Depressed? It could be that religion – or ‘spirituality’ in particular – might well be the cause

RELIGION, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low moods, and could even be linked to greater depression, according to a major new study entitled Spiritual and religious beliefs as risk factors for the onset of major depression: an international cohort study.


The relationship with religious and spiritual belief was investigated in depth by researchers led by Professor Michael King from University College London. Over 8,000 people visiting general practices across seven countries were followed up at six and 12 months. The general practices were in the UK, Spain, Slovenia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Chile. These general practices covered urban and rural populations with considerable socio-economic variation.

A key finding of the study, according to this report, is that a spiritual life view predisposed people to major depression. This was especially significant the UK, where spiritual participants were nearly three times more likely to experience an episode of depression than the secular group.

The study has just been published in one of the most respected academic psychiatric journals, Psychological Medicine. The study defined religion as meaning the practice of a faith, eg going to a temple, mosque, church or synagogue. Being “spiritual” was defined as not formally following a religion, but having spiritual beliefs or experiences. For example, believing that there is some power or force other than yourself, which might in?uence life.

Regardless of country, the stronger the spiritual or religious belief at the start of the study, the higher the risk of onset of depression.

Although the main ?nding of an association between religious life understanding and onset of depression varied by country, there was no evidence that spirituality may protect people, and only weak evidence that a religious life view was possibly protective in two countries (Slovenia and the Netherlands).

The incidence of depression over the subsequent 12 months was similar across the di?erent religious denominations (Catholic 9.8 percent, Protestant 10.9 percent, other religions 11.5 percent, no speci?c religion 10.8 percent).

Those with the more strongly held religious or spiritual convictions were twice as likely to experience major depression in the subsequent 12 months.

Hat tip: Michael Cohen

26 responses to “Depressed? It could be that religion – or ‘spirituality’ in particular – might well be the cause”

  1. L.Long says:

    The few times I’ve been depressed, I used meditation as a tool to ‘see’ into my thoughts and find the cause. Then accepted the ’cause’ and used it as a starting place to learn and grow and my depression is lifted.
    Many Buddhists use a similar technique.
    Catlicks have confession, and all xtians have the same idea of accepting the ‘sin’ and then giving it unto Cheeses. But the main problem with religion is the institutionalized GUILT that is used to keep the sheeple coming back, so the whole idea of ‘giving the sin unto the Lord’ is never complete and guilt freeing so the guilt is still there aiding more depression.
    Then there is the problem of REALLY believing in Cheeses (well except for Cheddar as everyone believes in Cheddar)to make the whole thing work.
    And then with women you have the problem of being treated like schite add onto the whole situation.
    So in religion you have guilt/belief/bigotry aiding the depression.
    But then what do I know as I’m just a fool of an atheist.

  2. barriejohn says:

    Religious belief certainly had a very detrimental effect on MY mental state, and contributed to depression and mental breakdown. Guilt is a big factor, as L. Long says, and a powerful tool of the religious, which they wield to great effect. The ironic thing is that I was told to have nothing to do with meditation and yoga, or even the relaxation techniques which were recommended to me, as that was the way that the devil could gain access to my mind! Christians also eschew psychiatry and “drugs” (by which they mean manufactured drugs, of course), as “Jesus” is supposed to be the answer to all life’s problems (cue yet more guilt). Fortunately I was wise enough to seek professional help, which probably saved my life as well as my sanity.

  3. Broga says:

    I suspect that guilt is a big factor in encouraging depression in the religious. So much in life that should be enjoyable is made guilty. Another big factor is the impossibly high standards that religion requires. No one can live up to them. They are bound to fail.

    I think cognitive behavioural therapy is a good antidote to depression. And I have long been a fan of the ancient Stoics: Epictetus, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius and others.

  4. Bubblecar says:

    In religious belief and “spirituality” we could be looking at individuals prone to a habitual kind of psychological escapism to which they attach a high importance. It shouldn’t surprise us that such people also have a strong tendency to depression. It’s important to distinguish here between people with active, creative imaginations and those with a passive dependence on repetitive and sterile escapist fantasies. The former are likely to be artists and scientists of skeptical intellect, the latter are likely to be religious believers or New Age “spiritual” types.

  5. Broga says:

    @Bubblecar: Well described. I have noted the dull and flat character of serious religious people of my acquaintance: including some relatives. They lack verve and any sense of fun or a buoyant optimism about coming events. They also drag their partners into this dreary approach to life.

    Some years ago I had the miserable experience of being with one of these people with her single bookshelf filled with religious books. The few hours seemed like an eternity. No even slightly risqué subject was permitted and she firmly quashed any attempt her partner made when I asked him if he really believed the Ark story. She introduced the subject of the “Good Book” as she called it.

    No alcohol was available to lighten the ennui and she proudly stated that “no alcohol is allowed in this house.” Her downtrodden husband, attempting to appear religious, looked as if he would have welcomed a very large whisky.

  6. Ray Mertcalfe says:

    As a former jw (forgive me if I have disturbed your Saturday morning lie in)I found this depression the blues etc were and I think still very common. At one time the use of a psychologist etc was frowned upon. Yoga or any kind of meditation was said to open the door to satan. All JW have to preach, study, attend meetings and conventions pressure to conform in everything. So good jw who try to do what they are supposed to are always being told to do more more preaching study etc so some one who feels low is told to do more.

  7. T says:

    I find that I get depressed whenever I read on this website and others of all the evil, stupid, disingenous and dishonest things done by the pious in the name of the various gods they seem to believe in.. Religion does cause depression. No doubt.

  8. Broga says:

    @Ray Mertcalfe: We don’t see JWs much here as we live some miles outside the village. But they still come occasionally and the last time sent a young child up our drive to ask if we wanted to hear about Jesus. The adults stayed in their car. I find it so sad to see what this child was having to do. In fact, I wonder why the adults keep coming. I suppose they must from time to time get a convert.

  9. ZombieHunter says:

    I’ve been living with depression for years (and I’m now on a waiting list for help again) religion and spirituality have never been important to me so they don’t factor into my depression, though there are Christians and other people of faith would claim that religion is a cure for depression and then of course you have the ones who are going on about demon possession which is just a whole new level of bullshit.

  10. vito says:

    I think if people really believe in hell, and you really know what multitude of sins can send you there, and how likely you can end up there, I do not imagine how it is possible not to depressed… That is of course only one reason why religion depresses people, but for me it was (and still sometimes, when doubts overcome me, is the main one)

  11. tony e says:

    I wonder, in some cases, if the cause of certain individual’s depression, is the realization that there is no god?

    Now add the secondary likelihood that a lot of their social circle may actually shun them should they come out.

    While the diagnosis may be easy, the cure would not. Religion is one of the few human diseases that does not respond to medicine.

  12. Broga says:

    @tony e: Some quotes on religion which resonate with me:

    “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Blaise Pascal

    “Religion is the source of all imaginable follies and disturbances; it is the parent of fanaticism and civil discord; it is the enemy of mankind.” Voltaire

    “There is a very good saying that if triangles invented a god, they would make him three-sided.” Montesquieu

    “Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a mggot and he creates Gods by the dozen.” Michel de Montaign

    “Puritanism – the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” H.L.Mencken

  13. barriejohn says:

    Here’s a good one from H. L. Mencken:

    “Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.”

  14. tony e says:


    May I return the qoutes?

    Terry Pratchett – There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.

    Christopher Hitchens – Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.

  15. Angela_K says:

    One of my favourites, from Oscar Wilde:

    “Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn’t there and finding it”

  16. barriejohn says:

    Thomas Paine:

    “The study of theology, as it stands in the Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authority; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion.”

    He was also responsible for the following, which, when I first came across it, I immediately adopted as my motto!

    “My country is the world, and my religion is to do good.”

  17. Daz says:

    Another Pratchett one:

    “I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.”

  18. Broga says:

    Thanks folks. I like them all. A pleasure to read and note.

  19. […] Depressed? It could be that religion – or ‘spirituality’ in particular – mig… […]

  20. Spirituality is really just religion without the pressure to conform that is exercised by organised religion. Spirituality is dangerous for mental health as there is nothing stopping the person from thinking they have apparitions from Heaven or are divine and doing all sorts of bizarre things. Religion is the same psychological mess but more controlled. For example, Catholics imagine that the communion wafer is really a man Jesus Christ. This religion says it has been turned into Jesus. Catholics are intolerant towards “spiritual” people who want to believe that their dead loved ones can be turned into keyrings or wedding rings or whatever! See the point? With the social pressure applied by religion and its fondness for a good reputation, it follows that adherents will hide their most bizarre religious experiences and beliefs. Spiritual people are honest enough to let the strangeness be seen. A weirdo in a religion will feel less depressed than a weirdo who is spiritual for he or she has a support structure that the spiritual person does not have.

  21. Matt+Westwood says:

    I wonder whether it is people who are particularly prone to depression being more likely to seek the artificial solace of religion to make them feel better?

    Although as a teenage xtian I was pretty miserable – but I put that down to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to get my end away in peace, and it was “revealed” to me in church once that God didn’t want me to get married, oh, and of course the time when I had to destroy my priceless collection of progressive rock (and I don’t mean just my Hawkwind, Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, but irreplaceable albums by such as Nine Days Wonder, Third Ear Band, Formerly Fat Harry, Chris Spedding, Climax Chicago, Southern Comfort, Edgar Broughton Band and Quatermass).

  22. tony e says:


    Anyone who forces another to destroy King Crimson albums is destined for hell.

    Here is a nice slice of rare Brit prog.


  23. Matt+Westwood says:

    @tony e: Now that was a rare item I never *did* get my hands on … thx for that bit of vintage Hillage et al.

  24. […] RELIGION, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low moods, and could even be linked to greater depression, […]  […]

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