Nonreligious Identity and Psychological Health in the United States

In this post Dr. Dena M. Abbott explores how nonreligious people’s health is comparable to those who identify as religious. Abbott notes that healthy and adaptive traits and behaviors are available to all people.

In psychology, there is a long history of touting the benefits of religiousness for psychological health. This overemphasis on the

connection between religiousness and health, which is a sentiment also found in society more broadly, often communicates that nonreligious people’s health is somehow compromised by the absence of belief in god(s) and participation in associated religious practices (e.g., prayer, religious service attendance). Contrary to these societal messages, nonreligious people’s overall health is comparable to that of religious people. One study found that atheists, in particular, had better physical and mental health than theists and agnostic people. Further, living congruently with one’s worldview and having certainty of one’s (non)belief are associated with health for the religious and nonreligious alike. Likewise, being in community with like-minded people is beneficial for one’s health, and some nonreligious people engage in organized or more informal social circles with other nonbelievers. These nonreligious communities are often comprised of people with higher acceptance of individual and cultural differences as compared to theists, another potential health benefit particularly for members from minoritized groups.

Anti-Atheist Bias in the U.S.

That said, unlike their religious counterparts, nonreligious people in the United States (U.S.) face widespread stigma and discrimination. The most common and persistent stereotype of atheists, in particular, is immorality, a perception that negatively influences atheists’ lives and relationships. As a result, given the opportunity to hide an invisible nonreligious identity, many nonreligious people make strategic choices about with whom and in what contexts they will disclose their nonreligious worldview. They may also choose terms other than atheist to describe themselves, even when they would otherwise self-identify as an atheist, to avoid possible negative consequences in the workplace, strain in relationships, or risks to their emotional and physical safety. With this in mind, I contend that there is a complex and unique interaction between the pervasiveness and experience of anti-atheist discrimination and the labor of managing disclosure of a nonreligious identity that, in turn, influences the psychological well-being of nonreligious people in the U.S. At the same time, there are many strengths that accompany a nonreligious worldview that facilitate psychological health and strive to identify these resources.

Diverse Experiences Among Nonreligious People

Though statistics related to nonreligious people in the U.S. may be inaccurate due to the aforementioned strategic concealment, the best available data suggests nonreligious people are predominantly White and cisgender men. White, cisgender men with high levels of educational attainment relative to the general population are also overrepresented among atheist-identified people, and in atheism-related scholarship. These and other privileges may offer some protection from discrimination, including freedom to freely disclose their nonreligious identity with reduced risk. Therefore, I, along with a team of doctoral-level graduate students in Counseling Psychology based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, am currently focused on adding to the diversity of the body of academic literature related to the health of nonreligious people. We hope that this will lend to the generation of culturally-responsive and culturally-informed recommendations for health service providers’ work with nonreligious people. 

Potential Challenges

Our research team, and others, have found the experience of living with a concealable, stigmatized nonreligious identity differs based on the other identities and experiences held by nonreligious people. Our interviews with low-income and working class atheists suggested they did not perceive their atheism as particularly central to their identity or salient in their daily lives. Similarly, they described very limited engagement with other atheists, in some cases due to time limitations presented by other responsibilities including working multiple jobs and long hours, or childcare. In turn, this particular group did not have strong nonreligious communities. Among atheists with minoritized racial/ethnic identities, we found nonreligious identification was considered a violation of cultural norms, to the participant and/or their racial/ethnic community. For women, this violation manifested as the abandonment of their responsibility to be the spiritual leaders of their families. As atheism was not seen as acceptable in their racial/ethnic communities, and atheist communities were predominantly White, atheists of color experienced a unique form of social isolation in which they felt they did not fit anywhere. Thus, the social class and race/ethnicity of nonreligious people may limit their ability to engage meaningfully in the organized nonbelief that is associated with healthy psychological well-being.

According to American Atheists’ U.S. Secular Survey, atheists encounter more discrimination in rural parts of the U.S. and in very religious communities. This aligns with our prior research and the preliminary findings of a current study from our lab of atheists living in rural parts of the U.S. Across studies, atheists tell us geography matters with regard to their experiences such that the religiousness of a location, particularly the Southern U.S., represents an increased risk and, in turn, influences how “out” they are as nonreligious. Generally, they also describe a higher frequency of unwelcome religious imagery, attempts at conversion, and assumptions of religiousness than nonreligious people living in other, less religious regions of the U.S. As concealment of stigmatized identities is a strong predictor of lower psychological well-being, nonreligious people living in religious communities and hiding their nonbelief in attempts to avoid discrimination may actually be at greater risk of psychological distress.

Psychological Strengths

Despite these dangers, our interviews with atheists have also revealed many elements of a nonreligious identity they find valuable and healthy. They tell us atheism increases their sense of belonging and personal authenticity. Especially among those who leave faith, many describe pride in the critical thinking and independent education in which they engaged in order to arrive at a nonreligious worldview and identity. They see these skills as personal strengths honed through the development of their atheism. The nonreligious also view creating meaning in their lives as a personal responsibility, rather than driven by an external force. Likewise, some atheists in our studies are quite engaged in broad social justice activism and advocacy specifically aimed at destigmatizing nonreligion and promoting separation of church and state, both of which are a part of their conceptualization of purpose in their lives.

Rethinking Mental Health and Nonreligion

Historically, many elements of mental health have been viewed through a religious, typically Christian, lens. Measures of coping, for example, often include religious and/or spiritual coping strategies, assuming the religiousness and spirituality of respondents. When we expand the ways in which we define healthy and adaptive traits and behaviors, however, we see they are generally universal and available to all people. In other words, across the (non)religious spectrum, people are capable of adaptively coping, creating meaning and purpose if desired, finding community, and making sense of the world and their experiences in ways that are informed by their personal (non)belief. Further, nonreligious mental health in the U.S. must be considered in the context of the potential for minority stress and the strategies nonreligious people use in response. 

Nonreligious people are no more likely to experience psychological distress than religious people. But, when they do seek support from a therapist, related to their nonreligiousness or otherwise, their therapist should be competent in providing them care. Generally, counselors receive little training in religious and spiritual diversity and, when training is provided, nonreligious people are often omitted. With 26% of people in the U.S. identifying as religiously unaffiliated as of 2019, mental health professionals must increase their skills, knowledge, and awareness with regard to clinical practice with nonreligious people. Further, they should consider how Christianity, as the hegemonic religion in the U.S., may be pervasive and implicit in the secular treatment they provide. Clinicians may familiarize themselves with atheist identity development, assess the relevance of nonreligiousness to clients’ clinical concerns, and utilize existing theoretical frameworks for therapy that are well-suited to practice with nonreligious clients, as examples. Researchers can help prepare practitioners and advocates to support the psychological health of the nonreligious by centering the stories of diverse nonreligious people, using strengths-based approaches in their investigations, and disseminating findings in ways that create structural change to reduce anti-atheist oppression.

Dena M. Abbott, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Licensed Psychologist
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Dr. Abbott is a faculty member in the APA-Accredited Counseling Psychology program at University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her research focuses on the psychological health of nonreligious people in the United States using a concealable stigmatized identity framework. In particular, using primarily qualitative and mixed-methods approaches, she is interested in centering the stories of nonreligious people with other marginalized identities and experiences typically not well-represented in psychology of the nonreligious scholarship (e.g., atheism women, working class and low-income atheists). You can follow her research on Twitter: @DrDenaAbbott


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