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05.10.2018 | Original Paper

Religiously/Spiritually Involved, but in Doubt or Disbelief—Why? Healthy?

Journal of Religion and Health
Adam J. Mrdjenovich


The question of why atheists and agnostic theists attend religious services and pray (and what that might mean for their health) is examined through (1) a thematic analysis of commentaries, perspective pieces, and news articles from the popular literature, and (2) a critical review of scholarly research involving comparisons between religious and nonreligious individuals on a variety of health-related outcomes. Findings suggest that atheists and agnostic theists can take pleasure in attending religious services, and they may be driven to pray at times. In many cases, this was explained by their efforts to stay connected and avoid or manage conflict with family members. Despite a pattern of friction between nonbelievers and believers across the dataset, they predominantly agreed on the whys and wherefores of religious service attendance and the prospect that congregants could “bridge the worlds of belief and nonbelief.” The themes identified are intended to inform the development of qualitative interview protocols and survey instruments. Although health was not among the most salient themes in the narratives analyzed here, many of the reasons cited for religious service attendance and prayer can be tied to existing literature that has relevance for health. Atheists who experience dissonance between their self-perception and nonbelief in God—and agnostic theists who are prone to existential uncertainty and have only moderate faith—might experience poorer health outcomes. Recommendations focus on the need to (a) supplement secondary analyses of archival survey data with qualitative descriptions of belief systems within groups, and (b) move away from the adversarial stance taken by some of the authors of recently published studies on atheism, nonreligion, and health.

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