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The following is the first installment of an address given at FAIRMormon by Daniel C. Peterson. It is republished here with permission. 

Many years ago, I received an angry note from a young returned missionary, husband, and father, a graduate student in a distant state, denouncing the Church for lying about its history and denouncing me for my alleged role in defending those lies.

An exchange ensued. I tried to persuade him that he was wrong. He remained hostile, and it was easy to see that he was deeply troubled.

Abruptly, his messages stopped.

After a while, oddly uneasy about the silence and following several unanswered notes inquiring whether he was alright, I called the Institute director at the school where he’d been studying.

My worries were confirmed in the worst possible way. The young man, I was told, had killed himself with a shotgun a month or two before, just about the time our correspondence had ended.

Obviously, I was horrified. I wondered what, if anything, I might have done to help. I read and reread our correspondence, looking for signs that I should have picked up.

Now, I don’t know exactly what went into this young man’s decision to end his life, and to do it in such a horrible way. There may have been—there probably were—many factors involved. But I’m reasonably confident that his loss of faith and his bitter alienation from the Church contributed.

Obviously, most who leave Mormonism don’t take their own lives. Some glide painlessly out. I understand them. A pay increase, an extra day each week, and no meetings! The attractions are obvious.

Others, however, go through periods—whether brief or lifelong—of resentful anger. Important relationships with neighbors, children, parents, spouses, and extended family sometimes rupture in the wake of what we believers call “apostasy.” Often, they suffer from depression. A world charged with eternal meaning, and relationships suffused with cosmic significance, can become an abyss of sheer pointlessness, culminating in oblivion.

These things matter.

I recently received a note from a psychiatrist in Georgia, in my judgment himself a victim of his loss of faith, begging me to persuade Church leaders to stop their “lying.” He claims—and I have no reason to doubt him—that he deals with the consequences of those alleged lies in his own practice, when fellow disaffected Latter-day Saints seek him out for help.

I’m not a professional counselor—though, as I’ve gained experience over my uncountable decades, I’ve come to recognize more and more the help that such counselors can provide. But I believe that there’s an even more fundamental cure for the emotional and psychological turmoil caused by disillusionment and loss of faith.

That cure is a return to faith and trust.

“Unyielding Despair”

I don’t wonder at the havoc that complete loss of faith can induce in sensitive souls.

Listen to what the outspokenly atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell says in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship”:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Somehow, “unyielding despair” doesn’t seem a very promising basis for a happy life.

The French philosopher and writer Albert Camus published a famous 1942 collection of essays titled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he grappled with the view that we’re just a pointless combination of chemicals, with what he labeled the “absurdity” of the human situation:

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

A robust faith, like the loss of one, makes a difference.


For one thing, it apparently makes people healthier.

“Neither in my private life nor in my writings,” Sigmund Freud wrote in a 1938 letter to Charles Singer, “have I ever made a secret of being an out-and-out unbeliever.” Indeed, he wrote to Marie Bonaparte, “I regard myself as one of the most dangerous enemies of religion.”

And, in fact, he was plainly obsessed with religion, treating it repeatedly in such books as Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Civilization and Its Discontents, (1930) and Moses and Monotheism (1938), comparing the “wishful illusions” of religion to “blissful hallucinatory confusion,” religious teachings to “neurotic relics,” and religion itself to “a universal obsessive compulsive neurosis” and “a childhood neurosis.”

And this theme of religious faith as psychological defect, a sickness of the mind, remains popular among modern atheists, too. “Faith,” declares Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), “seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness.” “It is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness,” agrees Sam Harris in his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, “than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.”

So, are religious people by definition “sick”? Mentally ill? Is atheism healthier than faith?

For several decades, Armand Nicholi, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School as well as the editor and co-author of the Harvard Guide to Psychiatry, has taught an honors course for Harvard College and Harvard Medical School that’s focused on Freud and the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis. Although the two never actually met, Nicholi puts them in dialogue and comparison with each other. (This isn’t as arbitrary as it might seem: Lewis, an atheist for half his life, was well aware of Freud’s writings.)

In 2002, based upon that course, Nicholi published The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. It’s a fascinating study, and one could easily argue from it that Lewis led a healthier and happier life than did Freud.

Via such publications as Is Religion Good for Your Health: The Effects of Religion on Physical and Mental Health (1997), his Handbook of Religion and Mental Health (1998), and his editorship of the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health (2012), Harold Koenig, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Duke University, has established himself as a premier authority in this area. He and his collaborators argue that religious involvement is correlated with better mental health in the areas of depression, substance abuse and suicide, and, somewhat less certainly, with better results in the treatment of stress-related disorders and dementia.

Moreover, according to Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, recent research published by himself and his colleagues in various top-tier medical journals confirms the links that previous scientific investigation had identified between attendance at religious services and enhanced health. Regular attendance is associated, for example, with “a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression,” VanderWeele writes.[1]

But the apparent blessings don’t end there: Regular participation in communal religious worship appears to be associated with “greater likelihood of healthy social relationships and stable marriages; an increased sense of meaning in life; higher life satisfaction; an expansion of one’s social network; and more charitable giving, volunteering, and civic engagement,” says VanderWeele.

One might perhaps conclude that it’s the social support afforded by religious participation that confers such benefits. VanderWeele, however, says that social support accounts for only about 20-30 percent of the measured results. The self-discipline encouraged by religious faith and the optimistic worldview that it supports also appear to be important contributing factors to physical health and longevity.

Of course, none of this proves religious claims are true. But it does strongly suggest that faith isn’t an illness, and that, on that point at least, Freud and his followers are wrong.

Persisting in the Freudian tradition, however, one standard British psychiatric textbook from the mid-20th century declares that religion is for “the hesitant, the guilt-ridden, the excessively timid, those lacking clear convictions with which to face life.”

In his 2009 book Is Faith Delusion? Why Religion is Good for Your Health, Dr. Andrew Sims, former president of the United Kingdom’s Royal College of Psychiatrists and professor of psychiatry at the University of Leeds, contends, on the basis of his own psychiatric practice as well as a large number of scientific studies, that “people with religious belief, rather than being timid and lacking clear convictions, have a greater sense of direction and feeling of independence from control.” Indeed, one of the major themes of his book is that “religious belief tends to be associated with better health, both physical and mental.”

“The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry, and medicine generally,” he writes. “If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land!”

Moreover, Sims contends, “churches are almost the only element in society to have offered considerate, caring, long-lasting and self-sacrificing support to the mentally ill,” which is one of the reasons why “religious involvement results in a better outcome from a range of illnesses, both mental and physical.”

In the majority of scientific studies, Sims summarizes, religious involvement correlates with enhanced well-being, happiness and life-satisfaction; greater hope and optimism, even when facing serious diseases, such as breast cancer; a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better responses to bereavement; greater social support; less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; reduced rates of suicide; decreased anxiety; better coping with stress; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; and greater marital stability and satisfaction. A strong faith and the positive relationships and thinking associated with church membership fortify the immune system, “thus reducing the risk of cancer, improving general health and protecting the cardiovascular system.”

“When looking at the overall effects of religious belief and practice on whole populations,” he writes, “there is substantial evidence that religion is highly beneficial for all areas of health, and especially mental health.”

Indeed, correlations between religious faith and improved well-being “typically equal or exceed correlations between well-being and other psychosocial variables, such as social support.” And, he adds, this substantial assertion is “comprehensively attested to by a large amount of evidence.”

“In one well-conducted study,” Sims reports, “almost 3,000 women who regularly attended church services were assessed for health status, social support and habits. When they were followed up 28 years later, their mortality over that period was found to be more than a third less than the general population.”

Furthermore, “An inverse relationship has been found between religious involvement and suicidal behaviour in 84 per cent of 68 studies. That is, those with religious belief and practice are less likely to kill themselves. This association is also found for attempted suicide; believers are less likely to take overdose or use other methods of self-harm.”

“The nagging question we are left with is, why is this important information” — “epidemiological medicine’s best-kept secret,” he calls it — “not better known?”

If it were anything other than religious belief or spirituality resulting in such beneficial outcomes for health, the media would trumpet it and governments and health care organizations would be rushing to implement its practice.

One of the most interesting and provocative social analysts in America today is Arthur Brooks, currently president of the American Enterprise Institute. In 2004, Dr. Brooks published Who Really Cares, in which he notes that scores of studies have demonstrated that believers live longer, healthier lives. People who never attend religious services are at the highest risk of early death, while those who attend more than once each week have the lowest such risk. At age 20, this translates into a seven-year difference in average life expectancy. Religious people heal more quickly from serious diseases and surgeries. Remarkably, too, in victims of HIV four years after diagnosis, those who’ve become religious show noticeably lower rates of disease progression than do their unbelieving fellow-sufferers.

In addition, as many studies have shown, religious people tend to be much happier and more satisfied than the irreligious. They cope better with crises. They recover faster from divorce, bereavement and being fired. They enjoy higher rates of marital stability and marital satisfaction. They’re less likely to be depressed, to become alcoholics or drug addicts, to commit suicide or to commit crimes. Elderly religious people are much less likely to be depressed, but if they are, they’re less so than their unbelieving counterparts.

In 2008, Brooks published a book titled Gross National Happiness. In it, drawing on the relevant sociological literature, he presents his case for what makes us happy and what doesn’t.

Religious people of all faiths are, on average, markedly happier than secularists, and this is true even when wealth, age and education are taken into account. In one major survey, 23 percent of secularists reported being “very happy” with their lives, versus 43 percent of religious respondents. Believers are a third more likely to express optimism about the future. Unbelievers are almost twice as likely as the religious to say, “I’m inclined to feel I’m a failure.”

In 2004, 36 percent of those who prayed every day said they were “very happy,” while only 21 percent of those who never prayed said so.

Data from 1998 reveal that people who were certain that God exists were a third more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than those who denied his existence. Curiously, agnostics were more gloomy than atheists; only 12 percent of agnostics surveyed claimed to be very happy. People who asserted that there was “little truth in any religion” were roughly half as likely to assert a high degree of happiness as those who believed that religion contains significant truth.

Believers in life after death are about a third more likely than nonbelievers to call themselves “very happy.” By contrast, people who say that we don’t survive death are three-quarters more likely to say that they aren’t very happy.

Correcting for other cultural factors and comparing apples with apples, people who live in religious communities also fare better financially than do those who live in relatively secular communities. Brooks cites an economist who investigated the effect on one’s income when others in one’s community are religiously active. For instance, he measured how the church attendance of Italian-American Catholics affected the incomes of African-American Protestants in the same neighborhood. His conclusion? The more your neighbors go to church, the more you will tend to prosper. This is probably because of the cultural benefits that accrue to a community as a whole when a significant proportion of the community follows typical religious standards: There’s likely, for example, to be less divorce and drug abuse—both of which cause economic woes. And such influence in a community attracts like-minded people into a neighborhood, thus improving it further.

An advocate of greater secularism might concede that religious fantasies provide a helpful crutch for stupid, ignorant and/or irrational people, whereas better educated and more honest unbelievers face reality without such comfort.

A 2004 study, however, showed that religious adults were a third less likely than secular adults to lack a high school diploma, and a third more likely to have at least one college degree. Given two people, one of whom has a college degree and one of whom doesn’t, but who earn the same salary and are identical in age, gender, race and political views, the college graduate will be 7 percent more likely to be a churchgoer.

Secularizing writers often like to imagine how much better the world would be without religion. They should pray that they don’t get their wish.

To be continued in the next installment.