The Healthy Atheist: Disputing and Refuting the “Spirituality/Health” Connection

“All religions are the same: Religion is basically guilt, with different holidays.”

--Cathy Ladman


“Prayer is like a rocking chair: It’ll give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”

--Gypsy Rose Lee


“When you go to war over religion, you’re basically killing each other to see who has the better imaginary friend.”

--Richard Jeni


I have kept quiet about this for long enough: after reading, for perhaps the 500th time, about how spirituality (= religiosity) contributes to healthy aging, I have to speak up, because no one else appears to have done so (at least, that I’ve noticed).

Owen Houghton, a Keene Sentinel columnist, offers many not-so-new tips about healthful aging (eat chocolate!) but warns us, in his title, “Don’t forget spirituality in healthful living.”  

Houghton reveals his bias quite succinctly: “I believe that there is a powerful link between faith and health,” and of course he cites a book on the subject, “Faith and Health: Psychological Perspectives,” ed. Plante and Sherman.

What a crock!

Religious believers are not noted for their intellectual subtlety and adeptness, and this connection demonstrates their weak-mindedness: the supposed connection between spirituality and health is bass-ackwards, circular, just-so reasoning.  It is a steaming crock of shit, and I am getting really tired of it, just as I am fed up with all of the special privileges accorded religion.  Clearly, freedom from rigorous thinking is one of them.

The current sophistry about religiosity and health is a blatant example of confusing correlation with causation, of post-hoc explanation, and of confirmation bias.

Advocates of the religiosity/health connection invariably cite three phenomena: the support-group effect; the intrinsic benefits of prayer (Houghton goes so far as to suggest that our poor national health is due to “the high percentage of Americans who are unchurched”); and hope in the face of death.

ROFGAL (rolling on floor gagging and laughing). 

C’mon, Owen.  Religion is not alone or unique in providing support.  There’s a whole world full of secular support groups, organized and not so organized.   The Internet enables atheists to connect as never before and to get together offline via interest-group portals like .

My Mom, living in the same town for 70 years, has many friends, relatives, and bridge partners. People are always checking in on her. Certainly this contributes to her longevity (also genes: her immigrant father lived to 82 on a diet rich in chicken fat).

So the “support group” argument for religion is vacuous.  What about the the supposed benefits of prayer?

Here’s where the religious believers go completely overboard.  We note that certain things happen in the brain when people pray, we can tell where they happen in the brain, so, the believers conclude, there’s a God center, or people are hard-wired for spirituality.

As Houghton says, “The discovery of a part of the brain that responds to spirituality may help us understand why some folks are more spiritual than others.”

Spirituality is GOOD!

Get it?  Spirituality (= going to special religious place, talking to and about fantasy figures) is GOOD.  Those without it are DEFICIENT.

The bullshit, as Penn & Teller would say (actually, only Penn), just keeps coming. 

First of all, and in general, although the term “hard-wired” is now a long-established metaphor, no one has explained exactly what it means physiologically; no one has demonstrated that it corresponds to actual neural webs or pathways or some describable brain state.  The brain-computer metaphor is appallingly overused and taken for granted, and this is another example.

Anyway.  Prayer, as Houghton notes, “triggers a relaxation response.”   But so do a lot of other things that share with prayer certain hypnotic qualities (in prayer: chanting in foreign language, rocking back and forth, kneeling, mindlessly singing hymns – great music, though) and detachment of the mind from everyday cares and worries about the future.  Meditation does this too, no gods needed.

Secular relaxation

For many years, I’ve used Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise to put myself into a weird but very pleasant meditative state where I’m awake and aware, but otherwise relaxed and semi-conscious. 

The exercise slows my breathing down to two cycles per minute, and part of my brain seems to go to sleep.  How little we know about that mass in our skulls!

An hour of that is like a night’s sleep.  I recommend it highly.  It’s another technique for coping with the mind, which Zen compares to a treeful of monkeys.

So prayer is not unique.  Anything that disconnects the “monkey mind” is good – and that includes all forms of art and performance.  As a longtime jazz musician, I can tell you that you must lose yourself completely in the music, or it won’t happen.

Prayer is not the best way to achieve detachment, because you just replace it with attachment to fantasy figures. 


As for the spirituality part of the brain…that’s the IMAGINATIVE part that separates story from reality.  Maybe this is the part of the brain that lights up with prayer, because one is, after all, exercising the imagination.

Finally, we have to deal with  religion’s apparent help with “depression, fear, and despair.”  When you peel it all away, this is what religion is about: you don’t have to die, you can keep living, somewhere else, and we – the church – will tell you how to guarantee your destination.

No answer

I don’t have “the” existential answer, because there isn’t just one.  I do believe it’s better to spend this life enjoying all its riches, making sure you’re healthy enough to do that, and also ensuring that you’re living  your life as opposed to some else’s version of it.

Above all, don’t invest precious hours asking an imaginary friend to do something about the existential problem; he can’t, because he’s not there.

Do all of the above, and don’t worry about death.  As someone else once said, they bring it to you.

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Comment by Luara on February 18, 2013 at 6:43pm


I actually added that comment by mistake to your blog!  I deleted it when I realized it was the wrong blog!  I was actually answering someone else, who asked why people were so negative about someone being an atheist - it's understandable if "atheist" implies to them that someone thinks their beliefs are terrible.  If it's just a matter of someone else not believing the things they do, they may still feel subliminally threatened and want to convert them, but not so much so. 

Religion seems to do both good and bad for people.  For me the fundamental point though, is whether it's true, and there seems no reason to think it is. 

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 18, 2013 at 3:29pm

Reply to Luara (your commment didn't appear in the blog): Now WHY would someone be anti-religion?  The crimes against humanity are appalling. If an atheist is anti-religious, it's understandable.

But OK, let's let bygones be bygones -- just keep your religion in your houses of worship and homes and do not try to take over entire societies, governments, or education systems.  But they can't do that.

Your anecdote illustrates what I was talking about - belief "in something" is good. Your friend's body language said "incipietient panic," so he put on a little show for you with the gestures.  He believes. 

It takes some courage for atheists to say, no, belief -- childlike, magical thinking -- is NOT good.

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 18, 2013 at 3:18pm

Thanks, Tammy.  I try to keep it interesting, and I appreciate the feedback.

Please see my previous post on "Zachary's Brain" -- ongoing example of religious programming and counter-programming, with this poor 7-year-old in the middle.  Parental religious programming is unconscionable, but only Dawkins and a few others have the courage to say it publicly. 

Religion is a tenacious meme.  E.g., My father was a skeptic and probably an atheist but had to go along with the program and make sure his sons got a religious education and bar mitzvahs.  The pressure is irresistible.  

How do Jews confront the scientific evidence that nothing in their precious Torah actually happened?  They just keep repeating the same fantastical crap and leave it to each person to embrace or ignore it, or anything in between, including for-show. But none of it happened!

Tammy, good point -- they're all concerned with stuff that didn't happen.  Why believe any of it?  Because they offer answers -- simple, wrong answers -- to the problems of insignificance, evil, suffering, injustice, and death.  The Existential 5.

Cat...As a member of the founding H/J Temple, headed by the incredible Sherwin Wine, I can tell you that H/J is indeed concerned with these things.  It was concerned with all things Jewish, especially secular, and social justice was one of them.  Another was skill at disputation -- IMHO the reason why so many Jews became lawyers and academics. 

But now we're getting away from religion per se, and into culture, which is what H/J was about.

H/J no longer works for me, because of the impossibility of honestly identifying with the shepherd tradition. Rabbi Wine was all about honesty and integrity; he would understand. 

Sherwin, as rabbi, had no problem ignoring the Torah and most of the primitive stuff.  He was concerned with "real Jews in real time."  But later H/J rabbis have gone back to the old stuff, telling the stupid old Bible stories as if they're profound, making up stories (midrash), even reading the Torah on High Holidays. 

I couldn't stand it.  I walked out.  Ultimately I abandoned H/J because of its backsliding, its increasing concern with the old-time religion (motto: "Hey, we're Jewish too!").

Comment by Tammy S on February 18, 2013 at 2:24pm

You're very welcome Alan and as usual I very much enjoyed your post and POV!

I had long ago come to the conclusion that religious views can actually be detrimental to psychological health, they set you up for failure, or should I say, disappointments with life in general because of the obvious differences between the biblical worldview and the realities of life, I think I likely made the connection trying to 'find' a religion that suited 'my' worldview and realizing that they all expected you to suit yourself to their scriptural worldview and that there were very few differences in the absolutely outrageous claims from one religion to the next! I firmly believe that if children weren't introduced to religion of any kind until they reached the age of majority, they would likely never become religious, they would all seem far too outlandish to them to consider as anything more than a fantastical story. 

Comment by Grinning Cat on February 18, 2013 at 11:27am

I know someone who, as an unaffiliated atheist, became a Humanistic Jew by choice. She was attracted to the strong Jewish traditions of questioning and examining everything critically, and of tikkun olam, "repairing the world", an imperative to social justice and in general taking action to make things better.

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 18, 2013 at 11:09am

G/Cat makes a good point.  I read the article from Tammy -- it suggested other, psychological causes for the drug use: constrant cognitive dissonance between the Biblical and scientific world-views and between Jesus' message of love and the hatred and vengeance that fills the Old Testament.

Rabbi Sherwin Wine's Humanistic Judaism is an attempt at ethical culture: studying the real history of the Jews and re-creating the Jewish holidays and life-cycle celebrations so that they have some current relevance.  The point was to create an authentic religious/cultural experience without God.

Comment by Alan Perlman on February 18, 2013 at 9:31am

Tammy...Thanks for the link.  Apparently religious belief doesn't really do it for them.  Religion's promises are fake, so believers turn to drugs, prescription and other.  The whole religion/health thing is bogus, mental and physically, but nobody questions it.

Comment by Grinning Cat on February 18, 2013 at 9:28am

It could also be that other factors -- poverty, difficult conditions -- encourage both religiosity and antidepressant use.

Still, theism doesn't seem to help any more than secular ways to have a community and feel purpose in life.

(Ethical Culture calls themselves a "religion", that happens not to have any use for a god.)

Comment by Tammy S on February 18, 2013 at 8:43am
Comment by Tammy S on February 18, 2013 at 8:40am

There was a news item I saw recently which stated, that the extremely religious red states in the US consume more anti-depressants than other states, it seems that there is 'no' link between faith and good mental health... but I think we already knew that anyway. 

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