What are the psychological effects of losing your religion?

For many, their religion is a core part of their identity, the meaning they find in life, and their social world. Changing this crucial aspect of themselves will have significant psychological consequences.

For many, their religion is a core part of their identity, the meaning they find in life, and their social world. It seems likely that changing this crucial aspect of themselves will have significant psychological consequences. A devout person would probably predict these will be unwelcome – increased emotional distress, isolation and waywardness. A firm atheist, on the other hand, might see the potential positives – perhaps the “deconvert” will grow in open-mindedness and thrive thanks to their newfound free thinking and spiritual freedom.


new study in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is among the first to investigate this question systematically and over time. The findings, which are focused on Protestant Christians, paint a complex picture. At least for this group, there is no single pattern of changes associated with losing or changing one’s religious faith, and the predictions of both the devout person and the atheist are, to some extent, accurate.

Harry Hui at the University of Hong Kong and his colleagues asked their Christian Protestant participants, all Chinese, to complete the same set of psychological questionnaires on six separate occasions over a three-year period. These questionnaires measured their personality, values, beliefs and psychological symptoms.

Over 600 participants provided complete data and, of these, 188 stopped describing themselves as Christian at some point through the study. Just over 82 per cent switched to describing themselves as non-believers, a few re-identified as Catholic, Buddhist or Taoist, and the remainder changed their self-label to “other”.

Hui’s team were most interested in any psychological changes that were different in kind or magnitude between those who lost or changed their religious identity and those that kept it (they ensured both groups were matched for gender and age and student status – a majority of both groups were students).

Perhaps surprisingly, there were no clear differences in personality change between the continuously religious and those that lost or altered their religious identity (for some reason the sample as a whole showed some decline in extraversion and agreeableness over time, but this was no different for the two groups). In terms of values and beliefs, the religious exiters increased more in “fate control” (believing that fate governs what happens in life, but that it is also possible to intervene in this process); and not surprisingly, they also showed a sharper decline in religiosity.

The most striking difference between the groups was that those who lost their Christian Protestant identity showed much greater variation in their mental well-being over time. About half of the “de-converts” showed a reduction in depression and anxiety compared with the consistently religious group, and about half showed a greater increase in depression and anxiety, although within these broad strokes were further variations in their precise emotional “trajectory”. The de-converts as a whole also showed a greater improvement in their sleep than the consistently faithful.

A key factor seemed to be the de-converts’ personality and psychological state prior to losing their religion. If they were more extraverted and had adequate psychological resources, losing their faith seemed to be an opportunity for growth and even greater psychological resilience. In contrast, those who were neurotic and more mentally and physically vulnerable prior to losing their faith were more likely to experience greater psychological distress after becoming a non-believer (or in a small minority of cases, a believer in a different faith).

“Any theory asserting that all faith exiters change in the same way should be viewed with suspicion,” the researchers said. “Religious disengagement does not reduce anxiety for all faith exiters; however a reduction does occur for some people.” This contrasts with research on converts to Christianity, which suggested a more straightforward picture in which most people showed improvements in psychological symptoms. “The process of faith exit should not be regarded as psychologically similar to or merely a reversal of religious conversion,” the researchers said.

The data also allowed the researchers to look for psychological differences at the start of the study among those who subsequently lost their faith as compared with those who stayed in the same religion. Those participants who exited their religion were more likely to start out scoring lower on emotional stability, to be less trusting of others, and they tended to place less value on conformity, tradition and benevolence, and more value on self-direction, hedonism and the pursuit of power.

It will be up to future research to see if these findings replicate with people exiting other religions in other cultures. The researchers added that “future research with a longer time frame should address questions such as how long the change in psychological symptoms would last and whether they are only transitory for some people.”

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

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This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

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Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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