Moderate believers might benefit from less, not more religion

Moderate believers might benefit from less, not more religion December 10, 2011

I always enjoy analyses of religion done by people whose main research focus lies in other fields. They tend to have quite a refreshing take.

So here’s a study written by three outsiders. You probably already know Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational (and if you don’t, well then get out and read the book this moment!). The lead is Daniel Mochon, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, and the other is Michael Norton, an Associate Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School.

So, three specialists in marketing, who have set out to discover who, exactly benefits from religion. To do this, they used an online survey company to gather responses from over 6,000 people across the UK. Their basic aim was to relate two different measures of religion: affiliation (i.e. whether they said that they were a Christian, or a Methodist, or a Wiccan etc) and religiosity (i.e. how religious they are, on a scale from 1-7).

They measured well-being by asking a bunch of questions related to life satisfaction, hopelessness, depression, self esteem, how they felt right now and in general, and how satisfied they were with their spiritual and religious life.

The graphic shows the headline results. The well-being of religious adherents follows a clear U-shape, with the least happy being those people with moderate faith.

The straight lines show the well-being of people who didn’t declare a religious faith – those who said they were atheists were the happiest, agnostics were less happy, and those who were just ‘none’ were the least happy of all.

In addition to this plot, they also ran a bunch of simple models to explore all the different factors and to put the results on firmer statistical grounds. But these models basically confirmed the picture that’s so eloquently depicted in the graph.

So the only religious adherents who are really happy are those who are very religious. Those who are only moderately fervent could benefit by ramping up their faith – but they could also benefit by toning it down still further.

If this sounds familiar, well you’re right. There’s already evidence that those who are firm non-believers are actually quite happy, thank you very much (see The Happiness Smile). But these new data are the strongest so far.

I’ll leave the last words to the study authors:

Were we to place our own children in the distribution of religiosity, the option with the highest expected well-being would entail enrolling them and encouraging them to believe strongly; were we not certain that our children would attain sufficient levels of belief, however, we might prefer them to remain unaffiliated.

Indeed, the non-linear relation between religiosity and well-being suggests that many moderate believers would benefit from reducing their level of religiosity rather than increasing it.
Mochon, D., Norton, M., & Ariely, D. (2010). Who Benefits from Religion? Social Indicators Research, 101 (1), 1-15 DOI: 10.1007/s11205-010-9637-0

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

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