Are Atheists Depressed?*

*I think the more interesting question should be: do depressed people tend to be more secular or atheistic?

I, for one, have always been a terrible pessimist, and have been subjected to terrible, ongoing bad moods ever since I can remember. The first thing that crossed my mind when I started dabbling with atheism and critical thinking is: “Why SHOULD there be a God? I imagine this world sucks bad enough so that it doesn’t need him”.

The ability to deconvert hinges not only on education, but also on disposition. The species of atheist I’m acquainted with has a convoluted personality, and that often includes mood swings. There’s probably all kinds of atheists out there, but maybe I’ve caught some sort of  trend here.

Depression can often result from a large gap between expectations and reality – expectations that might not necessarily be irrational. Presumably, it’s possible to conjecture happy-go-luckies who deceive themselves regarding their own competence as a defense mechanism against depression.

Maybe there IS some correlation between depression and rationalism, since it is obviously horrifying to impartially observe how trivial our personal existence truly is. As a by product of rationality, we understand how magnificent the universe is, and how dubious are supernatural claims. As a rather glum atheist, I find it very easy to ignore the emotional appeal to trust in the words of men and their stories about God and the supernatural – but this goes hand in hand with my inability to trust people in general, particularly when they tell me wonderful stories about some invisible sky daddy who loves me so much.

I’ve always wanted to see hard evidence, often more than is necessary, before I could truly trust what I hear and see.

I can only testify in my case that this leads me to an evidence-based worldview. Since I truly believe that it is what makes people happy that eventually drives them, I’m fully aware that worldviews change accordingly. It would be impossible for me to believe in a god or gods with my current personality, no matter what I’m offered – but it is possible for me to be irrational.

Admittedly, as irrational as any theist can be.

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11 Responses to “Are Atheists Depressed?*”

  1. Jeff Says:

    What an interesting and transparent piece of writing. I hope I can repay your transparency with some of my own… (Though this is something you probably suspect, even if you don’t flat out know it.)
    We Christians often put on fake smily happy faces.
    I think there are probably many reasons that atheists appear more depressed than theists. In honesty, one of them is simply that Christians fake it, sometimes.
    There is an unbiblical but prevalent theology that states that struggles and unhapiness are reliable indicators that something ungodly is going on in our lives. Therefore, some of us fake it among our brothers and sisters in Christ out of fear that we’ll be judged. (A net result of this is that we’re fake around other Christians and don’t end up feeling real community.)
    It’s even more tempting to fake it among people who aren’t Christians. We want to sell Christianity by implying that a relationship with Jesus means that we’re happy all the time. We don’t realize how much we look like the Stepford Wives, or vampires who come back to visit their loved ones, and who say “Oh no, you’ll be so happy if you just become like us.”

    In honesty I do find it to easier to be happier as a Christian. But like anything else, the more I put into my relationship with Jesus the more I get out of it. The happiness is most genuine and deepest when I am doing all the things I know I’m supposed to be doing.

  2. Freidenker Says:

    Oh, even when I was a believing Jew, I never bought into it that faith turned people happier in any way. (unlike you, I can’t “stop being Jewish” when I turn atheist since millennia of xenophobia has turned the Jews into a genetically isolated tribe, at least for Ashkenazi Jews like myself)

    Frankly, I was always aware that people are happy or sad because of their natural disposition. I’m sure that your relationship with Jesus (however you see this relationship) makes you very happy – but I don’t think the reason it does has much to do with Jesus. I think you’re predisposed to enjoy spiritual and religious practice and I’m banking that you’d feel the same way about Buddha or Isis if you happened to be born into a different culture.

    Of course, this is mere speculation, it’s practically impossible to test now, isn’t it?

    It’s important to realize that I’m not an atheist (or wasn’t a believing Jew) because I’m depressed or anxious (anxious is more like it, I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder and I have a lot of “OCD-ish” like symptoms).

    I just happen to be. Depressed people come in all shapes and sizes, and I’d be very surprised if a real trend was observed.

  3. Jeff Says:

    I understand what you’re saying– but I think you may be undestimating the differences between religions. There might be a few benefits that are somewhat universal among the various faith traditions. But there are many that are quite unique.
    It’s easist for people engaged in some traditions that rely heavily on meditation, for example, to get in touch with themselves. Pagan and neo-pagan traditions emphasize nature.
    Even setting aside the question of whether any traditions are closer to the truth than others, I’d suggest that there are intrinsic factors that interface with personality. An introspective sort might enjoy hours of meditation, while an environmentalist might resonate with a ritual that welcomes in the Fall.

    Further, there are cultural costs and issues of perception. There’s a certain cool-factor associated with being a neo-pagan, for example. If being percieved as hip and happening was important to somebody, this might nudge them toward neopaganism. (That is, today, not centuries ago when you’d get burned at the stake for it.)

    An famous author, who, like me, is a Buddhist-turned-Christian, said something that strikes me as profound. He talked about how Buddhism’s embrace or paradox prepared him for Christianity. I heartily agree: so things are further complicated, I think, by the fact that some experiences within some traditions might prepare us or prejudice us against other ones.

    All these thoughts are maybe not within things that are high on your radar. But perhaps this thought is:
    There is a great book called “Nervous Condition” (sorry, don’t rememember the author.) It was written by a pyschologist who England sent out to one of it’s colonies. (Might not have been a colony technically– but it was one of those places where rich white English guys ran the show, and the natives were virtual slaves.)
    The psychologists conclusion was that he couldn’t do anything to help these people.
    Neurotic and even psychotic reactions were quite reasonable responses to the every day reality that these people were experiencing.

    I think that if there is no God, then depression and anxiety aren’t maladptive symptoms, they are quite reasonable responses to the way the world is.

  4. oddinnuendo Says:

    Apologies for my recent absence!

    I must say, I’ve always been a happy person in general. However, more recently I’ve been saddened by the events in the world that involve the hurt and pain of many innocent people. I have a tendency to look past what is happening in my life and immediately empathize with others. I don’t do it intentionally, it just happens…it’s a strange bodily tradition!

    I have been depressed, but that was when I considered myself a Muslim…strange, really.

  5. Freidenker Says:

    Oh. Well, despite the fact the reason you were moopy isn’t as cool as the one I came up with, it’s still reasonably explained :->

  6. Jeff Says:

    I think maybe I wasn’t very clear. It didn’t seem like I was saying anything particularly radical.
    I think maybe some of our confusion was based on my use of the words “neurotic” and “psychotic”.
    These words have a popularized definition which people associate with “flipping out.”
    Originally, a neurosis and psychosis simply meant a psychological reaction which interfered with every day life experiences. A neurotic’s reaction was comparitively minor, in that he could go on about his life. A psychotic reaction is one that really prevented life from being lived.
    For example: a neurotic reaction would be a compulsion to touch each door knob once in a house before leaving. This would be annoying, but somebody could do it indefinitely and mantain a pretty normal life.
    A psychotic reaction, on the other hand, would be to be compelled non-stop to touch all the door knobs in the house forever. Such a person would never leave.

    The thing I was trying to get it is that we generally make this assumption: that knowing the truth generally makes us more effective. There are obvious cases where this is true. If I fail to see a train coming I can not get out of it’s way.
    I think it’s worth wondering about this assumption, though.

    If I believed that my wife and children died I would be rendered paralyzed. This paralysis would not be at all connected to the truth of whether they were dead. It would be connected to my beliefs in the truth.

    Similarly, if I believed there was no God I would be depressed. I would suggest that this is (in most senses of the word) a healthy, reasonable reaction. In some sense it would be maladaptive. It would make me less efficient and effective.

    This whole thing is quite independent of my beliefs in God. It’s about whether or not I believe in God. The fact that I think it would be natural to be happier if one believed in God doesn’t work, I think, for either theists or atheists as a point of persuasion. I’ve seen theists say “Given that you’d be happier, you ought to make yourself believe.” I’ve seen atheists say “See, you’re just deluding yourself for the crutch of religion.”
    I think noticing that if somebody believed in God they might be less depressed is quite different than saying that somebody should believe in God to make themselves less depressed. I think there are lots of good reasons to believe in God, but treating God like a happy pill is an insult to us and Him, so I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that.

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