Insights: Religion and Mental Health

“Insights: Religion and Mental Health”, Insights, Series 3, Ep 3

In the latest episode of Insights, a podcast from Understanding Society, host Catherine McDonald engages in a thought-provoking conversation with Dr. Ozan Aksoy, Associate Professor in Social Science at University College London, and Reverend Dr. Malcolm Brown, Director of Faith and Public Life at the Church of England.

The episode begins with Dr. Aksoy explaining his research about religious involvement and its affect on pro-social behaviour and attitudes. He outlines the positives and negatives of religious involvement and how he used the “amazing data from Understanding Society” to rule out “confounders of religious environment and pro-social behaviour” to find that:

“People who attended more frequently to religious services had a higher generalised trust, they volunteer more frequently, and they are perceived more cooperative by the interviewers during the interview”

Dr. Ozan Aksoy, Insights (Dec. 2023)

However, Dr. Aksoy emphasised the importance of differentiating between various indicators of religious involvement. While service attendance demonstrated positive effects, other measures, such as subjective importance of religion, did not consistently yield positive outcomes. Furthermore, the study identified variations across religious traditions, with Anglicans and Protestants experiencing more significant positive effects compared to Catholics and minority religions.

Dr. Aksoy and Reverend Dr. Brown then explored whether the social aspects of religious engagement, such as attending services, interacting with a community, and building trust, played a pivotal role in shaping pro-social behaviours and mental wellbeing. The unique dynamics of different religious traditions in the UK, with Anglicans and Protestants having a majority status, were considered as potential factors contributing to the observed variations.

The conversation then moved on to address the question of whether increased religious attendance positively influenced mental health. Dr. Aksoy’s research indicated a consistent link between service attendance and mental wellbeing, emphasising the potential protective effects of in-person, social engagement within religious communities. However, the episode also underscored the need for further exploration into the impact of personal beliefs and teachings on mental health within different religious contexts.

Reverend Dr. Brown then offered insightful reflections on the multifaceted nature of religion and the importance of recognising the diversity within religious communities. He questioned the potential changes in the findings if the research were conducted in the future, considering the evolving landscape of religious affiliation and secularisation. Additionally, he raised thought-provoking inquiries about the influence of leaving a religious tradition on mental health and the role of personal beliefs in shaping pro-social behaviours.

As the episode concluded, the conversation shifted towards envisioning the future role of religion in society. Dr. Aksoy highlighted the declining trend of religion in Western countries and the simultaneous rise of mental wellbeing concerns. Rather than focusing on making people more religious, he advocated for learning from organised religions to understand their positive impacts and explore ways to incorporate those elements into broader societal frameworks. Rev Dr. Brown called for a better understanding of different religions and the contribution they make to society.

“I would like to see religion, religious beliefs and religious communities valued for the contribution they make to the social fabric, and not understood as some do, as always over against each other. You sometimes hear people talk because if you put a Muslim or Christian Jew or Hindu in a room together and lock the door, and they’ll all just kill each other within an hour. The more likely outcome is that they will all find ways of getting out of the door together because they have a lot in common.”

Rev Dr. Brown, Insights (Dec 2023)

Insights is produced by Understanding Society in collaboration with Research Podcasts and is published fortnightly.  

The podcast takes a deep dive into the research and researchers using data from Understanding Society’s longitudinal study which surveys 40,000 households every year on a huge range of topics to understand the long-term effects of social and economic change.   

Hosted by Catherine McDonald and Chris Coates, this series brings you six episodes exploring housing, climate change, religion, loneliness, boomerang kids and coastal communities.   

Listen to episode 3 of Insights now and stay tuned for more conversations with researchers on how they use Understanding Society to create research with impact.

Research Podcasts offer podcast consultancy, production and training for researchers and academics. Check out our various training workshops including an introduction to podcasting workshophow to launch your podcast and our more advanced courses on podcast presentingpodcast editing, and how to build a podcast brand

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