Is Atheism Contributing to the Rise in Mental Illness?

As we know, the newest generation (Gen Z) has turned out to be the least religious and most atheistic we have seen for the last century:

In terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet. More than one-third (34 percent) of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated, a significantly larger proportion than among millennials (29 percent) and Generation X (25 percent). Fewer than one in five (18 percent) baby boomers and only 9 percent of the silent generation are religiously unaffiliated…..It’s not only a lack of religious affiliation that distinguishes Generation Z. They are also far more likely to identify as atheist or agnostic. Eighteen percent of Gen Z affirmatively identify as either atheist (9 percent) or agnostic (9 percent). In contrast, fewer than one in 10 (9 percent) baby boomers and 4 percent of the silent generation identifies as atheist or agnostic.

Yet there is another striking feature of this generation.  It, more than others before it, has a larger problem with mental health:

Gen­er­a­tion Z has been called the most depressed gen­er­a­tion

Survey: 42% of Gen Z Diagnosed With a Mental Health Condition

Of course, correlation does not equal causation, but is it possible that atheism, and the lack of religion, is a causal factor behind the mental health issues of Gen Z? 

Let me provide some different lines of evidence that suggest this might very well be the case.

First, not all members of Gen Z seem to be equally troubled with mental health issues.

According to these data, over half of liberal young women and one third of liberal young men report a mental health issue.  In comparison, this applies to only one fifth of conservative young women and one sixth of conservative young men.

While there are several differences between liberals and conservatives, it is worth noting that 7/10 atheists identify as Democrats and 7/10 of these would classify themselves as liberal. Also, only 13% of atheists are conservative.

This would strongly suggest atheism is a variable that separates the two groups.

Second, consider the timing.  From, Jon Haidt’s article, Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest, we learn that the mental health decline began to stand out around 2012:

The survey asks four items about mood/depression.Gimbrone et al. found that prior to 2012 there were no sex differences and only a small difference between liberals and conservatives. But beginning in 2012, the liberal girls began to rise, and they rose the most. The other three groups followed suit, although none rose as much, in absolute terms, as did the liberal girls (who rose .73 points since 2010, on a 5-point scale where the standard deviation is .89). 

So why did liberal girls take the lead on this back around 2012?  Haidt argues:

After examining the evidence, including the fact that the same trends happened at the same time in Britain, Canada, and Australia, Goldberg concluded that “Technology, not politics, was what changed in all these countries around 2012. That was the year that Facebook bought Instagram and the word ‘selfie’ entered the popular lexicon.”


But I think there’s more going on here than the quantity of time on social media. Like Filipovic, Yglesias, Goldberg, and Lukianoff, I think there’s something about the messages liberal girls consume that is more damaging to mental health than those consumed by other groups.

Exactly.  I don’t think watching too many cat videos triggered this rise in mental illness.  So what was the message being consumed by millions?

Phelps-Roper interviewed several experts who all pointed to Tumblr as the main petri dish in which nascent ideas of identity, fragility, language, harm, and victimhood evolved and intermixed. Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) described the culture that emerged among young activists on Tumblr, especially around gender identity, in this way:

There was a culture that was encouraged on Tumblr, which was to be able to describe your unique non-normative self… And that’s to some extent a feature of modern society anyway. But it was taken to such an extreme that people began to describe this as the snowflake [referring to the idea that each snowflake is unique], the person who constructs a totally kind of boutique identity for themselves, and then guards that identity in a very, very sensitive way and reacts in an enraged way when anyone does not respect the uniqueness of their identity.

While this may all hold true, we’re overlooking the elephant on the room.  In the decade prior to 2012, atheism was a dominant (and seemingly ubiquitous) force on the internet, all catalyzed by the New Atheist Movement of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Chris Hitchens.  As someone who was deeply plugged into the internet in the 90s and 2000s, I can report the influence and reach of atheism was everywhere.  Back then, mainstream journalists and media used to love promoting Dawkins and Harris with puff pieces.  An otherwise obscure professor, PZ Myers, had an atheist blog read by millions.   But I’m not the only one who remembers this time.  Consider the observations of Pete Whitehead, who recognizes New Atheism as “a movement that once was one of the most popular on the internet”:

 But ‘New Atheism’, a term coined in 2006 by Gary Wolf, came around at the same time as profound changes in our online infrastructure. It shaped the internet, was shaped by the internet, and went on to shape some of our modern world. [3] Online atheism is an interesting phenomenon in this regard; it spans a particularly turbulent time in the evolution of the internet, as it morphed from the internet of the late 90s/noughties: blogs, forums, chatrooms – and hundreds of them – to the more closed, regulated space we are in now. Knowing this, it’s possible to identify ways in which New Atheism served as the canary in the coalmine for the elements of internet (and contemporary) culture we are now grappling so profoundly with: the way platforms shape discourse, oppositional politics, and political identification. 

Whitehead himself was once a member of the movement.  Speaking of all the best-selling atheist books, he notes:

I know, because I read all of them, and spent the majority of my high school debating career more or less doing a schoolboy’s impression of Christopher Hitchens. I was an onlooker to the tail–end of the ‘atheist internet’ – YouTube channels, Reddit’s atheism board r/atheism (which at one point was more popular than topics such as ‘news’ or ‘sex’), and so on. 

Pay attention to his description of reddit.  Back in the 2000s, r/atheism was more popular than the news or sex sites!  And as anyone familiar with reddit knows, it had an ability to help shape large portions of the internet through the traffic it could send.

So a few years prior to liberal girls being negatively influenced by consuming excessive amounts of social media, the New Atheist movement helped to shape that social media to a significant extent. 

It gets even more interesting when you look closely at the figure above and notice it was in 2011 that we begin to see a rise in depression among liberal girls.  For 2011 is the very year the New Atheist movement began to unravel:

So, how did a movement that once was one of the most popular on the internet morph into something else entirely?  

One of the key events in this shift was undoubtably offline: 2011’s ‘Elevatorgate’ – in short; a woman was sexually harassed in an elevator during a Skeptic conference, and blogged about it, arguing that the community should do better. She then faced haranguing from fellow skeptics and atheists.  

The response to a victim of harassment within the atheist community included Richard Dawkins writing a now–infamous letter entitled ‘Dear Muslima’, which makes the argument that as long as some women had it worse under Islamic theocratic regimes, then Western feminists really ought to shut up. [4] This felt like a dividing line

And it was.  For in the years to follow, the infighting among the internet atheists became more intense and more bitter.  I know – I watched it.

For example, here’s something I noticed in 2012 (where Gnu refers to the New Atheists, a nickname they gave themselves):

Let’s overlook that fact that leaders in the Gnu movement have publicly accused each other of being racist, sexist, unscrupulous, and greedy. Instead, consider behavior of various Gnu activists. For starters, it does appear that the Gnu movement has a very serious problem with sexual harassment.

And notice my quotes of female atheists from then:

Over the past several years, I’ve been groped, grabbed, touched in other nonconsensual ways, told I can expect to be raped, told I’m a whore, a slut, a bitch, a prude, a dyke, a cunt, a twat, told I should watch my back at conferences, told I’m too ugly to be raped, told I don’t have a say in my own treatment because I’ve posed for sexy photos, told I should get a better headshot because that one doesn’t convey how sexy I am in person, told I deserve to be raped – by skeptics and atheists. All by skeptics and atheists. Constantly.


I don’t feel safe as a woman in this community – and I feel less safe than I do as a woman in science, or a woman in gaming, or hell, as a woman walking down the fucking sidewalk.
A 15 year old girl posted a photo of herself holding a Carl Sagan book to r/atheism and got a flood of rape jokes in return. The Amazing Atheist purposefully tried to trigger a rape survivor. 

It is not hard to envision how this dynamic could help fuel a rise in depression among young atheist women.  For years prior, they believed the Secular Movement would bring enlightenment and harmony.   Science and tolerance would replace religion and intolerance.  But then it call came crashing down.  The movement splintered and young atheists, male and female, viciously lashed out at each other for years.  Depression among females led the way, as they suffered the verbal abuses and became disillusioned with the movement.  Depression among the liberal men followed, as they too became disillusioned with the movement and watched many of their leaders’ reputations destroyed with accusations of sexual harassment over the years.

There is yet more evidence for thinking that atheism play a role in driving up mental health problems with so many in Gen Z.

Put simply, science has long recognized that the more religious someone is, the less likely they are to suffer from mental health conditions.  Let me simply share excerpts from the abstracts of two scientific studies:

There is accumulating evidence that religiosity/spirituality (R/S) are important correlates of mental health in adult populations. However, the associations between R/S and mental heath in adolescent populations have not been systematically studied. The purpose of this article is to report on a systematic review of recent research on the relationships between adolescent R/S and mental health. Twenty articles between 1998 and 2004 were reviewed. Most studies (90%) showed that higher levels of R/S were associated with better mental health in adolescents. Institutional and existential dimensions of R/S had the most robust relationships with mental health. The relationships between R/S and mental health were generally stronger or more unique for males and older adolescents than for females and younger adolescents. Recommendations for future research and implications for mental health nursing are discussed.Here

Religiosity could play an important role in the mental balance of young people, a significant portion of whom are characterized by insecurity and uncertainty about the present and the future. This article is a review of the literature on the relationship between religiosity and the mental health of adolescents and young adults. Religiosity – which includes the term spirituality – in adolescents and young adults has been shown to act as a potential protective factor against psychopathology like depression, anxiety, stress and drug use but also as an enhancer of normal psychological characteristics (e.g., resilience, self-control, personality traits). Also, religiosity is positively associated with life satisfaction. – Here

In other words, my hypothesis fits the larger context.

Finally, I can even point to possible mechanistic connections.  That is, how is atheism driving the rise in mental illness?  We’ve already seen how the crumbling of the New Atheist movement may have contributed or acted as a catalyst, but I think it could much run deeper than this.  Let’s return of Haidt’s paper as he discusses mechanisms.  He quotes  from an essay by progressive journalist Jill Filipovic

Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.

and adds

I have italicized Filipovic’s text about the benefits of feeling like you captain your own ship because it points to a psychological construct with a long history of research and measurement: locus of control. As first laid out by Julian Rotter in the 1950s, this is a malleable personality trait referring to the fact that some people have an internal locus of control—they feel as if they have the power to choose a course of action and make it happen, while other people have an external locus of control—they have little sense of agency and they believe that strong forces or agents outside of themselves will determine what happens to them. Sixty years of research show that people with an internal locus of control are happier and achieve more. People with an external locus of control are more passive and more likely to become depressed.

At this point, I would argue that a religious theist has a better chance of developing an internal locus of control.  For the theist will feel a connection with God, and for the Christian theist, it is a personal connection.  That connection then empowers someone, where, “with the help of God,” they have the power to choose and make something happen.  In fact, given this theistic context, where we all exist for a purpose and have a role to play, we don’t have to make anything Big happen.  We just make choices that help to facilitate God’s will. 

The atheist on the other hand is going to be drawn toward an external locus of control.  Consider a text from Dawkins that was famous among the internet atheists:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

Or, as he would tweet in 2016:

In such a universe,  it’s easy to believe you have little control over your life, as countless forces crash against you, pushing you here, then there.  And in the end, none of it matters.  We can go even further and note that Sam Harris, and other New Atheist leaders, were often speaking about the nonexistence of free will.  Hard for most people to have a sense of agency if free will (and self) is an illusion.

In summary, I think there is enough evidence to support a working hypothesis.  And the hypothesis is as follows: 

The incidence of mental illness has increased in Generation Z and this is partly due to the loss of religion/increased embrace of atheism that we see in this generation.   

The four lines of evidence (apart from the correlation itself) that support this are:

1. The rise in mental illness is more acute among liberals than conservatives.  Atheists are much more likely to be liberal than conservative.

2. A consensus exists that increased social media use is a major factor behind the rise in mental health conditions in Gen Z and during the decade previous to this rise, the New Atheist Movement was a dominant and far-reaching influence on the internet.  What’s more, the intense and nasty infighting associated with the collapse of this movement tracks well with the rise in depression among young liberal people after 2012.

3. Science has already uncovered a correlation between increased religiosity and decreased levels of depression/anxiety. 

4. There is a plausible mechanism that can explain the rise – atheist young people are more at risk for relying on an external locus of control given their nihilistic view of the universe and human nature.

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5 Responses to Is Atheism Contributing to the Rise in Mental Illness?

  1. The central lie of atheistic humanism has always been that man doesn’t need God. Unfortunately the Western world is finding out the hard way that this is not true.

  2. Bill Hankel says:

    Members of Gen Z may be misguided and sometime delusional, but they aren’t stupid. Even if they don’t consciously realize it or admit it to themselves, they know that if atheism is true, then only despair remains … truly a reason for depression.

  3. Ilíon says:

    N2C: ==The central lie of atheistic humanism has always been that man doesn’t need God.==

    The lie was implicit even before ‘humanism’ became explicitly God-denying, it was there from the beginning.

    The Copernican understanding of the Solar system was accepted and adopted long years before there was any evidence to favor it over the older Ptolemaic understanding. The Copernican view was adopted for *religious* reasons, for ‘humanist’ reasons.

    Recall (or understand), when the ancients and medievals thought of the earth as “the center of the universe”, they did not mean that the earth had pride of place. Rather, they understood the earth to be at the *bottom* of the universe, they thought of the earth as being the sump of the universe, the place where all the dross and waste and filth collected.

    The early ‘humanists’ did not embrace the Copernican view out of humility, but out of pride — by elevating the earth to a celestial body, they thought they could elevate themselves to celestial beings.

  4. pennywit says:

    I’ve seen a simpler explanation that I find persuasive. Generally speaking, belonging to a religious faith also means belonging to a community and having connections with other people. This is a rather valuable “safety net” for mental health issues. People can help each other when they see someone else is in trouble, and the social connection itself is good for mental health. If someone is not part of a religious faith, they lack that social support and social connection. Hence, less mental health.

  5. TFBW says:

    There are several things to question here.

    First, is it true that Generation Z is less religious? I’m doubtful. The drift away from established religions may be real, but the slack is now being taken up in large part by the Cult of Woke, into which they are being actively indoctrinated by most of the education system writ large. So are they less religious, or are they more so but in a different way? Some of them are full-blown Woke activists; it’s harder to say what the median influence is, but I see broad evidence that the oppression narratives of Wokism are generally assumed as fact.

    If we accept the premise that the group is actually more religious, and the religion in question is Wokism, then it comes as no great surprise that this correlates with poor mental health. The cult encourages a perpetual state of outrage against “systemic” maladies which cannot be resolved except by the complete destruction of society as it exists. It encourages blame-shifting so that people never resolve their own problems. It encourages resentment, unforgiveness, ingratitude, entitlement, fault-seeking, and pretty much every other kind of behaviour which is deleterious to mental well-being.

    This also illustrates how “religious” is too broad a term to carry any concrete implications with regards to social outcomes. The Cult of Woke may be classifiable as a religion in a reasonable sense, but it is diametrically opposed to Christianity in all important respects. One may well belong to a religious faith as a consequence of one’s Wokism, and one might even attend the sorts of gatherings characteristic of that creed, usually protests of some sort, or whatever other meetings are involved in planning the protests when not actually protesting. You could legitimately call this “community,” but it is not the sort of community which is good for mental well-being for precisely the same reasons that the religion itself is not. In fact, like most cults, the one thing that you can be sure of is that your community will turn on you if you dare to leave it; doubly so if you renounce it publicly.

    This brings us back to the titular question: that of atheism’s possible contribution to the rise in mental illness. Again, the answer is either yes or no, depending on how you frame it. On the one hand, I don’t think that atheism as such is contributing directly to mental illness any more or less than it has in the past, whatever that figure may be. On the other hand, the de-Christianisation of society (the primary activity of atheist activists) has created a vacuum which is now being filled by the likes of Wokism, which is obviously quite toxic towards mental health. In that sense, atheism has been a significant contributor.

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