Religiosity and psychological health: A comparison across 11 cultures
Are religious people psychologically healthier or unhealthier than their non-religious counterparts? Sigmund Freud, called religiosity the neurosis of the masses. This implies that religious people may be psychologically unhealthier than their non-religious counterparts. In stark contrast to this position, hundreds of studies appeared in the last few years and they found that religious people report better psychological health, less depression, and more life satisfaction than non-religious people.
Based on these results scientists came to believe that there is something intrinsically rewarding in religiosity, which leads to better psychological health outcomes.
Most of the studies on this topic were conducted in the USA, a country in which religiosity is socially widely implemented and plays a key role in daily life.
The question we asked then was this: Is it really the intrinsic value of being religious that enriches believers? If so, religious believers should be particularly psychologically healthy in all countries. Or are these positive associations between religiosity and psychological health dependent on the value that religiosity has in any given country?
Here is an example: Suppose, you lived in Turkey, where a large majority of people are religious (similar to the US), and hence, where a large majority applauds you for being religious. How would being religious make you feel in such a country?
In contrast, suppose you lived in Sweden, where hardly anyone cares about religion, and hence, where hardly anyone applauds you for being religious. How would being religious make you feel in such a country?
In our thinking, being religious should come with psychological health benefits in "religiosity-applauding" Turkey. However, being religious should not come with any psychological health benefits in Sweden, where hardly anyone applauds you for being religious (Sedikides, 2010; Sedikides & Gebauer, 2010).
Therefore, we had the following assumption: Believers should report better psychological health (i.e., psychological adjustment and social self-esteem) in countries that tend to value religiosity (i.e., that applaud believers for being religious). By contrast, in more secular countries religious believers and non-believers should enjoy equivalent psychological benefits (because in secular countries religious believers are not applauded for being religious).
The Theoretical Model:
Here is a sketch of the assumed association (just plotted as a MODEL).
S=Sweden; G=Germany, F=France, N=Netherlands, C=Switzerland, A=Austria, I=Italy, E=Spain, R=Russia, P=Poland, T=Turkey
The x-axis shows the importance of religiosity in the 11 eDarling countries. Sweden is on the far left, because in Sweden hardly anyone applauds you for being religious. Turkey is on the far right, because in Turkey almost everyone applauds you for being religious.
The y-axis shows the relation between religiosity and psychological health. Low values indicate that religious individuals are not particularly psychologically healthy in comparison to non-religious people. High values indicate that religious individuals are particularly psychologically healthy in comparison to non-religious people.
The eDarling dataset comprises more than 200,000 participants (47% female) from 11 European countries. The eDarling data supported our hypothesis. Across the complete international sample, believers indicated better psychological health than non-believers. However, this was only due to some countries: In countries, in which believers are applauded for being religious, because religiosity is popular and important (e.g., Russia, Poland, and Turkey) believers reported higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment in comparison to non-believers.
In contrast, in countries, in which believers are not applauded for being religious, because religiosity is not as popular and important (e.g., Sweden, Germany, France) believers and non-believers hardly differed in their social self-esteem and psychological adjustment.
Overall, religious individuals are psychologically healthier than non-believers. However, this overall relation occurs only because religious believers are particularly psychologically healthy in religiosity-applauding countries. Given that religiosity continuously declines in most European countries, it seems likely that the psychological health benefits of religiosity will not be evident in the future any more.
Note. This study is NOT about particular religious denominations. It is about personal self-rated religiosity (whatever the religious denomination is) and popularity of religion in each country (independent of the particular denomination).
Gebauer, J. E., Sedikides, C., & Neberich, W. (2011). Religiosity, social self-esteem, and psychological adjustment: On the cross-cultural specificity of the psychological benefits of religiosity. Paper accepted for publication in Psychological Science.
Sedikides, C. (2010). Why does religiosity persist? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 3-6.
Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. E. (2010). Religiosity as self-enhancement: A meta-analysis of the relation between socially desirable responding and religiosity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 17-36.