What’s keeping you up at night?

The other night I woke up at 3:30 AM and was unable to fall back asleep for several hours.  Did you know that according to research approximately 60% of US adults experience sleep problems a few nights a week or more?  That’s a lot of people counting sheep!  The experience made me think of a recent article on religion and sleep quality.


I thought that I’d summarize the article for you, here.  While this particular study surveyed Protestants rather than Catholics, it provides an opportunity to introduce findings regarding religion and health, more generally, and also allows me to speculate on why the results might have looked different among Catholics.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Terrence Hill, one of the co-authors, was in the office next to me while I was at FSU and I like the idea of giving his research wider play—heck, if you can’t play favorites on a blog, where can you?)

This particular article explored the impact of religious doubts on sleep quality using a nationwide sample of Presbyterians.  They found that religious doubt is associated with lower self-rated sleep quality and with a higher likelihood of having trouble falling asleep or of using medication to help you fall asleep.  I’ll say more about the magnitude (size) of these effects in a minute, but first, in setting up their study, they do a nice job of highlighting the generally positive impact of religiosity on health within the religion and health literature.  While recognizing the controversial nature of research on religion and health, they note,

“The weight of the evidence indicates that aspects of religious participation and commitment have salutary effects on a broad array of health outcomes, ranging from mental health (e.g., depression, subjective well-being), to physical health (e.g., hypertension, physical mobility), and even to mortality risk (Ellison and Levin 1998; Hummer et al. 2004; Smith et al. 2003).

Take-away:  Religiosity may just help you live longer and better.  Despite these generally beneficial results of religiosity (or perhaps because of them), sociologists have also become interested in exploring the “dark side of religion.”  They write,

“Although the role of religion as a source of solace and comfort has been well established, religion can also be experienced in less satisfying, more troubling ways.  Indeed, researchers have long recognized that certain aspects of religious life may undermine mental and physical well-being.”

Religious doubts are one such source of potential distress.  And in fact, religious doubts in this study were associated with higher levels of psychological distress—which helped to mediate the impact of doubt on sleep quality.  Here is the causal argument for mediation:  Religious Doubts caused people to be more distressed and psychologically depressed.  Consequently, the distress and depression harmed their sleep quality and/or led them to use medicine to fall asleep.

So, how big were the effects? Here is where sociologists tend to lose readers.  Because we often use scales and/or ordinal measures with a large range of choices, sociological results tend to be complicated to interpret.  Since this article did not provide a graph of predicted probabilities, one way to give you a sense of magnitude is by looking at other factors.  When we compare religious doubt to other factors in their model, we see that it is much more impactful than other religion or social status measures (e.g., religious attendance, income, education, marital status), but not nearly as consequential for sleep quality as things like psychological distress, self-rated health, and stressful life events.

One potential takeaway from this article is that religious doubt is unhealthy.  While this could be the case, I would caution readers from drawing hasty, or too broad of, conclusions from this one article. First off, doubt (like religion) may have both healthy and unhealthy consequences.  For instance, doubt may potentially play a constructive role in facilitating growth or maturation.  Second, it might be that the negative consequences of doubt depend mostly upon the (denominational) milieu in which that doubt occurs.  As the authors note, because religious doubt is often stigmatized within religious traditions and communities, doubt itself may be a source of stress and congregational members who are suffering from doubts may be reluctant to acknowledge their doubts to others and thus deprive themselves of spiritual and emotional assistance from other members.  Just because they’re stigmatized, does this mean that religious doubts are rare? No–in this study, nearly half of their sample reported having at least some religious doubts, albeit at low levels.

This leads me to a final question:  Would the results look similar for Catholics?

I don’t know.  There are some aspects that seem different for Catholics.  For instance, I have never felt that religious doubts were all that stigmatized or stigmatizing as a Catholic.  Maybe it is because of Catholicism’s sacramental nature, but it seemed like participating and engaging in liturgy and reception of the Eucharist were much more consequential.  I also had a more collective view of things.  Even if I doubted, I always knew that my Church believed.  When we said, “Look not at what I have done, but on the faith of your Church”—I really thought about it corporately.  Even if my individual faith wavered at times, I knew deep down that my Church did not waver.  At times, I can also remember saying the Nicene Creed and feeling comforted by the “we believe” because I could always actively affirm what we as a Church believed no matter what individual intellectual struggles I might wrestle with—of course that has changed with the new translation…but, even back in the “good ole days,” whenever a baptism rolled around I had to look that “I do” right in the eye.

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