Does Religion Make People Dysfunctional? A Psychological Perspective

Does Religion Make People Dysfunctional? A Psychological Perspective March 29, 2010

I recently came across an article titled “Population Secularity and Individual Religiosity Predict Human Flourishing.” The purpose of this survey of studies, written by Dr. David Meyers of Hope College and published in the Spring 2010 edition of the official newsletter of the Journal of the Psychology of Religion, American Psychological Association Division 36, was to explore the fundamental claim of New Atheists that religion is innately problematic and whether such claims were reflected in psychological findings and confirmed by survey data. His question:

“Is religion ‘dangerous’ and associated with dysfunctionality, misery, and bigotry (as the new atheists have argued) or is it associated with health, joy, and altruism? [Of course,] in various times and places it has been associated with both; religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms. But on balance, is religious engagement more strongly associated with human degradation or human flourishing?”

In his survey, Dr. Meyers encountered two “striking and paradoxical” findings: that “religiosity is negatively correlated with well-being across populations, and positively correlated across individuals.”

One survey he references is a recent Gallup poll from a first-ever-in-history survey that is supposed to be representative of the entire world’s population. This survey polled around 350,000 people in 152 countries and found that nations where the majority of individuals indicate that religion isn’t an important part of their day-to-day life and places where the majority haven’t attended a religious service in the last week report higher quality of life.

This is localized within the United States as well. Dr. Meyers highlights: “The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen birth, and smoking rates. So, by some measures, it again looks like the least religious places are the healthiest and most civil.”

So far, this data seems to bolster the New Atheists position, right? Well, not so fast. Before we secularists get all “I told you so” up in here, there are other nuances to consider.

Making the case that there is more to consider in this analysis – essentially, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation – Dr. Meyers continues:

“States and countries vary in many ways, including not only religiosity but also literacy and education, culture and ethnicity, and income and financial security. [Psychologist] Ed Diener, who has noticed the same negative religiosity-well-being correlation across populations, tells me it disappears when controlling for income. The Princeton economist Angus Deaton is also mining the Gallup data, and similarly finds that the cross-country correlation essentially vanishes when controlling for education. Moreover, the great irony is that the correlation reverses when computed across individuals. Religiously engaged individuals tend to be… healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

This is in line with other studies that suggest a correlation between healthy behavior and religious belief. But what about attitudes and mental health?

To contextualize that question in less words: are you non-religious and unhappy? You’re not alone. Quoting the aforementioned Diener, Dr. Meyers highlights the common finding in studies on religiosity and happiness that “religious people have higher life satisfaction in most every nation.” Dr. Meyes cites the National Opinion Research Center’s surveys of 47,909 Americans to confirm this claim. He also adds that “the most religiously engaged Americans have been half as likely as never-attenders to be divorced and about one-fourth as likely to smoke or [have] been arrested (despite highly religious states [having] substantially higher divorce, smoking, and arrest rates).”

Ultimately he concludes, like many such reports do, that more research into the matter is required. While he says that these studies “do not validate religion” in and of themselves, he posits that they “challenge the anecdote-fueled new atheist argument that religion is an overriding force for evil,” and references Bruce Sheiman’s book, An Atheist Defends Religion (who I was lucky enough to interview for this blog a few months back).

For me this study, in spite of some obvious limitations, raises a lot of questions. I totally buy that religion makes a lot of people happier – but why? What is it about religious beliefs that bring people increased satisfaction? Is it the sense of security found in community and in establishing a systematic, structured set of ethics? Because, if so, those are activities that secular folks absolutely can engage in – if only we will.

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