If religion makes you happy, why are people turning away from it?

If religion makes you happy, why are people turning away from it? August 20, 2011

Every now and then a study comes along that cuts with laser-like precision into one or two of the murky questions that haunt the sociology of religion. Just such a study has recently been done by Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and colleagues (earlier this year Diener published another great study on happiness and inequality in the USA).

What Diener et al wanted to know is simply this: why, if religion is supposed to make you happy, are people in the West leaving it in droves? It’s a simple and important question, but it’s one that’s actually really tough to answer – which is why no-one’s tried before. They cram an awful lot into this one paper, so I’m only going to give the headline results. They’re quite fascinating enough.

They began by confirming that people in difficult social circumstances are indeed more likely to be religious. They showed this was the case by looking at states in the USA, and also by using the massive Gallup World Poll of over 455,000 people. Although similar things have been shown before, their approach was pretty nice because they included things like whether people feel safe at night, or whether they get enough to eat, as well as more standard things like education, income and life expectancy.

So their next question was: what matters most? Is it your own personal circumstances that dictate how religious you are, or is it simply living in a society where a lot of people are doing badly – even if you personally are doing OK?

Again, they found pretty much the same things in both US States and among nations. Although your own personal circumstances do affect your beliefs a little, what’s far more important is the society you live in. In difficult societies everyone – rich and poor alike – are more religious. That’s reminiscent of a study I blogged a couple of weeks ago, showing that the inequality actually increases the religiosity of the rich.

But does religion actually make people happier? Well, on average it does. After controlling for circumstances, religious people have better ‘well-being’ (covering positive and negative feelings, and overall life evaluation). But dig a little, and the picture is more complicated.

Because it turns out that religion only improves well-being in tough societies – places like Mississippi or Alabama in the USA,or Egypt and Bangladesh in a global scale.

You can get a feel for this in the figure below. Take the panel on the left. This shows how people rated their positive emotions. The two bars furthest left shows how religious (blue) and non-religious (green) rated their positive emotions in the best 25% of nations – places like Sweden, Japan and France. You can see that religion has no effect in these well-off nations. The next pair of columns show the result for the bottom 25% of nations. Here you can see that the religious have more positive emotions.

Looking at negative emotions, you can see that in the best nations, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious! In worse nations, the non-religious have more negative emotions.

It also matters whether you live in a religious country. In highly religious countries, the non-religious tend to be unhappy. But in least religious countries, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious!

Diener and co. also went on to examine why people in poor societies benefit from religion. Using a sophisticated model that took into account both their personal and societal circumstances, they were able to show that these people felt they had more social support and more respect.

In good societies, there was no advantage to being religious – both religious and non-religious reported feeling respected and having high levels of social support, and as a result both had high levels of happiness and well-being.

They also showed that all religions seemed to be pretty much alike. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all had a similar relationship with happiness and well being – suggesting that religion, at least in this respect, is a true universal.

So, to sum all this up.  Religion doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. In countries where there are relatively few religious people, and in which living conditions are generally good, religion doesn’t improve well being and religious people may actually be less happy.

And what makes people religious is not their direct experience, but rather the society that they live in. As a result, societies tend to be relatively homogeneous when it comes to religion. Some societies (and these tend to be the tough ones) are religious, and if you’re not religious then you will be unhappy.

Some societies (and these tend to be the better places to live) are not religious, and there is no happiness advantage to being religious. As a result, people don’t bother with it.

And this I think really puts a great perspective on this old question. Now the next question is: what does this all mean for those theorists who like to tell us that religion is innate to the human condition?

Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0024402

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Browse Our Archives