It’s often suggested that religion benefits people by bringing them together and helping to create and bind communities. Since most humans are highly social, having a mechanism to strengthen social groups could be expected to have psychological and even health benefits.
Indeed, this has often been shown to be the case. People who go to church more often seem to be happier on average, and any health benefits of religion are related to church going, rather than religious beliefs.
Now, there are complex cause and effect problems here – perhaps it’s simply that people go to church are happier and healthier to start with. These issues are hard to untangle.
However, given the controversy over Alain de Botton’s proposals in his recent book (that atheists should form secular ‘Churches’, to provide that social service provided currently by religion), it’s worth taking a look at whether secular alternatives to religion actually have any measurable impact on happiness.
The most obvious secular parallel to religion is organised sport – and in particular membership of clubs that support particular teams.
Gaelle Encrenaz, at the Universitié Victor Segalen in Bordeaux, France, and colleagues have looked at the suicide rate in France during the Football World Cup of 1998. In that competition, which was held in France, the French team came through against the odds to win an unexpected victory.
They found that the suicide rate decreased significantly as the world cup progressed. In fact, the day after the French team played a match, the suicide rate dropped by 20%.
Encrenaz explains this by the increased social integration that the matches brought about:
… the level of social integration considerably rose during the 1998 World Cup in France. People spent more time with friends and others watching matches at home, in bars, or in front of giant television screens. Each French winning game was followed by gathering on the streets to celebrate
… Moreover, a rise in solidarity among French people from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds was observed. The concept “black-blanc-beur” (Black-White-Maghrebi) was created on the pattern of the national colors to describe the multi-ethnicity of the team and the nation’s unity in diversity
… Watching games might increase a sense of belonging, allow for release of tension, and induce positive mood …
These results back up findings from elsewhere in the world: the incidence of suicide in the United States is lower on Super Bowl Sundays compared with other Sundays (Joiner et al., 2006), suicide rates among young, single males in Canada is higher after the early elimination of the local hockey team from the Stanley Cup (Trovato, 1998).
Singing as a group also seems to provide a happiness boost. Stephen Clift and Paul Camic (Canterbury Christ Church University, UK) and colleagues surveyed 1,124 people in Australia, England and Germany, all of whom took part in choral singing groups.
They found that people who took part in the singing felt that it gave them social benefits, emotional benefits, and also added meaning and purpose to their lives. These benefits were widely reported, irrespective of nationality, sex, age or mental well-being. A previous study has shown that the simple act of singing as a group can increase group cohesion.
What these studies demonstrate, albeit in a provisional way, is that secular group activities seem to have tangible effects on mental well being. Is that an argument for secular churches? I don’t know, but I think it certainly boosts the case for atheists and humanists to actively promote the kind of open-admission, group activities that churches currently provide.
Livesey, L., Morrison, I., Clift, S., &; Camic, P. (2012). Benefits of choral singing for social and mental wellbeing: qualitative findings from a cross-national survey of choir members Journal of Public Mental Health, 11 (1), 10-26 DOI: 10.1108/17465721211207275
Encrenaz, G., Contrand, B., Leffondré, K., Queinec, R., Aouba, A., Jougla, E., Miras, A., & Lagarde, E. (2012). Impact of the 1998 Football World Cup on Suicide Rates in France: Results from the National Death Registry Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 42 (2), 129-135 DOI: 10.1111/j.1943-278X.2011.00076.x