Skepticism about Religion – Part 2: Caveats and Qualifications

Skepticism about Religion – Part 2: Caveats and Qualifications September 15, 2018

DOES RELIGION HAVE A POSITIVE CORRELATION WITH HAPPINESS?

There are many empirical studies that appear to show that religion has a positive correlation with happiness.  However, there are a number of important caveats and qualifications that need to be taken into consideration here:

  1. Viewed in geographic terms, religion has a NEGATIVE correlation with happiness.
  2. Whether religion correlates with happiness depends on how one measures happiness.
  3. Whether religion correlates with happiness depends on how one measures religion/religiousness.
  4. In several countries religion does NOT have a positive correlation with happiness.
  5. When a study does find a positive correlation between religion and happiness, it is usually a weak correlation.
  6. There are a number of other factors that have a significantly stronger positive correlation with happiness.
  7. The correlation between religion and happiness appears to be bi-modal: religious people tend towards both greater happiness and also greater unhappiness compared to non-religious people.

1. Viewed in geographic terms, religion has a NEGATIVE correlation with happiness.

Let’s compare the top ten MOST religious states in the USA with the ten LEAST religious states in terms of happiness.

If religion is the key to happiness, then we would expect the states with the MOST religious populations to have the happiest populations as well, and we would expect the states with the LEAST religious populations to have the least happiest populations.  A perfect positive correlation between religion and happiness would be if the number one most religious state also had the number one spot in happiness, and if the second most religious state was number two in terms of happiness, and so on.  A perfect correlation would also mean that the LEAST religious state in the country would have the least happiest population, and the second LEAST religious state would have the second least happiest population, and so on.

There is NOT a perfect positive correlation between religion and happiness.  In fact, the most religious states tend to be states with lower than average happiness, and the least religious states tend to be states with above average happiness.  In terms of states, religion has a NEGATIVE correlation with happiness.

Of the top ten most religious states in the USA (based on Pew Research Center data from 2014), seven out of ten are in the bottom twenty states for happiness(based on Gallup data from 2014), and only one out of ten is in the top twenty for happiness:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note that West Virginia is one of the top ten most religious states, and it also has the LEAST happy population in the USA (it ranks dead last).

On the other hand, of the ten least religious states in the USA, six out of ten are among the top twenty states in terms of happiness, and only one out of ten are in the bottom twenty states for happiness:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note that two of the ten least religious states (Alaska and Hawaii) are the two states with the happiest populations in the USA (ranking number 1 and number 2, respectively).

This same negative correlation also appears to hold between different countries.  Many of the countries with the happiest populations are very secular countries that are among the LEAST religious countries in the world.  And many of the most religious countries have populations that are among the LEAST happiest in the world:

Religiosity levels are the lowest (generally less than 30 percent of the population) in prosperous, socialist democracies such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. Yet, according to the annual UN-commissioned World Happiness Reports, these nations are also consistently among the happiest in the world. What’s more, in places like Senegal and Bangladesh — countries with the most self-reported religious people (around 98 percent) but where daily survival is a struggle — life-satisfaction scores are near the bottom of the scale.  (Samantha Rideout,  “Does religion really make you happier?” from UCOBSERVER.org)

Correlation does not show causation, so this data does not prove that religion causes unhappiness or a reduction in happiness.  I suspect that bad circumstances cause unhappiness, and that unhappiness tends to foster religion. Poverty, unemployment, crime, poor medical care, disease, natural disasters, and corrupt or ineffective governments cause fear, anxiety, and unhappiness, and (I suspect) that the suffering and unhappiness caused by such conditions helps to promote religion:

In a 2011 paper that analyzed self-reports from hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, researchers found that the connection between religious faith and happiness was strongest among people living in difficult conditions—fear, poverty, hunger.

Think of it as scientific proof of the old saying that there are no atheists in the foxhole. When life is hard, the communal support of a religious community—and, presumably, the hope for something better to come in an entirely different world—is especially valuable, maybe even impossible to give up. That may be one reason religious community was so important to slave populations throughout history, from the ancient Israelites under the pharaoh’s boot in Egypt to African Americans trapped in the antebellum South. It may also be why even now in the U.S., states with lower life expectancies and higher poverty rates have the largest proportion of religious people. A rich man may find it harder to get into heaven than a camel does passing through the eye of a needle, but he may not think he needs to count on heaven in the first place. 

You don’t need to be a Marxist to believe that materialism matters to happiness and that people who live in a safe and wealthy country are on the whole going to be happier than those who do not. (If religion provides a kind of existential security in poor countries, the welfare state may do the same in rich ones.) … (Bryan Walsh, “Does Spirituality Make You Happy?” in the Time Guide to Happiness)

On the other hand, the negative correlation between religion and happiness that we find in geographically organized data COULD be because religion plays a significant causal role in producing conditions that lead to unhappiness or below-average happiness:

As always when it comes to correlation, it’s also possible that some of the causality goes in the opposite direction: “You could maybe argue that the heavily religious countries are less likely to produce the progressive social policies that foster widespread happiness in the long run,” suggests Caulfield. [Timothy Caulfield, “a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a professor at the University of Alberta”].  (Samantha Rideout,  “Does religion really make you happier?” from UCOBSERVER.org)

When we divide the world up by states or nations, the LEAST religious states or nations tend to have the happiest populations, and the MOST religious states or nations tend to have less happier populations.  This geographic organization of data on religion and happiness indicates that religion is NOT the key to happiness, and it also casts doubt on the claim that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people.

 

2. Whether religion correlates with happiness depends on how one measures happiness.

Some studies find a positive correlation between religion and happiness, while other studies FAIL to find such a correlation.  One reason for such conflicting results is that “happiness” is a complex abstract concept, and there are different ways of understanding and of measuring happiness:

… The majority of studies report a positive association between measures of religion and happiness; however, contradictory findings are common. This is exemplified in the literature that has systematically employed the Francis Scale of Attitude toward Christianity alongside two different measures of happiness among a variety of samples.  Two opposing conclusions have found consistent support. Research with the Oxford Happiness Inventory has consistently found religiosity to be associated with happiness, while research employing the Depression–Happiness Scale has consistently found no association.  (“Religion and happiness: Consensus, contradictions, comments and concerns” by Christopher Alan Lewis & Sharon Mary Cruise, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Volume 9, 2006 – Issue 3,  Pages 213-225. Emphasis added. )

Religion correlates with happiness only when specific measures of happiness are used, particularly the Oxford Happiness Inventory.  When other measures of happiness are used, the positive correlation between religion and happiness may disappear.

 

3. Whether religion correlates with happiness depends on how one measures religion/religiousness.

There are different ways of understanding and measuring religion and religiousness.  Sometimes surveys ask about religious beliefs (“Do you believe that God exists?”), and sometimes they ask about religious identification:

Most U.S. adults identify with a particular religious denomination or group. They describe themselves as Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, Mormon or Muslim– to name just a few of the hundreds of identities or affiliations that people give in surveys.  (“The Religious Typology“Pew Research Center)

Surveys also ask people about their religious practices, such as how often they pray, how often they read or study scripture, how often they attend religious services, and surveys ask people about how they feel about religion (“How important is religion in your daily life?”), and about their religious experiences (“Do you feel close to God when you pray?”).

So, religion and religiousness can be evaluated on the basis of different sorts of considerations: religious identification, religious beliefs, religious activities, religious experiences, and attitudes about religion, to name some commonly used considerations.  Whether a study shows a positive correlation between religion/religiousness and happiness depends on how religion/religiousness is measured or evaluated.

Regular attendance at religious services tends to have a positive correlation with happiness, but religious beliefs often FAIL to have a positive correlation with happiness.  For example, Chaeyoon Lim, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, published a study about religion and happiness in American Sociological Review (December 7, 2010) that found that attendance at religious services had a significant correlation with happiness, but that other aspects of religiousness did NOT have such a correlation:

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people. According to the data, about 28 percent of people who attended a religious service weekly were “extremely satisfied” with their lives, compared with 19.6 percent of people who never attended services.

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation. (“Why Religion Makes People Happier” by Stephanie Pappas, Live Science. Emphasis added.)

The specific data concerning friendships in congregations points to a causal explanation:

“We show that [life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect of religion,” Lim told LiveScience. “We found that people are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church, because they build a social network within their congregation.” (“Why Religion Makes People Happier” by Stephanie Pappas, Live Science. Emphasis added.)

Having more close friends has an obvious relevance to happiness, so whenever “religiousness” is measured in terms of attendance at religious services (as opposed to religious beliefs or religious experiences) the correlation of religion with happiness could be explained in purely natural and ordinary terms, as the result of the social aspects of religious practices.

4. In several countries religion does NOT have a positive correlation with happiness.

In well-off countries and in secular countries religion does NOT have a significant positive correlation with happiness:

In well-off but secular countries such as France and the Netherlands, both the religious and the nonreligious report about the same level of happiness and social support. In fact, Gallup data shows that some of the happiest nations in the world—Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden, which perennially score high on well-being—are comparatively abundant in atheists. Being completely unreligious—and presumably not worrying much about any kind of afterlife—didn’t seem to stop them from enjoying this life. (Bryan Walsh, “Does Spirituality Make You Happy?” in the Time Guide to Happiness. Emphasis added.)

Religious people tend to feel better about themselves and their lives, but a new study finds that this benefit may only hold in places where everyone else is religious, too.

According to the new study of almost 200,000 people in 11 European countries, people who are religious have higher self-esteem and better psychological adjustment than the non-religious only in countries where belief in religion is common. In more secular societies, the religious and the non-religious are equally well-off

[…]

Using information from 187,957 daters, the researchers compared each individual’s spirituality and happiness against the backdrop of religiosity in each person’s country. (Data on countrywide religiosity came from eDarling and from the Gallup World Poll.) They found that religion did indeed contribute to happiness, but only in cultures where religion is celebrated.  ( “Why Religion Makes Only Some of Us HappyLive Science. Emphasis added. )

In countries that have good living conditions, non-religious people tend to be about as happy as religious people:

Nations and states with more difficult life conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) were much more likely to be highly religious. In these nations, religiosity was associated with greater social support, respect, purpose or meaning, and all three types of SWB. In societies with more favorable circumstances, religiosity is less prevalent and religious and nonreligious individuals experience similar levels of SWB [Subjective Well Being, i.e. happiness]. There was also a person–culture fit effect such that religious people had higher SWB in religious nations but not in nonreligious nations. Thus, it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and SWB depend on the characteristics of the society.  (“The Religion Paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?” authors: Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. G. (2011). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1278-1290. Quotation is from an Abstract. Emphasis added)

… Ed Diener and his colleagues dissected a Gallup World Poll of 455,104 individuals from 154 nations. What they found was that in healthy nations (where basic needs are being met, when people feel safe walking home alone at night, etc.), there was no advantage to being religious — both religious and non-religious people reported feeling respected and socially supported, and as a result both reported being happy. But in unhealthy nations, religion offered an advantage, in terms of an uptick in well-being.  (“Does Being Religious Make us Happy?Psychology Today. Emphasis added.)

But if religion/religiousness does NOT have a positive correlation with happiness in several countries, then that is strong evidence that religion by itself is NOT the cause of the happiness that correlates with religion in other countries, otherwise the correlation would be consistent across all countries. In any case, religion by itself cannot be “the key to happiness” for people in general because there are many countries where being religious does NOT make a significant difference in how happy a person will be.

To be continued…

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