Americans who don't believe in God are more likely to get the recommended amount of sleep each night than those who do, a new study has found. While contradicting the claim religious faith is good for mental well-being, the causes of the sleep difference are unclear, allowing everyone to choose the explanation that best suits their outlook on the world.
Although people’s need for sleep varies, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends 7-9 hours a night. Failure to do can have serious consequences. Even the hour of reduced sleep associated with the introduction of daylight savings each year is associated with more car accidents and surgical errors, leading the AASM to call for the abolition of the extra hour of evening sunlight at their annual conference held online last week. The same conference also heard the entirely predictable news that lack of sleep is associated with increased anger.
However, attendees at the conference did encounter one less expected discovery, assuming they had not read its previous publication in the journal Sleep. “The psychology of religion literature indicates that religious engagement is beneficial to physical and mental health,” the study’s authors wrote. They anticipated that this might be reflected in better sleep.
To test this Baylor University student Kyla Fergason and co-authors surveyed 1,501 participants in the Baylor Religion Survey – the University's national survey of American religious beliefs, values, and behaviors, held every few years – on how many hours they slept each night and how easy they found it to go to sleep.
Directly contrary to expectations, they found 73 percent of atheists and agnostics (grouped together to provide a useful sample size) usually got the recommended sleep quotient. By contrast, only 65 percent of people who considered themselves religious got the same. More strikingly still, the figure was just 55 percent for Baptists. Aside from Catholics, 63 percent of whom met the guidelines, the sample was insufficient to produce meaningful samples for other religious groups. The effect of religion was larger among African Americans than other ethnicities.
"We know that sleep loss undercuts many human abilities that are considered to be core values of the church,” Fergason (whose Instagram bio reads “Jesus brings me joy”) said in a statement. “Being a positive member of a social community, expressing love and compassion rather than anger or judgment, and displaying integrity in moral reasoning and behavior.”
Because the study found a correlation but not causation, everyone can probably find a prejudice to explain the pattern. Aggressive atheists may claim they sleep better because their consciences are less troubled. Those who claim the superiority of religion might speculate non-believers are not as motivated and set the alarm clock later.
Further research that considers potential confounding factors such as age and type of employment may help settle these questions or reveal some other explanation. Studies outside America could shed further light, testing whether the pattern is widespread.
Either way, sleep researchers and philosophers of religion alike now have an unanticipated set of questions to keep them up at night.