By Vexen Crabtree 2014
Religious believers often say that their religion makes them happy and that this is one of the reasons for them remaining loyal to their religion2,3. Unfortunately, across the world, religious countries are unhappy. In other words, religious beliefs are more prevalent in unhappy countries. But do unhappy people become more religious, or, is it the case that if a country becomes too religious, it descends into a state of unhappiness? Put the other way around, if people become happy overall, do they forget about religion, or, if people abandon their religions, do they begin to become more happy? The answers are not easy to find, but, at least, we can see the happiness and religion are certainly negatively correlated on a country-by-country basis, and, within populations. This is made possibly worse by the fact that religious adherents are amongst two groups more likely to over-estimate their own happiness simply because they are institutionalized into repeating the story of 'how happy my religion makes me'4. Atheist countries, including Buddhist ones, are happiest3. And the non-religious are happier than religious folk.
There are important questions to be asked, and I attempt to answer each one below. Some questions are based on the assumption of a causal link between religion and happiness, whilst others are looking for the underlying cause of both unhappiness and religiosity if they are not linked. The questions:
Reading each of these, it is easy to imagine situations that support each and every one of these six cases. For example, religion is negatively linked to intelligence. Given the complexity of hard-to-define terms like "belief" and "religion", the chances are that all the factors mentioned so far play a part. Clearly, to obtain a clear view of causality is going to be very difficult indeed.
Some studies have found that people who attend religious services are happier than others who do not3. Sociological surveys into the causes of religion have found that there times when people are more susceptible to conversion to a religion. These are the 'hard times', where life is unsure, the future seems as troubled as the present, and the individual feels helpless. A portion of us humans find that in such times, religious conversion is more likely. I have already talked about statistical regression and religious conversion during hard times on What Causes Religion and Superstitions?:The regression fallacy occurs when people extract too much meaning from chance events under specific circumstances. Disease and fortune come and go: because of the law of regression when things are at their worst they are likely to simply get better on their own no matter what we do. But when things are bad, some will "try" all manner of superstitious, meaningless and misguided practices - including all kinds of alternative therapies. Social psychologist David Myers agrees: "when things reach a low point... whatever we try - going to a psychotherapist, starting a new diet-exercise plan, reading a self-help book - is more likely to be followed by improvement than by further deterioration"5. Because we rarely employ controls and statistical analysis in our personal lives, it seems that any attempted solution, from the zany to the insane, has actually worked. This is the cause of untold numbers of superstitions, magical practices, religious beliefs and pseudoscience, and can sometimes lead large numbers of people astray, especially when stories and anecdotes are published by the press.6,7,8,9
This is why many cults, religions and pseudo-therapeutic fads prey on the weak, depressed, down-and-outs and those who have recently experienced catastrophe. Such people are more likely to try new religions10.
The solution is to be more cognizant of Human thinking errors. Cause and effect must be analyzed statistically, carefully, and by (social) scientists who know how to discount confounding factors. Simply put: do not assume that some action or event causes a change in the frequency of another event without investigating it properly; no matter how much it goes against common-sense to deny the correlation, cognitive thinking errors such as the regression fallacy can easily lead us to false conclusions based on limited data.
It seems that this explains the statistical trend whereby national happiness is inversely proportional to the popularity of religion: unhappiness simply causes more people to be convinced by religious evidences and ideas of the hereafter.
Religious conversions are more likely during hard times and such affects will be greater during times of national turmoil. But consider the opposite: if a nation gradually becomes happier and happier, conversions will become rarer and rarer. If conversion is linked to the importance placed on religion, then, it seems that happy people place less importance on religion so, over time, national happiness will undermine religion. Therefore the correlation between unhappiness and religion is explained because as a country recovers from depression and becomes more peaceful, people lose interest in religion. So this is not the case of materialism suppressing religion.
Although there is a clear trend that the less religious a country is the happier it is (see the chart at the top of this page), there are partial exceptions. In Estonia only 16% of the populace say that religion is important to them, and only half of them believe in god(s). Yet, happiness is low for such a country, rating only 5.1 on the Overall Life Satisfaction as reported by the United Nations (UNHDR, 2011). This peculiarly low satisfaction with life may well be due to unique factors affecting only Estonia, but, it is still the case that Estonia is on the top half of the happiness scale despite having abandoned religion.
Moralistic religionists, normally the monotheistic type, would clearly like to claim that by giving up religion, people live a less moral, a less conscientious, and a more materialistic life, and, are therefore happier. However, a number of highly non-religious countries such as Sweden and Denmark are also the most crime-free and rate very well on other measures that indicate that their lack of religion is certainly not impacting negatively on morals. It seems that the care-free argument, that irreligious people are simple living more selfishly, is not true.
Aside from national statistics, individuals in religious countries who pursue a path of reason and skepticism are ordinarily more troubled than the unthinking hordes around them. There is a long series of philosophical books examining the association between deep thinkers and the lack of happiness born from materialistic and social sources. Immanuel Kant wrote that such deep thinkers "find that they have, in fact, only brought more trouble on their shoulders. Rather than gained in happiness; and they end by envying, rather than despising, the more common stamp of men"11. An incredible examination of such people was penned by Colin Wilson in "The Outsider".
All of this serves to tell us two things:
The individual pursuit of critical thinking and intellectualism, which results in the abandonment of religion, is not a cause of happiness.
A national embrace of irreligiosity is associated with social peace, stability, low crime rates, and an increase in average happiness.
The irony is that those on the front line of rational thought do not battle against religionists because they are pursuing happiness, however, the overall effect of their battles is an increase in happiness for everyone else. And during this battles, theologians often state that the non-religious are seeking happiness at the expense of morality. They could not have their facts more wrong!
National under-development, low national average intelligence and poor social stability are all correlated with high rates of religious belief. In other words - as a country gets richer, better educated and more stable, religion declines. The more well developed the country is the less religious it is. For our purposes here, we need to also consider education to be of note. Mass education is one of forces that works to undermine religious thinking. Social stability relies on the arms of government such as police, justice and infrastructure management to be in good functional order. Corruption, poverty and poor governance affect an entire countries health - including mental health.
Chart data footnote: 12
In countries with a per-capita GDP equal to or below $2,000, the average religiosity rate is 95%. For rich countries, with per-capita incomes higher than $25,000, the rate is half as much - 47%. A few countries do not fit this trend, but, there are clear historical reasons for this. All four lower-income countries with low religiosity rates (Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Vietnam) were all subject to long-lasting restrictions against religion13.
Dr Nigel Barber has analysed many of the same sets of statistics as I have, and his published works are somewhat more methodical than mine and show the same results. He writes that "the question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence" (2011).
Likewise, researchers Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have approached this from an evolutionary and a sociological stance and both argue that belief in God is correlated with the level of difficulty of life in general - that "in countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure"14. Sociologist of religion Professor Roderick Main writes that "where the technology and resources to mitigate major sufferings such as poverty and sickness exist, it is understandable that, for some, the appeal of religious consolations should diminish"15
The link is between development and our understanding of the world. In other words, the more mysterious and hard to control the world is, the more strongly religion suits people's demands16 for an ultimate victory over life. This future may take the form of a perfect afterlife (and maybe punishment for wrongdoers), or it may take the form of absolute dissolution where all the trials of life can be seen to have been steps towards annihilation - the former one being a typically "Western" solution adopted by Abrahamic religions whereas the latter is "Eastern" as adopted by Hinduism and Buddhism.
Chart data footnote: 1
It might not be the case that religiosity affects happiness. Wealth could be the true trend-setter; as countries get wealthier, they may get happier and at the same time lose their religions. This would mean there was no causation involved between irreligiosity and happiness. To find this out, I devised Chart 2 to show the happiness trends with the data set divided into development categories.
The UN Human Development Reports (UNHDR) categorize countries by their overall development level, taking into account a wide range of factors (wealth, education, crime rates, stability, etc). LDI is "Low Development Index" countries, "MDI" is Medium, HDI is "High" and VHDI is the Very Highly Developed Countries. There are the same number of countries in each category.
Chart 2 shows that although the overall trend exists, that happiness increases as religiosity falls, it is not a simple correlation and the trend varies by development level.
The developmental trend is clear: the more highly developed countries are happier and less religious. As in the case of Very Highly developed countries which has a flat line, it seems that once a certain level of education, wealth and stability is attained countries do not see their happiness change in accordance with the importance given to religion by the populace. In highly developed countries, happiness has nothing to do with religion.
The other three trendlines are somewhat unclear. Every trend from this data has a low R squared value, meaning, that the correlation is weak between religiosity and happiness, although, the overall trendline, which contains all the data points, is of higher accuracy.
Given the weak correlations and the flat line of the VHDI trend, it seems apparent that developmental factors such as wealth, stable food supplies, stable governance, low crime and good education, are all more important to happiness than religion, at least, at the average national level. There is scope for communities within nations to be more influenced by religion.
In the West, in Chart #2 above, there is no link between religiosity and happiness at the national level. But some communities within nation-states are more affected by religion than others. For example, psychologists have found that highly religious Protestants more from obsessive-compulsive disorders compared to others17.
But in general, it has not been possible to pursue this line of inquiry. There are not many countries that are becoming more religious, and therefore it is hard to gauge any effect on happiness. Of those countries where religion is increasing, many are ex-communist countries recovering from their periods of the repression of religion. It is easy to imagine that the road to democracy is littered with bumps and surprises, anxieties and reliefs, and this makes it very hard to distinguish between political, economic and religious effects on national happiness.
There is a prominent line of thought that in order to govern properly, you must go down the path that leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This is called the "greatest happiness principle"18. From small groups of friends to the setting of national policy, this rule of thumb seems the most natural guideline to follow. But there are serious problems, easily acknowledged when thinking about this as a method of governance. Spending freely makes people happy, but only for so long: the resultant economic crash will also make many people unhappy. Promising that God will soon come to rule the Earth may fill believers with zeal, but, after a few generations, the promise is a cause of embarrassment. The skeptical misanthrope Anton LaVey, with disdain for the poor quality short-term choices that people make in the name of happiness, states "a comfortable falsehood will always win out over an uncomfortable truth"19: But it is more to the truth to admit that all of us make some decisions in the name of short-term happiness, and some decisions in the name of strategy and wisdom, even if it means forgoing some immediate pleasure. Many people would admit the observations of psychologist William James and philosopher Immanuel Kant:
“What immediately feels most "good" is not always most "true".”
“Unfortunately, the notion of happiness is so indefinite that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he never can say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills. [...] We cannot therefore act on any definite principles to secure happiness.”
"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals" by Immanuel Kant (1785)21
The search for long-term policies that create the most amount of happiness is full of arbitrary lines: how much of a population's unhealthy habits do you tolerate in order to keep them happy in the short term? Is it right to demolish and undermine someone's belief system, by providing them with sound arguments and evidence against it, if it causes them unhappiness?
Ancient philosophers often engaged in these very debates just as modern ones do, and amongst both groups there is almost universal denial that happiness alone is an absolute good. Even one of the philosophers whom many would assume to be found declaring so, John Stuart Mill, actually argues against happiness being an absolute value. His philosophy of Utilitarianism contained a very well developed sense of morality and public good and is most well-known for arguing that "the multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue"22. He argues that people, and beings, that are capable grasping the "higher faculties" of thought react with horror at the thought of stepping down into a mode of life that was less enlightened, even if it would make them happier:
“Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. [...] If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering [...] than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.”
"Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill (1879)23
It is hard to deny the human truths which John Stuart Mill has brought out into the open. It is clear that some elements of self-identity - our core sense of ourselves as developed higher beings - are simply more important to us than happiness. So, we might bitterly cling to a religion that makes us unhappy and causes us conflict with our neighbours, or, we might sadly move on from a cherished religion because we have discovered its 'truths' to be untenable in the face of scientific evidence. We do not make such choices based on a cost-benefit analysis of our eventual happiness. We make these choices because we value truth more than happiness. Or, at least, many people value truth more than happiness. It is of course the case that many are simply content to be content (and to hell with the truth and other abstract problems!). John Stuart Mill, other enlightened folk and elitists might call them lesser humans, but the fact remains that they exist in enough numbers that it makes it difficult for statisticians to study the correlations between happiness and religion at the national level.
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