a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational)

After this pilot study, researchers recruited an additional 5,831 nonreligious individuals to survey. Obviously, there are some weaknesses to this survey method. It is difficult to do random population samples of individuals who are a minority in the population, so researchers used "snowball sampling" by emailing active members of CFI and asking them to recruit other nonreligious individuals for survey. As such, the members of the survey were likely to be active members of secular communities. They were also more likely to report higher positive traits due to social desirability bias, though the same weaknesses can be found for surveys of religious individuals.

Some of their findings were:

  • Forty one percent of respondents had a master's degree or higher and 31% earned $100,000+ per year. The sample was 74% male, 53% married, and the mean age was 48.
  • Respondents were raised in a variety of childhood backgrounds. Fifteen percent of respondents reported being raised in a household in which religion was mildly or not at all emphasized, and 35% reported being raised in a household with strong or very strong religious emphasis.
  • Individuals with higher household religious emphasis were more likely to have poorer relationships with families.
  • self-labeled atheists and humanists reported that they were more emotionally invested in their philosophical views than agnostics or spirituals.

Regarding mental health, nonbelievers most confident in their nonbelief tended to be the most emotionally healthy, especially relative to people with uncertainty or doubt. Life satisfaction was lower among people who labeled themselves "spiritual" as opposed to agnostic, atheist or humanist. Thus, the common assumption that greater religious belief leads to greater mental health may be overly simplistic as it appears that confidence in either belief or nonbelief is associated with greater emotional adjustment and mental health.

I think the most important part is not that these studies are giving those of us involved or associated with the "nonbeliever" community any new or surprising information about ourselves, but that they provide quantitative evidence against commonly-held stereotype that nonbelievers are less psychologically healthy than believers. We can, in fact, be happy without faith, religion, or purpose and meaning handed down to us.

Christina Stephens, OTD/s blogs at