Are Religious People Happier? Scientists Search to Explain Why People Believe in Gods

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March 20, 2008

Are Religious People Happier? Scientists Search to Explain Why People Believe in Gods

Shutterstock_3010157 Researchers accidentally discovered that people with religious beliefs tend to be more content in life while studying an unrelated topic. While not the original objective, the recent European study found that religious people are better able to cope with shocks such as losing a loved one or getting laid off of a job.

Professor Andrew Clark, from the Paris School of Economics, and co-author Dr Orsolya Lelkes, from the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research, analyzed the a variety of factors among Catholic and Protestant Christians and found that life satisfaction seems to be higher among the religious population. The authors concluded that religion in general, might act as a "buffer" that protects people from life's disappointments.

"We originally started the research to work out why some European countries had more generous unemployment benefits than others, but our analysis suggested that religious people suffered less psychological harm from unemployment than the non-religious,” noted Professor Clark. "They had higher levels of life satisfaction".

Data from thousands of European households revealed higher levels of "life satisfaction" in believers. Professor Clark suspects that a variety of aspects are at play, and that perhaps a “religious upbringing” could be responsible for the effect, rather than any particular religious beliefs.

The researchers say they found that the religious crowd tended to experience more “current day rewards”, rather than storing them up for the future. Previous studies have also found strong correlations between religion and happiness. The idea that religion may offer substantial psychological benefits in life, is in sharp contrast with another common viewpoint that religion is repressive and has a negative influence on human development.

Professor Leslie Francis, from the University of Warwick believes that the benefit might involve the increased "purpose of life" experienced by many believers that may not be as strongly felt among nonbelievers.

"These findings are consistent with other studies which suggest that religion does have a positive effect, although there are other views which say that religion can lead to self-doubt, and failure, and thereby have a negative effect,” said Francis. "The belief that religion damages people is still in the minds of many."

Terry Sanderson, a leading UK secularist, gay rights activist and president of the National Secular Society, said that any study describing a link between happiness and religion is "meaningless".

"Non-believers can't just turn on a faith in order to be happy. If you find religious claims incredible, then you won't believe them, whatever the supposed rewards in terms of personal fulfillment,” he said. "Happiness is an elusive concept, anyway - I find listening to classical music blissful and watching football repulsive. Other people feel exactly the opposite. In the end, it comes down to the individual and, to an extent, their genetic predispositions."

While no one would argue that genetics don’t influence one’s disposition, Justin Thacker, head of Theology for the Evangelical Alliance, says that there are definitely other factors worth considering. He says a belief in God increases one’s feeling that life is meaningful.

"There is more than one reason for this - part of it will be the sense of community and the relationships fostered, but that doesn't account for all of it. A large part of it is due to the meaning, purpose and value which believing in God gives you, whereas not believing in God can leave you without those things."

Previous studies have concluded that humans are biologically predisposed to believe in God. Historically, most cultures have developed some sort of religious belief that included at least some form of a “higher power”. From an evolutionary and psychological perspective, these questions have intrigued scientists for decades, but the physiological and cognitive study of religion is still relatively young.

Both believers and non-believers can agree on the scientific findings, and still interpret it quite differently notes Ian Ramsey Centre for science and religion in the University of Oxford researchers who are currently working on a project to better understand the cognitive science of religion.

“One element of the current project is to develop philosophical and theological treatments of what the findings from cognitive science of religion means for various theological positions,” states the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project outline. “

“One element of the project is scientifically explaining not just belief in gods but why some people become atheists. If scientists can explain why people tend to believe in gods and also why other people tend to believe there are no gods, then surely the presence of a scientific explanation cannot mean that you should not believe one way or the other just on the presence or possibility of such an explanation.

Non-believers might find satisfaction in a sound scientific explanation of why people tend to believe in God because they can now account for why people persist in believing in a fictitious being. The believer might find satisfaction in the scientific documentation of how human nature predisposes people to believe in God because it could reinforce the idea that people were divinely designed to know and believe in God. Both believers and non-believers can agree on the scientific findings.”

Posted by Rebecca Sato.

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Neurotheology -Is God Hardwired in the Human Brain

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This study doesn't seem that comprehensive. I've heard arguments before that religion is just a " device " to keep people ignorant & happy.

It's probably a subjective thing - some people involved in organized religion feel happy while some are just as unhappy as their counterparts who don't have any particular religious belief or practice.

Perhaps it has something to do with working within one's community, & reaching out to others who don't share their beliefs - Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Bahai, Hindu, Buddhist or otherwise - to improve society & their part of the world. Such a positive feeling can promote happiness & health in a way that merely sitting in a pew & singing a hymn or chanting, otherwise going through the motions can't.

First of all let's explain precisely what atheism is, it's not a belief system, it's simply the lack of belief in a god or gods. You are born an atheist because you don't yet believe in a god. Somewhere along the line in life you may, for whatever reason, decide to believe in a particular religion or superstition. Then you have theistic beliefs. You may, further long in life, lose your faith (or become deprogrammed) and become an atheist. As an atheist myself I find the delusion of religion interesting. But I'd like to posit that someone who doesn't believe that there is life after death and a reward in said afterlife for good deeds done in the real world cherishes and respects life far more knowing this is the only life we have. And from this knowledge stems the real roots of morality. Not because I get a reward later.
But that's all there is to that. Now I read the article but holy smokes!! (no pun intended) what's with that second last paragraph???

And to address the article title... religion is much like Valium, it takes the edge off of Reality, and if that's what some people need, so be it. There are probably a fairly even split of happy persons between the two camps. I would imagine though that trying to cope with Reality and it's biggest questions using faith alone must be pretty frustrating.

I'm sorry, but this article is utter bilge and piffle, as is the study that it reports. I see people self-reporting as happy, I do not see any objective measurement of the same. I do not see any mechanism employed to weed out the truly happy from those who are simply delusional about their current situation. I do not see any mechanism to eliminate differences in social assistance programs in Europe and those elsewhere. After all, if you have a welfare system to fall back on in times of economic hardship, unemployment may not be as nearly a cause of distress as in places that have more limited safety nets.

I do not see any control groups or double-blind assessments or actual psychological experiments taking place; I see a study that draws a sweeping conclusion from a limited data set. Furthermore, even if it is true that religious people are happier than their non-religious counterparts, does that make the religious people right? If so, which ones? And about what?

The self-satisfied smugness of the religiously-liberal/moderate is both arrogant and unjustified. If you want to understand why non-religious people seem to be unhappy, at least here in the U.S., try studying the uncritical acceptance of and deference granted to religious claims by the media and our politicians.

Intelligence and wisdom are fleeting; dumb, it seems, lasts forever.


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