Atheists are unhappy? Really?

Atheists are unhappy? Really? April 23, 2009

Most studies looking at the demography of religion take a broad look – religion as a continuum from the highly devout to the stridently atheist. They tend to find that the religious people are, the happier they are.

But it’s pretty hard to gauge what that actually means for atheists. Atheists are different from religious people with doubts. Also, many atheists in religious countries find themselves marginalised and excluded.

Luke Galen, a psychologist at Grand Valley State University, has recently completed a study comparing members of the Center For Inquiry (CFI) in Michigan with local Church goers. He recently gave a talk to CFI Michigan, which you can find as a podcast and slides over on the Reasonable Doubt.

The full thing is well worth a listen (if you have a spare hour, as I did on a flight earlier this week!). But for the time pressured, here’s what I think is the most interesting take-home.

Atheists in the USA are a pretty reviled group. Perhaps this social exclusion is a contributor to their unhappiness. However, Galen found that, on average, CFI members were as happy as the Church members and in fact probably somewhat above average happiness.

What makes Galen’s study interesting is the members of CFI, although mostly atheists, have a social group to give them a bit of positive affirmation and group luvin (if they want it!).Galen_2009_emotional_stabAnother key result is shown in the figure. The people with the high emotional stability are those at either extreme of the belief scale. The people with the problem are those in the middle. So it seems that, in this group at least, confident non-believers who have a like-minded peer group have similar emotional characteristics to the confident believers.

In other words, it’s not the belief or non-belief that counts, it’s personal conviction and social recognition that contributes to happiness.

Galen found a number of other interesting differences between the two groups. Compared with the Churchgoers, CFI members were:

  • More open to experience
  • Less agreeable (i.e. more independent minded, more likely to argue their case and less likely to accept another’s views).
  • Better educated
  • Less conscientious.

Now, what I wonder looking at all this is whether you’d get the same results in a country like the UK, where atheism is far more acceptable and religious attendance is considered to be somewhat socially abnormal. I’d be willing to bet that atheism is not strongly linked to agreeableness, for a start.

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