Religion makes you depressed...if you're Asian!!!

i-b67f2356194c1deda26db19e5349bd38-sadasian.jpgWell, today something popped into my RSS which is likely to make many neoatheists somewhat excited; Participating In Religion May Make Adolescents From Certain Races More Depressed:

But new research has found that this does not hold true for all adolescents, particularly for minorities and some females. The study found that white and African-American adolescents generally had fewer symptoms of depressive at high levels of religious participation. But for some Latino and Asian-American adolescents, attending church more often was actually affecting their mood in a negative way.

Asian-American adolescents who reported high levels of participation in their church had the highest number of depressive symptoms among teens of their race.

I managed to find an abstract:

This study explores the relationship between race, religiosity, and depression among American adolescents. Using data on 18,192 adolescents from Wave I of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we explore whether minority adolescents report higher levels of depression than white adolescents, and whether religious participation, religious affiliation, and the importance placed on religion have different effects on depression for minority adolescents. Results indicate that Black, Latino, and Asian adolescents have higher depression than white adolescents, but the relationship between religiosity and depression differs by race. While religious participation is negatively associated with depression for white and Black adolescents, it is positively associated with depression for Asian adolescents; Asian adolescents who frequently attend religious services report higher depression than Asian adolescents who attend religious services less frequently. In addition, the negative impact of religious participation on depression is more pronounced for Asian girls than Asian boys. Overall, this study contributes to the literature on race and depression among adolescents by suggesting that the relationships between religious affiliation, religious participation, and depression may vary among adolescents from different racial groups.

You can read the text (unfortunately Figures are stripped out) of the paper here.

Here is some old data from One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society:


A follow up study in 2000 shows that Asian Americans as a whole are much more likely to adhere to "Eastern Religions" than previously, but that the "No Religion" option was still prominent. This should not be so surprising, religion is a weak force in nations such as China, Taiwan and Japan in comparison to the United States, and even South Korea is 1/2 secular. I say even because most Americans might assume that the vast majority of South Koreans are Christian because of the enthusiastic Christianity of the Korean American community. The reality is that around 1/3 of South Koreans are Christian, a combination of selective migration of Christians along with proactive prosyletization of newcomers by Korean American churches has resulted in a Christianized population here in the United States.

The authors above have some complex social-psychological theories about assimilation and conformity in regards to why religious attendance is correlated with depression in Asian American women in particular. You don't need to be a genius to intuit what their general idea is; particular cultural tensions between this subculture and the mainstream are at work, and religion might be an exacerbating as opposed to dampening influence. In contrast, the authors note the contrasting role of religion in the black community. I once knew a black atheist who told me that many of his co-racialists accused him of "being white" because of his lack of religion. Or, more precisely, the fact that he rejected the black church and religion as a whole as opposed to simply being lapsed or nominal. In short, some might perceive militant secularism as being antithetical to being black.

If one conceives of secularism to a large extent in a religious society of being a marker for nonconformity and deviance as a whole it would be expected that seculars would be prone to more psychopathology. Even if they initially did not exhibit traits which rendered them more susceptible from opting out of mainstream conventions, their deviation could result in a long term tension that might result in a psychological reaction. The authors note conservative Protestant youth report higher than average rates of depression than moderate or liberal Protestants. Their explanation is elegant and simple: mainline Protestantism exhibits the least deviation from the central tendency of society and so induces the least tension in an individual. In The Future of Religion data is reported that suggests that conservative Protestants in particular have a distinctive lifestyle which sets them off from the rest of society.

Asian Americans are religiously pluralistic and with a large dose of secularism. This is particularly true for the Chinese and Japanese American communities, which are divided among various Christian groups, as well as Buddhists and folk religionists, and a significant non-religious residual. The close identification of the black American experience with the Protestant church or the Korean American immigrant story with the rise of the Korean church does not have cognates in for example the Japanese American community. The Buddhist Church of America never has occupied the sample place in Japanese American life that, for example, the African Methodist Episcopal denomination has among elite black Americans going back to the 19th century.

But I don't think that the specific results here are very important. Rather, it reinforces the point that generalizations about the affects of religion upon a society or individual must be handled with great caution. Religion in the white American community for example might be a predictor for reduced social pathology, all variables controlled, but certainly secular Japan is an example of a society where social pathology is even lower. And then you have the fact that religious attendance among American teenagers has opposite correlates in terms of psychological outcomes contingent upon their ethnic status! Since religion has its hand in so many social phenomena the confounds are legion and teasing them apart requires a great deal of caution, something which the boosters of religion and its enemies generally lack when making their cases to the court of public opinion.

Note: Many readers might be surprised at the secularity of Asian Americans because of the well known prominence of Asian Americans in evangelical groups on elite college campuses. But, just because most evangelicals within a particular subset of the population are Asian Americans does not mean that even within that subset most Asian Americans are evangelicals! Here's some data:
Religious Beliefs and Practices, By Race
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

white black Hispanic Asian
Read the Bible in the last week 36% 59% 39% 20%
Attended religious service in past week 41% 48% 38% 23%
Prayed to God in the past week 81% 91% 86% 46%
Participated in a small group, past week 16% 31% 27% 13%
Bible is totally accurate (strongly agree) 36% 57% 40% 24%
Satan is not a living being (strongly disagree) 30% 27% 30% 14%
Jesus Christ sinned while on earth (strongly disagree) 37% 49% 35% 22%
Born again Christian 41% 47% 29% 12%
Atheist or agnostic 12% 5% 7% 20%
Aligned with a non-christian faith 11% 12% 10% 45%
Subgroup size 1695 330 360 94

More like this

This is particularly interesting:

"One out of four Evangelical college students at New York City colleges and universities are Asian American (Carnes and Yang 2004; Sax et al. 1997). At Harvard, Asian Americans constitute 70 percent of the Harvard Radcliffe Christian Fellowship, and given the popularity of Evangelical Christian fellowships, one can easily spot students who proudly don t-shirts with phrases like "the Asian Awakening" (Chang 2000: 1). At Yale, Campus Crusade for Christ is 90 percent Asian, whereas twenty years ago it was 100 percent white. On the West Coast, the Asian American membership at Stanford's InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) from 1989 to 1999, increased by 84 percent, compared to a 31 percent increase in its overall membership (Busto 1996). Meanwhile, UC Berkeley and UCLA have more than fifty Asian Christian fellowships and most of their members are Asian American (Busto 1996; Chang 2000; Hong 2000). UCLA alone has more than ten Korean Christian related fellowships. On most college campuses, you have a far better chance of finding a Chinese Christian fellowship than a Chinese Buddhist club."

"For example, in his book Invitation to Lead: Guidance for Emerging Asian American Leaders (2003), Paul Takunaga, the national coordinator for IVCF's Asian American Ministries, argues that Asian Americans share what he calls an "Asian DNA." Characteristically, Asian Americans, particularly those of East Asian descent, are described as more self-controlled, disciplined, fatalistic, obedient to authority, humble, and collective relative to the European American population. They are viewed as more shame- and guilt-ridden and bound by "liminality"--being in-between two worlds. These perceived differences motivate campus pastors to create campus ministries especially catered to Asian Americans."

By Simfish InquilineKea (not verified) on 03 Sep 2008 #permalink

You know, what would be interesting would be to see how religious Asians are as a function of income and/or of education.

From my (admittedly very small) sample size of anecdotal evidence, there seems to be an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence/education among whites, but this correlation doesn't seem to hold for Asians.

By Simfish InquilineKea (not verified) on 03 Sep 2008 #permalink

there seems to be an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence/education among whites,

GSS says yes. don't know about asians, sample size too small. in east asia organized religion and christianity is often associated with elites, folk religion with non-elites.

This strikes me as a pretty good example of the way that even well-done statistical surveys can be suggestive in a "straws in the wind" way, but not much more. Correlation, cause, and effect are all garbled here,even the term "Asian" is not a very subtle category (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Hmong differ greatly), and you have distinctions between born Christians and convert Christians, mainline and revivalist, and so on. Among Mormons, for example, social life centers on churches, including fun parts such as dances.

Among several Asian groups (East Asians except for many Koreans), parents are not very actively religious, and strong religious involvement might be an individual response to personal distress. That's just another straw in the wind, though.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

Awesome pic -- could only be awesomer if it linked to a YouTube clip of some whiny song by My Chemical Romance, Blink 182, etc.

I'm surprised by the causal language (impact, make, affect). What if these asian adolescents are religious because of poorer mood/vitality, rather than the inverse? Or, both directions of causation could exist in the sample, in different individuals.

I opened the paper and read the methods section. There's no measure of "extrinsic" causes of religiosity -- such as parental religiosity transmitted to the study subjects in childhood -- that would presumably be prior to the adolescents' depression. (However, examining religiosity transmitted from parents in this way would not be totally uncomplicated, because depression is somewhat heritable.)

Nietzsche's judgment -- about religiosity commonly being a response to physiological ill-being -- is worth mentioning here. (Obviously Nietzsche was no more empirical than Freud, but he was a lot smarter.)

Also, the cytokine theory of depression bears mentioning, since some people are somewhat conditioned to reckon a psychologic etiology for depression. In summary, work quantifying cytokines in blood and cerebrospinal fluid in depression has been inconsistent between studies and often equivocal within studies. In contrast, the induction of reversible, often severe depressive states by exogenous cytokines (administered intravenously for cancer, viral hepatitis, or multiple sclerosis) has been extremely consistent over dozens of studies -- at least some of which have very nice, clean postulates and methods in my opinion. But of course, the fact that cytokines are depressogenic does not entail that they are the cause of naturally occurring states of depression.

By Eric J. Johnson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

Atheism (and high IQ - which go together) allow more efficient and enlightened individualistic hedonism; so I would not expect religion to be a royal road to happiness.

I would have thought that religion was almost precisely _not_ hedonism; religion is almost the opposite of the pursuit of immediate personal happiness in this world.

BTW - I was pleased to read Eric J. Johnson's reference to cytokines and depression, which is a link I have been trying to promote for the past decade or so:

"Religion" is an incredibly mushy term covering wildly different forms of behavior and belief. Even "unbelief" is mushy, and seemingly includes unaffiliated non-theists with little homemade religions or spiritual practices. I'd say that BGC's first two paragraphs are virtually meaningless. Religion can be a comforting delusion, atheism shows you the world in its actual but sometimes horrible state, and "hedonism" is a third thing entirely.

By John Emerson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

Well, here we have some data just rife with opportunities for misuse and abuse. The stronger the conclusion I see someone draw from these data, the less value I will expect to find in it.

By JohnnieCanuck, FCD (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

Mushy, yes, but mushy is a relative term. I think there is some intersubjectivity, imperfect though it be, to what we mean by religiosity. Isn't it roughly equal in mushiness to the concept of love, and only just a little mushier than the concept of amorous love in specific, or the concept of stress? Maybe these concepts are solid enough for philosophical use, but maybe pretty borderline at best for use in empirical investigations. If so, it might be better to study associations with an external phenomenon that almost everyone agrees to be bound up with the mushy, qualia-involving concept in question. For example, in a population-based study designed to examine stress as a possible partial etiology of multiple sclerosis, the death of a subject's child was used as a marker for severe distress:

"Parents who lost a child unexpectedly had a [risk ratio] of 2.13 (95% CI 1.13 to 4.03) for all multiple sclerosis."

(That's PMID 15007121 on pubmed. I think a Bonferroni adjustment might be in order; I'm not sure, one can't really tell from the abstract. Also, I would like to see the causes of death of the children. Since MS is highly heritable and a range of mild and very mild clinical forms exist, I wonder if some of the children could have had subclinical phenomena that would increase the risk of, say, car accident, which is a huge cause of death. Clinical MS can cause severe cognitive impairments.)

As for pleasure and happiness, especially the drive to pleasure versus drives often considered to be more elevated....... to the best of my humble knowledge I'm not aware of any philosophers or others (informed by an evolutionary biology viewpoint or not) who have said much about it that I found terribly enlightening. Do the elevated drives involve pleasure in some sense? Is there anything to say about that, that isn't just sort of "semantic"? I consider it a very difficult subject. Freud's pleasure principle is at least interesting to consider, although he generally pisses me off.

I think most religious phenomenologists would agree that mystical ecstasies are often euphoric, though they can also be dysphoric or paradoxical. Personally my impression would be that mystical experiences vary in strength and that many "ordinary" religious experiences not involving an "altered state of mind" are basically similar but weaker -- and that many of these are also pleasurable.

By Eric J. Johnson (not verified) on 04 Sep 2008 #permalink

By 'hedonism' I mean that all coherent and non-arbitrary atheistic ethical systems are variants on utilitarianism.

(eg. the ideas of my friend Dave Pearce: )

This seems inevitable.

Since atheist ethics are pleasure-seeking (or pain-avoiding - as with Richard Rorty's liberalism) it would not be surprising if atheists were happier than religious people.

Maximizing pleasure is, after all, what atheists are aiming at, surely?

And if not, then why not?

As an east asian almost atheist (like Dawkins I'm pretty sure, but I don't know for sure) perhaps I can give some anecdotal evidence.
The monotheistic religions seem very similar to me. Same bible, same God. Buddhism is a whole different ball game. Whenever my white Christian friends talked to me, I realized their reasons for not praying to Buddha could be used against them. In addition, the creation story of the bible was so at odds with both traditional Chinese beliefs and science, that I knew a long time ago there was a distinct possibility that none of the supernatural myths were true. I would also mention I was not a Buddhist, I don't know the teachings of Buddha. My mother was, I think, a Buddhist but the only time she ever went to a temple was went we visited family in Asia. And I went to Christian schools my whole life. That's probably one very good reason for my atheism, observing my classmates.
I can't speak for other people, these are purely my personal observations and we all know how good anecdotal evidence is.

The monotheistic religions seem very similar to me.

this is a replicated problem. in both china and japan christianity (catholic variety) was assumed to be a variant of buddhism, in china of pure land buddhism because of its devotional focus on one incarnation of the divine. additionally, the kaifeng jewish community had to go to great lengths to differentiate themselves from muslims in the eyes of the han majority because the two religions were so similar exoterically to the chinese.