Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The relationship between mental health and religion has generated contradictory theoretical arguments and inconsistent empirical findings (Bergin 1983, Gartner et al. 1991, Larson et al. 1992, Batson et al. 1993). One basic question is whether religion contributes positively to individuals' mental health or undermines it. Another question concerns the support role of churches and the counseling role of clergy in the mental health system (McCann 1962).

The opposing theoretical perspectives regarding the relation between religion and mental health probably reflect biases in evaluations of religion. The view that religion enhances mental health emphasizes that religious beliefs help fulfill the basic human need for meaning, purpose, and confidence in the face of life's disappointments, frustrations, and exigencies. In addition, church attendance and involvement in religious groups provide reinforcement for these beliefs and also a social support network. The argument that religion undermines mental health emphasizes the notion that religion perpetuates immature dependency needs and unrealistic illusions, and prevents mature adjustment to the exigencies of life. These positive and negative theoretical orientations are reflected in the classical works of Jung and Freud, with Jung recognizing religion's importance in human experience and Freud emphasizing religion as a source of immature illusions. William James's (1958 [1902]) classic distinction between the religion of "healthy-mindedness" versus the "sick soul," plus his description of the positive effects of a conversion experience for the latter type, have clear implications for mental health.

In the voluminous research literature (Schumaker 1992, Pargament et al. 1993, Brown 1994), the weight of the evidence seems generally to support the notion that religion contributes positively to mental health, but this depends in part on how religion and mental health are defined and measured. Beyond a minimum definition based on absence of dysfunctional symptoms, mental health may include a sense of well-being and satisfaction with life, appropriate coping skills, a sense of ego integrity, and, optimally, continual growth and development of one's potential. Religiosity measures most often include beliefs, practices, and religious experience as different dimensions. Religious experience is less frequently measured in survey research, except for investigations of a conversion (or "born-again") experience, but may be a major element of case studies. The relationship between religion and mental health is most likely to be positive for persons for whom religion is intrinsically important (as opposed to serving selfish interests); however, a rigid and dogmatic religious orientation may help reinforce irrational and compulsive behaviors reflecting less than optimal mental functioning. It is also plausible that one's religiosity is itself a reflection of one's level of mental health.

Doyle Paul Johnson


C. D. Batson et al., Religion and the Individual (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)

A. E. Bergin, "Religion and Mental Health," Professional Psychology 14(1983):170-184

L. B. Brown (ed.), Religion, Personality, and Mental Health (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994)

J. Gartner et al., "Religious Commitment and Mental Health," Journal of Psychology and Theology 19(1991):6-25

W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library, 1958 [1902])

D. B. Larson et al., "Associations Between Dimensions of Religious Commitment and Mental Health Reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry and Archives of General Psychiatry," American Journal of Psychiatry 149(1992):557-559

R. V. McCann, The Churches and Mental Health (New York: Basic Books, 1962)

K. I. Pargament et al., Religion and Prevention in Mental Health (Binghamton, N.Y.: Haworth, 1993)

J. F. Schumaker (ed.), Religion and Mental Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

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