British Psychological Society Research Digest Article: What are the psychological effects of losing your religion

by AndersonsInfo 11 Replies latest jw friends

  • AndersonsInfo

    What are the psychological effects of losing your religion?

    BPS Research Digest
    2 weeks ago

    GettyImages-497892997.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

    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.

    A 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 extroverted 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).


  • Boredposter

    This reminds me of the Bill Moyer's/Joseph Campbell "Power of Myth" interviews from yesteryear. In it Campbell speaks of religion as "software" that we use to run our "hardware". We can run along just fine until we try and mix up our software by dabbling in different myths. At that point we can "mix up our wiring".

    For this reason, Campbell didn't really recommend trying out different religions once we're use to "one set of softwares".

    From my own experience after leaving the JW's I think it is better to stay within the framework of Christianity if possible. Other religions can help inform but it is better to filter through the "software of Christianity". A person can find Liberal Christianity that isn't that far a stretch from agnostic/atheism even.

    My opinion anyway.

  • jp1692

    Very interesting article. Thanks for posting this, Barbara!

    It would appear that losing one's religion tends to increase mental health or decrease depending on the individual's resiliency and coping skills.

  • cha ching
    cha ching

    Perhaps because he used students in his study, and maybe students are of a certain mindset "just starting on their life journey" and "young" haha, and ALSO that the Protestant faith is not that 'prohibitive' (unlike JWville) that it only affected them in a way that anything else would... Perhaps freeing them from having to think of "what if I do something wrong" or "what if God doesn't like me".... but I am not sure most "other" religions realllllly think about that.

    True? not true? They certainly did not have the strain of worrying about going to hell when they die.

  • oppostate

    Quite an interesting article.

    I'd say though that the process of loosing one's JW shell is a painful and traumatic experience, at least it was for me. The sense of betrayal and the feeling of having been lied to and being taken advantage of was devastating.

    But, the feeling of "having re-joined the rest of humanity" as Ray F. wrote was a welcomed feeling that made me better able to see the bigger picture and how small and insignificant the JW world really is.

    When during one RBC remodeling a fellow elder was being a jerk know-it-all getting on everyone's case I had a row with him about this and an ex-elder good friend of mine took me aside and told me "just rise above it". I think there are a lot of these awake still-ins who just rise above it but are too aware of the pain separating from the cult will make them go through, with the loss of family members and the shunning from JW believers.

    The pain of rising above it is real, it's mental, it's traumatic. And, it's different for everyone according to their circumstances and their connections to others in the cult.

  • bamse

    Very interesting. Thank you, Barbara.

  • Alex Bogdanov
    Alex Bogdanov

    Great article. Thank you. I think if someone was in one religious group and has the urge to be in another religious group I don't see anything bad in it. Even though I don't belong to any religious group. For me the most important is that the religious group needs to be peaceful and not claim that they are the only one like JW. The idea of being the only one without evidence is very bad for mental health - schizophrenia. I don't mind if somebody thinks they know the answer, but they have to prove in and out. A good example is a local pentecostal church. A people few from that church are my friends. And for the last 8 years I never felt that they judge me, they invited to their church once, they don't talk to me about their beliefs, they don't give me magazines or leaflets, they don't make me feel as they are the only one and I am doomed. Maybe this is the only one Pentecostal church where people behave like it. Basically I don't go to any church etc. But if people want to go I don't see a problem as long as they don't belong to a group like JW

  • Giordano

    Thanks for the info Barbara!

    Life became quit wonderful when my wife and I walked away from any idea of being religious let alone a JW.

    To live as a non believer....... to cast off the mumbo jumbo of Jesus, Jehooovah and the JW doctrine's....... was to set sail for new lands, new people, new ideas. To find the calm that should be at ones core to better understand what we are presented with each and every day.

    It turns out that it's quite simple after all.

  • EdenOne

    Marked for later

  • LongHairGal


    I cannot speak for anybody’s else, but “losing the Jehovah’s Witness religion” was a relief to me. Maybe because I was raised Catholic and worked at a full time job? I also planned my “fade” and did it when the moment was right.

    I know many JW born-ins suffer terribly because they never knew anything else. I wish them all the best in adjusting to life outside the JWs.

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