Does Religion Help Or Hurt Sexual And Gender Minorities? Research Shows The Answer Varies Widely.
A new meta-analysis of more than 70 studies takes a closer look at what impact religion can have on the mental health of gender and sexual minorities. Tyler Lefevor, an assistant professor at Utah State University and a psychologist, conducted the analysis. He identifies as a queer Mormon, though he’s no longer part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: What was your biggest takeaway of this meta-analysis?
Tyler Lefevor: When I graphed [the results from the various studies] all together, they formed this really beautiful bell curve, which suggested that a lot of studies found no relationship between religion,spirituality and health. But then about an equal number [of studies] found negative relationships as found positive relationships. So it's not that there isn't a relationship, it's just that people are reporting a lot of different things.
When sexual and gender minorities conceptualized religion and spirituality either as belief in a higher power — maybe God, maybe Allah, maybe nature — or if the spirituality is more divorced from religion, they got a lot more benefit from religion and spirituality than if they conceived of their religion or spirituality as part of an organized, ritualized kind of worship.
CB: What do you mean when you say ‘positive?’ What can religion do that's positive for someone's physical or mental health?
TL: In the analysis we talked about predicting lower suicidality, less depression, less anxiety, fewer eating disorders [and] less substance use. One of the ways might be through behavioral pathways. So [religion] keeps you active and engaged with life. It gives you a sense of community. Another is through cognitive pathways. That means that it gives you a sense of meaning or purpose in life that you might not have otherwise. And the third is a social aspect: that it simply interconnects you better with other people.
CB: And to be clear, there are LGBTQ people who have been harmed by church communities and by religion.
TL: Thank you. Yeah, I do not want to make their experiences any lesser. Many people have been. And what we're finding is that the people who stay were, at least what I'm guessing, the people who seem to be benefited.
CB: How does suicidality among LGBTQ people, especially youth, factor into these studies and this analysis?
TL: It’s complicated. We looked at suicidality as one of our indicators of health. What the results of the meta-analysis found is that religion and spirituality was often protective against suicidality, meaning that people who are religious or spiritual were less likely to be suicidal. That's a lot of what the analysis found.
We weren't able to ask about people who were really harmed by faith, so I really don't want to give the message that religion and spirituality can’t lead to suicidality, because I've known people who have been negatively affected by religion and spirituality. But I think what the analysis suggests is that some people can be benefited, and that maybe having a community of others can help protect them.
CB: You are a licensed psychologist. How will this meta-analysis inform how you interact with your patients?
TL: I think more than anything, it helps me check a lot of biases. As a psychologist or as a therapist, it means stepping back. Instead of asking “What are the ways in which religion, spirituality has been harmful?” I'll probably step back and say, “Is religion or spirituality important in your life? And if so, how has that impacted your mental health?”
CB: Over the last 10 or 15 years, attitudes toward LGBTQ rights have in many ways changed for much of the U.S. Not everywhere, certainly, but the community is more visible. Acceptance has broadly grown. Has there been any indication in the research that the relationship between LGBTQ individuals and religion has changed over time?
TL: The meta-analysis I just published didn't find any significant results for changes over time. We were able to look at whether the year the studies were published in was related to the size of the relationship between religiousness and health, and it didn't seem to be getting bigger or smaller.
CB: How do you see it changing in years to come?
TL: I think that religion and spirituality will probably not be relevant for most sexual minorities, simply because it’s kind of a bastion for conservative traditional sexual ethics, and many people still experience a lot of discrimination and hate at religious and spiritual places. But I really hope that there becomes more space for people who want to stay connected to their religious and spiritual heritage. That there can be a greater understanding that religion and spirituality can be a strong, vitalizing force for sexual and gender minorities. That it can lead to positive connections and growth and change. Hopefully in the next 10 or 15 years, people start to create more space to hear those narratives as well.