Religion and Happiness
People are always trying to find some reason why religion is good for you. A large pseudo-evolutionary group wants you to believe that religion increases the chances of a group’s survival. Another group wants you to believe that religion will make you happy. CP just ran an article based on a Pew survey: “People who attend church are happier than those who don’t.”
The message from CP, The Christian Post, is clear. Evangelicals got it right. As part of his blessing, God makes us happier than our secular foes. Pew is more reserved: “Religion’s Relationship to Happiness, Civic Engagement and Health Around the World.”
Their subhead is a bit more to the point: “In the U.S. and other countries, participation in a congregation is a key factor” to increased happiness.
Pew, like Gallup before him, was religious. While both of these organizations are technically competent, both also have an ax to grind, at least when it comes to religion. This helps shape both the design and analysis of their studies. At times, they downplay or even suppress “undesirable” material; they rarely ask questions that might prove embarrassing.
Here is a key chart from the current study:
CP suppresses undesirable results, while Pew ignores them. CP cites only the first row of the results – about 10% more church-goers claim to be ‘very happy’ than either ‘unaffiliated’/unchurched people or church members who attend church less than once a month. Assuming this is real, and not just due to data mining or artifacts, you get a 10% boost in those claiming to be very happy – whatever that may mean. (It almost certainly means different things to different people, but this is another matter.)
But if you look near the bottom of the chart, Pew displays results for two “civic” categories- (a) whether or not you belong to a non-religious group, and (b) whether or not you always vote in national elections. It turns out that in both cases, about 20% more civic-minded people claim to be very happy than their non-civic minded counterparts. This is about twice the boost you get from going to church.
In other words, joining a non-church group is about twice as likely to make you very happy as joining a church. Needless to say, Pew doesn’t mention this. CP completely suppresses these results.
I suspect that these happiness ratings are in large part driven by personality and demographic factors, and that many of the results shown are basically artifacts. But in any case, the results strongly contradict the conclusions that both CP and Pew draw from them.
The study design is also biased. I think there would be no benefits of church attendance if you look at key factors other than ‘happiness.’ If you look at the likelihood of winning a Nobel prize, or making an important discovery in any scientific field, or writing a great novel, winning a Pulitzer prize, getting an important patent, becoming a professional athlete or dancer or musician – in short, just about any significant area of accomplishment – I think it is highly unlikely attending church would help. In fact, I think it would often lower your chances of success.
Similarly, instead of simply looking at how frequently you park your butt in church, if you look at how knowledgeable people are about religion, I suspect you’d find that people who know a lot about religion are not especially happy. I am willing to bet that the ignorant folk who attend evangelical churches are happier, on average, than New Testament scholars.
These pious, pompous, self-righteous folk are always trying to show how good religion is for you. They’ve given up trying to argue for the truth of religious doctrines. They know that is a lost cause. Now they are trying to show that it makes you happy or improves group survival, etc. First, this is irrelevant for choosing among various religious groups, especially given the very vague criteria these advocates use to define religion. (Nazism, Bolshevism, Maoism, or Trumpism all qualify as religions under their definitions – not to mention cults like Jim Jones’ and others.) Second, even with the poor definitions and biased choice of measures like happiness, the results still fail to show special benefits for religion.
One thing is certain. Religion involves substantial costs in both time and money. Why don’t they try a cost-benefit analysis? They themselves claim that the dollar volume of U.S. religion is comparable to that of its technology sector (religion worth over $1 Trillion ). I suggest that religion constitutes a massive misallocation of resources.