April’s identity is rooted in her religion. Her devout Christianity is her north star and saving grace—until she witnesses a series of particularly unfortunate events, which leave her questioning her faith. Instead of walking into the hospital with her usual confidence and determination to help her patients, April assumes a pessimistic and harsh persona. She starts drinking (every night), showing up late to work, and neglecting relationships with her closest friends. It doesn’t take long for everyone to notice that she’s entered a particularly dark place. But she refutes their concerns and refuses their insistence to help her.
After a few weeks of doubting God’s existence, April’s crisis of faith finally comes to a head when a rabbi walks in the doors of Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. He has a rare but deadly allergic reaction to a prescription medication and in his last few moments, talks April through her qualms and ultimately restores her faith.
While April is a mere character on the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy, the episodes that chronicle her loss of religion truly hit the nail on the head. Religion is a staple in many peoples’ lives, and when they lose that, they lose a part of themselves. A new study “Psychological changes during faith exit: A three-year prospective study” delves into this concept and looks more closely at the psychological effects of losing one’s religion.
For three years, researchers from the University of Hong Kong, led by Harry Hui, analyzed Protestant Christians to gage and understand their faith over time. These study participants simply answered psychological questionnaires six different times during this period. The questions were designed to measure their personality, their values, their beliefs, and any psychological symptoms. Of the 600 participants, 188 of them stopped defining themselves as a Christian at one point or another—and over 82% (of the 188) changed their status to “nonbeliever.”
Hui and his colleagues made a few significant observations: the individuals who lost faith in their religion did not display any major changes in personality, but they did show major variations in mental wellbeing. Interestingly, around half of them experienced a drop in depression and anxiety, while the other half experienced a surge in depression and anxiety.
The researchers looked more closely at why the new nonbelievers might show such distinct differences and found that personality and psychological state prior to changing their status were major factors. It appeared that if an individual was more extroverted and had access to sufficient psychological resources, their crisis of faith became an opportunity for growth. If, on the other hand, an individual was neurotic and more prone to mental and physical issues, they were more likely to suffer from psychological distress related to their change of faith.
Ultimately, this study shows that a loss or change of faith can affect people in different—sometimes even opposite—ways, which goes against the grain of most research into this area. One person might suffer from the big life change, while another might benefit or even thrive off of the shedding of their religion.
BPS (2018, April 16). What Are the Psychological Effects of Losing Your Religion? NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved April 16, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-losing-religion-8805/
Hui, H. C.; Cheung, S.; Lam, J; Lau, Y.; Cheung, S. & Yuliawati, L. (2018, April). Psychological changes during faith exit: A three-year prospective study. Retrieved April 20, 2018 from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-10226-001
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