The Truth about Conservative Christians

There is an interesting recent book by two Catholic sociologists, Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout: The Truth about Conservative Christians (The University of Chicago Press, 2007). Much of it is not news to anyone who has been paying attention to the conservative Protestant subculture, though Greeley and Hout put a very useful emphasis on the diversity of this group and repeatedly moderate common stereotypes. What’s more interesting is two side claims they argue for and present evidence in support of.

One is their explanation of the decline of mainline and liberal denominations relative to conservative ones. They find that the primary explanation is demographic: conservative Christian women have had significantly more children for many decades. A secondary contribution is due to conservative Christians being able to retain the allegiance of their offspring better: there has been a decline in conversions from conservative to mainline denominations. Greeley and Hout reject a common proposed alternative explanation, that conservative Christianity has been gaining ground at the expense of mainline churches, and that this is because the mainline churches have become too liberal. It’s almost entirely a matter of demographics instead. This sounds plausible to me, and though I’m hardly the best person to judge, their evidence seems convincing.

The other side claim is even more relevant to secular people. They argue that statistically speaking, religious people are happier than the nonreligious, and that moreover, much of this effect is attributable to religious participation directly rather than indirect effects such as religion promoting community and social contacts and so forth. Indeed, they say “One of the more reliable generalizations in social science is that married and religious people are happier than people who have neither companionship nor faith” (p. 150), and that “religion per se is the causal factor in religious peoples’ greater happiness; it cannot be sloughed off as a consequence of correlated but substantively irrelevant factors . . . [A]dherence to the Bible principles in the Bible-oriented Conservative Protestant denominations also increases happiness” (p. 161).

By and large, I see the evidence Greeley and Hout present as unobjectionable. However, I do have a number of concerns. First, the data that they consider is entirely drawn from the United States. I’m not sure if their conclusions would generalize so easily to different societies. I’d like to see an equivalent argument sustained for societies with a more secular background culture, such as Western Europe, before I’d go with their blanket statements. Second, I’m concerned about how they rely completely on survey data, that is, people’s self-reports of happiness. I’m not sure this is a trustworthy measure of happiness. I don’t know if there are good psychological and cross-cultural studies that indicate that self-reports are a good proxy for more direct evaluations of psychological well-being. But in their absence, I distrust survey data being put to such use. There’s too much room for self-reports being overly influences by cultural expectations.

Nonetheless, there seems to be enough out there to suggest that the connection between religion and happiness is at least plausible. It’s legitimate to say that that there is some social scientific evidence (indeed, a good deal beyond what Greeley and Hout do not list but only cite) that religion is good for most people.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09565179884099473943 Hallq

    On the happiness issue: haven’t there been studies that show depressed people tend to have a more accurate view of reality? It seems to me that a very plausible explanation for this finding is that people with a greater capacity for self-deception tend to be both better at believing the claims of orthodox religions and better at believing lies about themselves that boost self-esteem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    I highly recommend Will Wilkinson’s paper on happiness studies, “In Pursuit of Happiness Research: Is It Reliable? What Does It Imply for Policy.” Wilkinson’s work is always a pleasure to read, and he writes frequently about happiness research at his blog (where his most recent post is about Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book on happiness research).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859046131830902921 Mark Plus

    Of course, conservative christianity doesn’t have a monopoly in the religious happiness market:

    Buddhists ‘really are happier’

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859046131830902921 Mark Plus

    I would add that the people who make empirical, utilitarian arguments in favor of religious belief have already conceded a lot to secular world views. The founders and reformers of christianity didn’t view their religion as a source of worldly personal fulfillment, but rather as a precarious shelter to try to spare them from their god’s coming wrath and judgment. Compared with trying to keep a god from zapping you, the quest for self-actualization through a relationship with your god seem a bit beside the point.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07032796862533138129 Ομάδα ΡΗΓΜΑ

    Very interesting and useful blog (thanks god!!!)…

    RIGMA, Greece


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