There Is No God-Shaped Hole

There Is No God-Shaped Hole September 16, 2009

In A Shattered Visage, a book-length emotional rant against atheism, Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias puts forth the following assertion:

The words of Augustine are most appropriate: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” Or, as Pascal put it, “There is a godshaped vacuum in the heart of every man, and only God can fill it.” [p.89]

Although they probably don’t realize it, apologists who say this have committed themselves to a testable prediction: even after controlling for all confounding factors, believers, on average, should be happier than atheists. After all, that’s just a more precise restatement of what they’ve always claimed: that belief in God fills an emotional void that can’t be quenched by other means, that it’s a source of strength and contentment that atheists can never match, etc., etc.

Well, the test has been done. As reported in a recent issue of Free Inquiry, Michigan psychology professor Luke Galen conducted a personality survey of members of the Center for Inquiry Michigan, using members of two local churches as a control group. Some of the findings weren’t too surprising:

One area of identifiable difference was that the churched participants perceived themselves as having a greater degree of social support from their social network relative to the CFI/Michigan members.

The dimension that showed the greatest distinction between religious and nonreligious was the previously mentioned “Openness to experience” [according to the study, this personality trait “involves a high need for cognition, intellectual engagement, and interest in new experiences” —Ebonmuse]… nonreligious individuals reported being more intellectually oriented and unconventional.

Another personality dimension that distinguished the religious from the nonreligious was “agreeableness” (a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others). The church sample was higher in agreeableness.

But the real meat of this study is its findings on life satisfaction and emotional well-being. Prof. Galen makes the point that previous studies, which often found that higher religiosity is correlated with greater life satisfaction, are methodologically flawed. They treated all the nonreligious as a single group, lumping together strong atheists with people who are doubters, who are unsure, even some who are weak believers. This study clearly differentiates among those groups by correlating people’s confidence in their beliefs – from those who are absolutely certain there is no god to those who are absolutely certain there is – with their self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction in life.

The relationship that emerged from the data is best described as curvilinear. Rather than a straight line of rising satisfaction linked to increased religious belief, the survey found that the highest life satisfaction was found on both ends of the spectrum – the confident atheists and the confident theists. The happiness and emotional stability of these two groups were statistically equivalent, exceeding that of the general population. It was the doubters and the seekers, the people in the middle who weren’t sure either way, who were worse off.

From what we know of human psychology, or from the personal experience of many happy and contented atheists, this is no surprise. But it does provide us with some concrete, rather than anecdotal, data to vanquish the apologists who implausibly claim that, over billions of lives throughout thousands of years of human history, members of their particular sect are the only ones who have the true key to happiness. The truth is that atheists can be, and are, just as happy as the most devoted of religious believers.

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