Social science research has provided ample evidence that religious people report higher levels of happiness than non-religious people (see studies here and here for example). For the most part these findings are quite consistent and undisputed. The real issue is in understanding why this is so, in trying to untangle the link between religion and happiness. Nigel Barber, a well-known advocate of atheism, argues here that the data implies that religious people are happier only when they are in the majority and that there is a correlation between poverty and religion, so that poorer people are miserable and religion comforts them. Barber argues:
However the relationship may be the reverse: people are poorer and have a lower quality of life because material things are less important to them than religion. Such an unmaterialistic point of view seems beyond Barber's grasp, but this is certainly the case, for example, among ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel.In the grand scheme of global differences, religious people are actually quite miserable. Yet, thanks to religious beliefs and practices they are less miserable than they would otherwise be.
Another explanation, given here by Emily Sohn, is that the link between religiosity and happiness is mediated by social connectedness. In other words, going to a place of worship and praying together, making friends, and being part of a community is what makes people happy. Yet, religious people who have a high rate of connectedness are still happier than comparable atheists:
The researchers also found that if you compare two people with the same number of close friends in life -- both inside the church and out -- those with stronger relationships in church report being happier. In other words, people get more satisfaction out of their church friendships than they do out of other friendships in their lives.
Some claim that religion gives more meaning to life. Pastor James Ramsey says that:
However, as professor of sociology Scott Schieman points out in the same article, attributing happiness to belief in God"There is power there that gives meaning to life, and it also helps people as they get older with their self-identity and aging," Ramsey adds. "It makes you feel like you are part of an ongoing relationship that is bigger than yourself." In her research, she adds, being in a religious organization was not more beneficial in this regard than being spiritual but not active in an organized religion.
The idea that belief in God can be related to happiness is of course ridiculed by atheists, such as the aforementioned Barber, or Terry Sanderson, a leading UK secularist, gay rights activist, and president of the National Secular Society, who has concluded, a priori, that any study describing a link between happiness and religion is "meaningless". In the same vein, LiveScience happily titles its report Why Religion Makes People Happier (Hint: Not God) and immediately informs its readers that:is much harder. "You have to break it down into components and look at religious activities and religious beliefs," he explains, "and you have to look at them during times of stress. Is it the activity? If so, which kind of activity? Is it the belief? If so, is it [a belief in] life after death" or some other belief?
One can hear the sigh of relief floating through the ether.Religious people are more satisfied with their lives than nonbelievers, but a new study finds it's not a relationship with God that makes the devout happy. Instead, the satisfaction boost may come from closer ties to earthly neighbors.
As I was writing this post, I also came across this study (HT +Michael Lederman) Atheists Become Emotionally Aroused When Daring God to Do Terrible Things, which shows that although atheists say they don't believe in god, they are still scared of Him:
Yes, the sample size is very small and this proves nothing conclusively, but it's still hilarious.We examined whether atheists exhibit evidence of emotional arousal when they dare God to cause harm to themselves and their intimates. In Study 1, the participants (16 atheists, 13 religious individuals) read aloud 36 statements of three different types: God, offensive, and neutral. In Study 2 (N = 19 atheists), 10 new stimulus statements were included in which atheists wished for negative events to occur. The atheists did not think the God statements were as unpleasant as the religious participants did in their verbal reports. However, the skin conductance level showed that asking God to do awful things was equally stressful to atheists as it was to religious people and that atheists were more affected by God statements than by wish or offensive statements. The results imply that atheists' attitudes toward God are ambivalent in that their explicit beliefs conflict with their affective response.
Anyway, religion makes people happier and this happiness is linked to social connectedness, though not entirely. Religious people in many cases are poorer and enjoy a lower level of living than atheists, yet they are still happier. Is it just a shield for the ignorant and miserable, a mere "opiate of the masses", as Marx famously put it? What if it's a choice: to forgo material wealth for something else? What is that "something else" and why does it scare atheists, who say they don't believe in a make-believe god?
One more thing: how is it that religion, after being declared dead and buried throughout the 19th and 20th century (by Weber, Marx, Voltaire, Freud, and Nietzsche among many others) just doesn't seem to go away, not in the United States or in other parts of the world? In an article titled God Still Isn't Dead, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out that:
What can explain the amazing persistence of this "fairy tale"? Perhaps it is more than just a fairy tale? Jung certainly thought so and I agree with him.In 1880, Robert Ingersoll, the leading atheist of his day, claimed that "the churches are dying out all over the land." In its Easter issue in 1966, Time asked "Is God Dead?" on its cover. East Coast intellectuals have repeatedly assumed that the European model of progress, where modernity equals secularization, would come to the U.S. They have always been wrong.