In a new article in the Boston Globe , Nathan Schneider examines a growing trend in the social sciences—the study of irreligion:

Religion can be good for more than the soul, a growing number of studies seem to say. Over the past decade, academic research on religiosity has exploded, and with it has come a raft of publications suggesting that spiritual beliefs and practices can add years to life, lower blood pressure, or keep at-risk kids on the straight and narrow.

As sociologists, psychologists, and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the popular media. Being nonreligious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.

But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What’s missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of nonreligious people and even the potential benefits of nonbelief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the irreligious, conducting major surveys, and comparing their findings. They’ve already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world’s healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety . . . . .

The few studies that did treat nonbelief seriously offered tantalizing hints that to look only at religiosity was to miss an important part of the spectrum of human belief. One study conducted in 1985 by German psychologist Franz Buggle and his colleagues suggests that neither religion nor irreligion has a monopoly on improving people’s mental health. Among 174 people surveyed, it found that two groups enjoyed the lowest scores on a scale of depression: the most pious Christians and the convinced atheists. Those in the middle, the lukewarm believers, were most likely to be depressed. In 2005, a team at Newcastle University in Britain reported a similar result.

Schneider’s conclusion is thoughtful and insightful:

[Psychologist David] Wulff has been developing survey tools that will help psychologists look beyond binary oppositions like religiosity and secularity, or belief and unbelief. Phil Zuckerman’s study in Scandinavia, in fact, suggests that these distinctions aren’t as clear as one might expect. His interviews show the extent to which, even in the absence of traditional supernatural beliefs, the subjects’ religious heritage provides them with moral guideposts and cultural habits. Not believing in God doesn’t stop most Danes and Swedes from considering themselves Christians.

Religions, we are beginning to learn, can be better understood by paying attention to what irreligion looks like. Probe irreligion, and you encounter not only new insights about how it works in people’s lives, but also echoes of the very religions it defines itself against.

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