Skepticism about Religion – Part 3: More Caveats and Qualifications

Skepticism about Religion – Part 3: More Caveats and Qualifications September 20, 2018


II. There are good reasons to be SKEPTICAL about religion and religious beliefs.

A. Religion is NOT the key to Happiness and Virtue.

1. Religion is NOT the key to Happiness.

2. Religion is NOT the key to Virtue.




5. When a study does find a positive correlation between religion and happiness, it is usually a weak correlation.

Various reviews of empirical studies on the relationship between religion and happiness have concluded that the correlation of religion to happiness is a WEAK one:

 … In 1985, researchers analyzed 56 different effects to determine whether being religious is associated with greater well-being in adults. They found that endorsing a religion, led to a correlation of .16 with well-being. If you focused on religious activity, or how often someone prayed, attended a church/synagogue/mosque, or read scriptures, the correlation with happiness was nearly identical at .18. If you focused on the feeling of satisfaction derived from being religious or connected with a higher power, the correlation with happiness was only .13.
People who are physically attractive are intelligent—at a correlation of .14 (the same magnitude as the link between religion and happiness).
… the correlation between being religious and being happy is unimpressive. And in case you think I am cherry picking the data, a 2003 meta-analysis of 34 studies of religiosity and well-being, led to the same conclusion. Overall, the correlation between being a religious person and … high life satisfaction was only .12, and feeling that one reached self-actualization was only .24.  And using a 2011 study of 353,845 individuals from 50 states and the District of Columbia conducted by The Gallup Organization, researchers found that believing that religion was an important part of your life correlated a mere .06 with life satisfaction, … and .06 with positive feelings in daily life.  Again, unimpressive. 
(“Does Being Religious Make us Happy?” by Todd B. Kashdan Ph.D., Psychology Today. Emphasis added.)

The correlation between religion and happiness thus appears to be a weak correlation, measuring somewhere between .06 and .18.  As pointed out above that is about the same as the correlation between being physically attractive and being intelligent (correlation = .14).  Obviously, there is only a weak correlation between being physically attractive and being intelligent. There are plenty of physically attractive people who are not very intelligent, and there are plenty of people who are not physically attractive who are very intelligent.

Correlations that are less than .2 are generally considered to be weak, at least in relation to subjective phenomena like happiness and religiosity:

There is no rule for determining what size of correlation is considered strong, moderate or weak. The interpretation of the coefficient depends, in part, on the topic of study. When we are studying things that are difficult to measure, such as the contents of someone’s mental life, we should expect the correlation coefficients to be lower.

In these kinds of studies, we rarely see correlations above 0.6. For this kind of data, we generally consider correlations above 0.4 to be relatively strong; correlations between 0.2 and 0.4 are moderate, and those below 0.2 are considered weak.  (“An Introduction to Data Analysis & Presentation” by Prof. Timothy Shortell, Sociology, Brooklyn College. Emphasis added.)

A recent study of religion and happiness in Britain provides support for the view that “Religion Can Make You Happier”, as claimed in the title of a news article from The Telegraph:

According to figures published as part of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) “well-being” research programme people, people who say they have no religious affiliation report lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction and self-worth than those who do.
(“Religion Can Make You Happier, Official Figures Suggest” By John Bingham, Religious Affairs Editor, The Telegraph)

However, the same article points out that an expert on the sociology of religion concluded that the role of religion in relation to happiness is a minor one, based on the recent study in Britain:

Prof Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, one of the UK’s leading experts on sociology of religion, said the figures suggest that if faith is a factor in happiness it is only a small factor.

“You might say if it is the ‘opium of the people’ they need to up the dose,” she said.
(“Religion Can Make You Happier, Official Figures Suggest Emphasis added.)

The study does show that average happiness scores are lower for non-religious people than for various groups of religious people.  Here is a graph that summarizes the differences in average happiness scores:










If we take a closer look at the data from the recent British study, it becomes clear that religion, at best, plays only a minor role in relation to happiness. Happiness is rated on a scale from 0 to 10, so a more accurate graph, one that provides a view of the full range of possible happiness scores, looks like this:










Clearly, the differences in average happiness scores is SMALL.  No group has an average happiness score below 7.2 and no group has an average happiness score above 7.6.  All of the group average scores fell into that small range of four tenths of one point on a ten-point scale.

If non-religious people had an average happiness score of 4.7 and Christians had an average happiness score of 8.2. then that would be impressive, but the difference between average non-religious happiness scores and average Christian happiness scores is NOT a few points, but is only about two-tenths of a point.

This is about the same as the difference between average Jewish happiness and average Hindu happiness.  So, if two-tenths of a point is of great significance (it is not), then Muslims and Jews should seriously consider leaving their faith and becoming Hindus in order to gain greater happiness.  I don’t think any reasonable Muslim or Jew would give serious consideration to converting to Hinduism just because Hindus have an average happiness score that is two-tenths of a point higher than their religious group.  No reasonable Christian would seriously consider converting to Hinduism on the grounds that Hindus have an average happiness score that is one-tenth of a point higher than Christians.

Such small differences in average happiness scores are of little significance.  What is more significant is that all groups have such similar average happiness scores, that the range of differences in average happiness scores is less than half of one point.  This data actually shows that religion is relatively insignificant in relationship to happiness.  This data clearly shows us that religion is NOT the key to happiness; one’s religion or lack of religion is of little significance in terms of the level of happiness one will obtain.

6. There are a number of other factors that have a significantly stronger positive correlation with happiness.

,  a Research Associate in the Social Policy and Social Work Department at the University of York, points out that there are many different factors that influence how happy a person is likely to be:

Previous research suggests the “happy person” is young, healthy, well-educated, well-paid, optimistic and extroverted. The same research found the happiest people tend to be religious, married, with high self-esteem and job morale and modest aspirations. It seems your gender and level of intelligence don’t necessarily come into it.


Our study looks at a large number of different religious groups across 100 countries – from 1981 to 2014 – using data from the World Value Survey.


In our research, we found that many factors were positively associated with happiness and life satisfaction. These included being Protestant, female, married and younger (16 to 24 years old). The household’s financial situation also came into it, as did a person’s state of health and freedom of choice.

We discovered that national pride and trust were important in terms of happiness rankings, as was having friends, family and leisure time. Attending weekly religious practice was also discovered to be an important factor. On the other hand, being unemployed and on a low income was negatively associated with happiness and life satisfaction.

A closer look at the magnitude of the association between these factors and happiness and life satisfaction revealed that health, financial stability and freedom of choice, or control over one’s life were the most important factors.

(“Are religious people happier than non-religious people?The Conversation. Emphasis added.)

After looking at a variety of different factors, this broad international study concluded that the most important factors related to happiness are:

  • health
  • financial stability
  • freedom of choice or control over one’s life

The journal article presenting this study states that most of the factors that were examined had a small effect size on happiness and life satisfaction:

The most significant factors driving happiness and life satisfaction include state of health, household’s financial satisfaction, income ranking position, unemployment, freedom of choice, national pride, trust, importance of friends, family, leisure, being a female and weekly religious attendance (see Table 2). Nevertheless, when the Cohen’s rules of thumb (Cohen 1992; Wright 1992) was applied, most factors seem to have ‘‘small’’ effect size (r ≤ 0.10). Thus, the most significant factors driving happiness and life satisfaction were state of health, household’s financial satisfaction and freedom of choice.

(“Are Happiness and Life Satisfaction Different Across Religious groups? Exploring Determinants of Happiness and Life Satisfaction.” / Ngamaba, Kayonda Hubert; Soni, Debbie. In: Journal of Religion and Health, 07.08.2017, p. 1-22. Emphasis added.)

Only THREE of the many different potential factors related to happiness that were examined in this study had a positive correlation that was greater than .10.  NONE of the factors relating to religious belief or religious activity had a positive correlation greater than .10.

There were several other factors besides religion that also had a small positive correlation with happiness (e.g. income ranking position, national pride, trust, importance of friends, family, leisure, being a female).  Furthermore, the religious factor that did show a small correlation with happiness was weekly religious attendance, and we have previously noted that regular attendance at religious services effects happiness primarily because of the social aspect of religion: involvement in religious services provides opportunities for making and maintaining friendships with other people who attend the same religious services:

“To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons that makes people happier,” Lim [sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin–Madison] told TIME, “but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there.” 
(“Does Spirituality Make You Happy?”

Clearly, it is NOT the case that “Religion is the key to happiness”, based on the results of this broad study that examined data from 100 different countries.

7. The correlation between religion and happiness appears to be bi-modal: religious people tend towards both greater happiness and also greater unhappiness compared to non-religious people.

We have seen so far that religion fails to correlate with happiness in several countries, that when religion does correlate with happiness the degree of correlation is usually small, that there are non-religious factors that are more important in relation to happiness, and that one of the most significant religious factors (i.e. regular attendance at religious services) effects happiness primarily because of the social aspect of religion.

One final issue with religion in terms of its correlation with happiness is that it also correlates with unhappiness, at least according to one recent study of data from 79 different countries:

This paper investigates the relationship between religiosity and life satisfaction in 79 nations using World Values Survey data. Extant literature analyzes religiosity and life satisfaction at person level. But religiosity is an attribute of both, persons and societies. To solve methodological problems evident in previous work a random coefficient multilevel model is employed to account for the fact that individuals are nested within countries. This study shows that the relationship between religiosity and life satisfaction is bimodal. Religious people tend to be either very satisfied or dissatisfied with life. 

(“Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations” by  ,  Mental Health, Religion & Culture , Volume 13, 2010 – Issue 2. Quote from Abstract. Emphasis added.)

So, the claim that “Religion is the key to happiness” is mistaken not only because religion has only a weak correlation with happiness, but because it also correlates with unhappiness!  In other words, even if becoming religious brings with it a small increase in the likelihood of becoming happier, it also appears to bring with it a small increase in the likelihood of becoming unhappier.  The small increase in the likelihood of becoming unhappier tends to counterbalance the advantage of the small increase in the likelihood of becoming happier.  Not only is the advantage of religion in relation to happiness relatively insignificant, but it also comes with a small disadvantage in relation to happiness.
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