Merry Mental Wellness – Sincerely, Nones

by | December 12, 2018

[Ed. I made some errors in interpretation. Indi kindly corrected them. Please see the comment at the bottom for the corrections.]

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

According to Robert Whitley in Psychology Today, he noted wonderful pre-holidays research findings. Namely, the ways in which the Nones may have better or similar mental health than their more traditionally faithful counterparts (Callooh! Callay!).

He remarked on the common practices of the religious within the reportage on various religious activities of the faithful, including prayer, religious observances, and other faith-based services. Whitley used this as a transition point for commentary on the growing body of professional research on the religious, the non-religious, and their respective relationship with mental health.

Of course, the Nones remain a multiform group with some commonalities within the void in the belief in some supernatural entities while, and as one may expect, come with a concomitant variety of labels for them as well, as we are all familiar: agnostic, atheist, non-affiliated, humanist, freethinker, bright, and so on.

But interestingly, according to the Pew Research surveys, the Nones continue to increase in numbers within the advanced industrial economies, especially stark is the change in the United States of America and in the young of North America.

The young simply do not accept the traditional mythologies handed via Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, or otherwise. These remain either liberalized in interpretation, loosely and inconsistently held beliefs, and only a scattered relation to the real practices.

As one Ukrainian Orthodox Christian colleague one time told me, “We practice what is sometimes called Eastermas. We only attend church on Christmas and, maybe, Easter.” This reflects the experiences of tens of thousands of self-identified young Christians within Canadian society.

Within the increase of the Nones, we find the growth in the atheist subcategorization within them. Some, according to Whitley, attributable to some of the New Atheist movement. However, this also remains a seemingly small movement or popularization segmented in the larger timelines, mostly, within the 2000s – and, perhaps, the early 2010s as well (only an opinion, though).

Now, the mental health of the religious and the non-religious may be debated at several levels. However, there seems too little room to devote to a textbook chapter. Rather, keeping within some co-reportage of Whitley, he argues for the social support angle on the mental health protection of religion.

The argument, not assuming the premises of the supernatural interventionism of the faithful, is such that the social support an individual believer, or set of believers, may feel within community, in congregations, and through extended associative activities including prayer groups, purported holy text study groups, and sharing of religious observances in community, not to mention the widespread cultural incorporation of them with the dominance of particular faiths.

Whitley also states, “…a sense of purpose and meaning offered by religions, and moral codes commanding certain behaviors (e.g. abstinence) within religions. These are discussed in the short video below with Dr. Eric Jarvis, a leading authority on religion, atheism and mental health,” as a source of additional social support.

The question: what are the impacts of religious belief followed by adherence to social support-oriented practices?

Whitley directs attention to the ways in which religiosity, in prior research, has found a positive correlation between religious belief and better mental health than the Nones.

He said, “lower rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm, and substance use among the religious.” At the same time, he gives a caveat. Most of the studies “collapse” – his word – the substantial number of non-religious identifications into one rubric with the title “Nones.’

Now, the more recent research, which will as always require further follow-up, plumbed the depths of the Nones more with sub-categorization research. For example, we can see the dichotomy in mental wellness between 1), something like, convinced religious believers and 2) convinced atheists.

Those with certainty appear to harbour similar levels of mental wellness. Those with the weaker, tenuous, and middling probabilistic beliefs have worse mental health than those with the certainty in the veracity of their personal religious or non-religious beliefs.

“For example, a just-published study by Dr. Joseph Baker at East Tennessee State University indicates that atheists have the best mental health among the ‘nones,’ similar to that of the highly-religious. In contrast, ‘non-affiliated theists’ had the poorest mental health,” Whitley explained, “These findings overlap with a classic British study which found that the ‘spiritual but not religious’ had higher levels of drug dependency, abnormal eating, generalized anxiety disorder, neurotic disorders and use of psychotropic medication, in comparison with both ‘religious people’ and people who were ‘neither religious nor spiritual.’”

In short, the ways in which one’s epistemology permits cognitive closure on the ontological nature of divinities creates the basis for better mental health or, perhaps, firmer mental wellness.

I recall similar research representative of this finding as well, in which certainty in theology or atheology – convinced theism or convinced atheism, presumably –  improved one’s comfort with death: either consolation in some form of hereafter past cessation of mental-bodily functions or a life lived in accordance with the assertion of absolute finality, respectively.

Whitley concluded, “All this implies a need for further research examining the psychosocial and mental health differences between the different categories of the ‘nones.’ A ‘splitting’ rather than ‘lumping’ approach is necessary to enrich the scientific literature and avoid false conclusions.”


Lipka, M. (2016, June 1). 10 facts  about atheists. Retrieved from

Whitley, R. (2018, December 4). The Mental Health of Atheists and the ‘Nones’. Retrieved from

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Merry Mental Wellness – Sincerely, Nones

  1. Indi

    I think you’ve misunderstood the data here.

    Whitley did not say that the nones have better mental health than the more (traditionally) religious… in fact he said exactly the opposite.

    We have had data for a long time that religiously-affiliated people have better outcomes than nones on a lot of measures: mental health, happiness, family life, and so on and so forth. Nothing about that has changed.

    What has changed is that recently people have started breaking the nones into two groups:

    1. the people who say they aren’t part of any religion but are totally religious (they’re “spiritual but not religious”, or they “don’t belong to any religion” but they totally believe in Jesus and the Bible, or they have their own idiosyncratic religious beliefs like that God sent aliens to seed the Earth, and so on); and
    2. the actually non-religious (atheists, “agnostics”, and so on).

    If you want to understand Whitley’s data (and, indeed, all the more recent data that’s shaking things up), you have to stop thinking of “nones” as atheists. Let me repeat that: Atheists are not nones. Nones are not atheists.

    In fact, forget the idea of “nones” completely. “Nones” is a terrible, bad grouping that actually never really made any sense, and only existed in the first place because people didn’t give a fuck about anyone who wasn’t part of a religion. They just lumped everyone who wasn’t Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddist into “other”, and called it “nones”. (That’s an exaggeration, but it is true in spirit.)

    So here’s what Whitley’s article is actually saying:

    In the past, studies of religiosity versus mental health (or happiness, or socially-well-adjustedness, or basically anything “good”) looked like a straight line, like this: “/”. Increasing religiosity is on the X-axis, and the Y-axis is… basically anything: mental health, happiness, etc.. So historically, it has been believed that the more religious you are, the happier you are… or the better your mental health… or the better your relationship with your family… or basically anything.

    But what we’ve found very recently – just in the last five years or so, in fact – is that researchers have fucked up for decades, because they never actually considered atheists. They just lumped anyone who didn’t affiliate with a religion into “nones”, and that was that. So the more you went to church, the more religious you were, and you didn’t go to church you weren’t religious… even if the reason you didn’t go to church was because you believe the church has been taken over by Satan and the one true God only speaks to you when you put a crystal pyramid on your forehead. They never bothered to actually check whether the people who said “I’m not religious” were actually nonreligious. They were just all lumped together as “the nones”.

    Recently they’ve started splitting the nones up into the truly nonreligious (atheists, “agnostics”, etc.), and the people who have religious beliefs but just won’t identify as religious. And what they’ve found is remarkable… it’s what Whitley is talking about.

    What they’ve found is all those graphs of religiosity versus happiness/mental health/etc. are not straight lines like “/”… they are, in fact, shaped like a “U”. In other words: if you are very comfortable with your religious faith or if you are very comfortable being NON-religious, you are happy… it’s only if you’re in the middle of the spectrum who waver back and forth and agonize over what they believe and have to adopt slippery labels like “spiritual but not religious” who are not doing so well.

    And it makes sense! If you are a committed Christian (for example), you don’t stress over whether God exists or not, or whether heaven is real, or whether you’re going there. You just… know. On the other end of the scale, if you’re a totally confident atheist, you don’t stress over whether God exists or not… you just know he doesn’t (or assume he doesn’t, or don’t care). The only people with stress are those in the middle of the scale, the ones who agonize over it all the time, who seek out all kinds of wacky syncretic religious beliefs to balance what they want to believe with what they view as reality.

    That is what Whitley’s article is about. It is not true that atheists have better mental health than religious people. Whitley hasn’t even looked at most religious people; he’s only focused on “nones”. If you take just the nones and split them into atheists versus believers, the atheists have better mental health than… those believers… not all believers. Savvy? The conclusion is not “atheists have better mental health than religious people”. It is “atheists have better mental health than the non-atheist, religious nones“.

    As for whether atheists have better health than religious people in general… who knows? That research still hasn’t been done properly.

    The main takeaway here is this:

    Stop talking about the “nones”. It is a bullshit grouping that never made any real sense. And it conflates atheists with religious wackos who believe in nonsense like crystal power and psychics and all kinds of mystical and supernatural bullshit. When you separate atheists out from that group and study them on their own, you get remarkably different results… and that’s what Whitley’s article is about (which is pretty clear in his conclusion).

  2. Tim Underwood

    The lesson is if you have confidence and peace of mind you’re happier.

    The older religious category of deist seemed to provide a sense of confidence to people like Thomas Jefferson. We don’t hear too much about deism any more.

    My favorite religious studies are about the creation and evolution of Christianity . Christ may not be in any sense divine, but the stories about his divinity are still in print.

    The ‘Flavian Hypothesis’ is the conjecture that The Flavian Emperors created the Jesus character to prophesy that the Jewish God had given up on the Jews and had transferred his support to the Romans. Jesus predicted that a Roman messiah (military leader) would destroy the Jews’ temple and defeat them in a war one generation into the future. This actually happened so naturally the Jesus story was composed after the fact.

    I read ‘Creating Christ’ a couple of years ago on a Kindle app on my computer but new this year the book is available in paperback so I’m rereading it again right now in book form.

    I don’t have any lingering doubts about the purely fictional nature of the Jesus story, but this Flavian hypothesis is nevertheless giving me a greater sense of confidence in my understanding of the literary development of Jesus Christ character. I guess you could say I always wondered why this Christ character came into existence and why it still persists. Whatever mental health benefits I will accrue from this better understanding is probably real, to some slight degree.


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