Monday, March 19, 2012

Myth Busted: Religious People are Not Happier

Are religious people happier than atheists? It turns out that this statistic, while strictly true in America, is quite misleading. The deeper truth is far more interesting ... and it's a perfect case study in meme theory.

Tom Rees over at Epiphenom posted a fascinating new bit of data that just calls out for an explanation:
"Much is made of the apparent fact that religious people are happier and better adjusted than the non-religious. However, as regular readers of this blog will know, this is to a large extent an illusion. ... [If you dig deeper] you'll find that religion is only linked to happiness in countries where a lot of people are religious.

... Although non-religious people feel uncomfortable in religious countries, religious people have no problems living in non-religious countries.
In other words, religious societies reject and shun atheists, so naturally non-religious people are unhappy in these societies. But Dr. Rees makes an even deeper point: secular societies make religious people feel welcome, so there is no converse effect. In secular societies, everyone is equally happy.

The conclusion is inescapable: atheists and agnostics are unhappy in religious countries because of the religious people, whereas religious people do well in secular countries because they're made welcome. You can be an evangelical Christian in Sweden or Denmark, but it's hard to be an atheist in Turkey, Iran or even America.

It's very satisfying to deflate this myth. Religious bloggers and ministers love to crow about the fact that atheists and agnostics are unhappier than "the faithful." Now we can turn and point to them as the cause.

But while this solves one mystery, it presents us with a challenge: why is religion so hostile to atheism? A cultural factor like this that spans so many countries and cultures begs for a deeper analysis.

It's easy to find some superficial reasons for the hostility that atheists and agnostics feel. Maybe Christians aren't "hostile" but rather are doing atheists a favor by saving their souls from eternal damnation. Or maybe atheists are unhappy because humans naturally yearn for God's love, and the atheists won't accept that love. Or maybe atheists actually know God exists, and their unhappiness comes from the stress of having to deny the truth (I've been accused of this by readers).

I think we can dismiss these reasons out of hand. They're false and insulting.

The real reason for religion's anti-atheist hostility is because it's good for religion. Religions that foster hatred and hostility toward atheists are, simply put, better than religions that don't. And we use "better" here in the Darwinian sense.

One of the most fascinating facts about biology is that 99.99% of all species that ever existed are extinct today. If we merely look at the successes (for example, homo sapiens) without considering the failures (such as neanderthals), we're not being very good scientists. It's competition and death that drive evolution forward. In order for the more fit species to survive, the less fit species has to die. And in order to understand the survivors, we have to study the failures.

The same thing applies to the evolution of religions. We have to look at the ones that died along with the ones we know today. In the cultural-evolution or "memetic" way of thinking (the study of how ideas evolve and spread across society and down through history), religion isn't a set of distinct faiths, but rather is a great mass of competing ideas fighting for "survival of the fittest." At any point in history, there have been many thousands of religions around the world. Within each religion there are often hundreds of differing opinions and interpretations of the main ideas.

In order to survive, a particular idea has to spread across society and down through history. But that's no trivial task: there are plenty of others competing. At each generation, only the "fittest" ideas survive to be passed along. This is the primary driving force that shapes any one religion's beliefs as time passes. And it's also true between religions: eventually, the "fitter" religions steal away all the believers from the "weaker" religions, which die out and pass into the history books.

What makes one religion more "fit" than another? There are many factors indeed (that's why I wrote The Religion Virus), but it brings us back to today's topic.

Children are born atheists and must be indoctrinated early and thoroughly in order for their faith to stick. Atheism is a huge threat to that process. If a culture allows atheists in their midst, the children will be exposed to powerful and persuasive ideas (logic, science, rational thinking). These atheistic ideas challenge the faith-based dogma that the children have to learn. Children are much more likely to have weak faith or no faith if they are exposed to atheism. (See Teach the Children for more on this topic.)

Thus, hostility to atheism is a "good" trait for religions to have. A religion that persecutes atheists will be more successful than one that doesn't. As generations and centuries go by, it's almost inevitable that religion will become more and more hostile to atheism.

Atheists aren't really such a sorry, unhappy lot. It's religion's fault, and now we know why: it's good for religion to be hostile to atheism. Religions with a live-and-let-live attitude died out a long time ago. They're extinct, and we're left with the survivors, the "fittest" religions ... the ones that don't like atheists.