Health Differences Between Religious and Secular Subgroups in the United States: Evidence from the General Social Survey

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Religious nonaffiliates who have high certainty in the existence of God or a higher power (theistic nones) have grown rapidly in size in the U.S. in the last 30 years, and are now the fourth largest American religious or secular category. This subgroup has been overlooked in prior research on religion, secularism, and health. We build on recent work on religion and health by distinguishing between atheists, agnostics, and nonaffliliated theists when examining the link between religious or secular identification and self-rated health. Specifically, we advance research on the heterogeneity of secular individuals and health by splitting nonaffiliated theists into two subgroups: those who report certainty in their beliefs about God or some higher power (i.e., theistic nones), and those who are less certain about their beliefs in God (i.e., doubting nones). We analyze 13 waves (1988–2018) of pooled data (N = 15,349) from the General Social Survey (GSS), a large, recurring, and nationally-representative sample of U.S. adults conducted on a periodic basis. Using the GSS, we assessed self-rated health across religious and secular categories in a well-controlled model. When compared with conservative Protestants, theistic nones and atheists had significantly higher levels of self-rated health, whereas agnostics and low-certainty nonaffiliated theists (doubting nones) did not report significantly higher levels of self-rated health. This study adds to previous research by differentiating between theistic and doubting nones among nonaffiliated theists in relation to overall health differences. The results suggest that the level of certainty in beliefs about God or a higher power are an important factor among religious nones for predicting health outcomes. These findings highlight the necessity of analyzing heterogenous subgroups within secular populations in studies of health and well-being.