Psychology Faculty Publications

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Religious and spiritual struggles (R/S struggles)—tension or conflicts regarding religious or spiritual matters—have been robustly linked to greater psychological distress and lower well-being. Most research in this area has relied on samples consisting predominantly of participants who believe in god(s). Limited research has examined R/S struggles among atheists, generally conflating them with agnostics and other nontheists. This study investigated the prevalence of R/S struggles among atheists and compared atheists to theists in two samples (3978 undergraduates, 1048 Internet workers). Results of a multilevel model showed that atheists experience less demonic, doubt, divine, moral, and overall R/S struggles than theists, but similar levels of interpersonal and ultimate meaning struggles. Correlation and regression analyses among atheists demonstrated links between moral, ultimate meaning, and overall R/S struggles and greater distress (depression and anxiety symptoms) as well as lower well-being (life satisfaction and meaning in life). Even after controlling neuroticism, ultimate meaning struggles continued to predict lower well-being and higher distress across samples; moral struggles also predicted distress independently. This study demonstrates the relevance of R/S struggles to atheists and reinforces the applicability of previous results to atheist samples, but also highlights substantial differences between atheists and theists in certain R/S struggles.

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