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.


  1. Yeah, I suspect that's probably right. Religions that don't clamp down on free thinking are not going to be very successful. For the same reason, successful religions are the ones that make claims that can't be verified - i.e. the antithesis of science.

  2. Religion is a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies. If you're an atheist, believing that there is no all powerful deity, but you still believe in a certain way that everything was created whether it be evolution or the like, then you have a religion. This article is silly and stupid.

    1. Evolution doesn't portend a cause for existence. Abiogenesis and evolution are NOT the same. Oh and you forgot the most important aspect of religion..... worship. You're redefining a word will not make a religion out of Evolution. However, I guess if that's true I could create a church based on evolution and get the same great tax break you guys get.

  3. I think you make some great points, and I personally agree with everything you wrote.

    You write that seems inevitable that religion will become more hostile towards atheism as time passes. I wonder if we could make the analogy about religion becoming more "specialized" as it becomes more hostile, and if that probably means religion will start to shrink.

  4. If atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color. Scientists don't "believe in a certain way that everything was created." Belief has nothing to do with it, because belief implies faith. The scientific method tests and discovers, and ultimately zeros in on an actual, objective truth. It's not a "belief" that the world is round or that infectious diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses. These are facts.

    Just because science doesn't yet know how the universe originated or how the very first simple lifeforms came to be doesn't mean that we won't some day. You should read about the God in the Gaps arguement.

    1. That correlation makes no sense at all. Belief does not only imply faith. Look at the definition of belief for a second. Something believed; an opinion or conviction. An -opinion-. You bring in something totally irrelevant to try to prove a different point. This was never about diseases or the shape of the world. Since when do all scientists not believe in a certain way everything was created? Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're an evolutionist. Therefore you believe everything stemmed from a single-celled organism that then evolved into more, yet there is no definitive proof of this. Therefore it is your opinion, along with many others, that this is how everything started and therefore your belief. Is it not?

      If it is someday proven that that is in fact how everything is proven, then so be it, it will then be a fact, and no longer and opinion. But until then, it's all opinion and speculation.

      You should honestly think about things a little bit before you post something.

    2. Anon - you need to study the history of life on Earth more before you make claims about what is known and what is "belief." We don't know everything, but we know a great deal more than your reply suggests. And as to the things we don't know, there's no reason to invoke magical explanations. The Theory of Evolution is barely 160 years old, and has filled in virtually all of the history of life with stunning accuracy, verified by dozens of different, independent techniques.

      You are right that I didn't use the word "belief" carefully. It's not an accurate term. I should have distinguished fact (things we know with certainty) and faith (things we just believe with no evidence). That said, the theory of evolution is based on proven facts. Every single challenge to it is based on ignorance or faith. There isn't a single scientific study that has seriously challenged the basic fact of evolution.

    3. Gentlemen,
      Scientists deal in facts and facts will change. Jesus spoke about truth which never changes.

    4. Really? Facts change? Then they're not facts, are they?

      You grossly misunderstand science. Science is the process of discovering the truth in an unbiased way. The layman's notion that "facts change" is a myth. What really happens is that our understanding of the truth is refined. There as rarely been a time in science when a major, widely accepted theory was completely overturned. What actually happens is that a better, more refined theory supplements the current understanding.

      Jesus (if he existed) was wise in matters of morality and love, but these are matters of opinion, not science.

    5. Facts are illusions that are purported by belief. What you should be attacking, is the mention of a truth that never changes, this is a challenge against the very crux of the theory of relativity, and the most important characteristic of science that allows us to even believe in it in the first place.

      Of course on a more ironic note, religions deal with more changed "facts" than most governments do, based on how effective it will be in recruiting more members and money. If we all deserve to die for working on Sunday then I'd rather not live under you. And if we are all allowed to be manipulated by falsified truths created by those abusing power through a higher name, either that higher name deserves to be punished for allowing such an event to occur, this higher power doesn't exist, or this higher power lies intent in manipulation as well.

      Science, is a religion, nonetheless. Unless one has truly discovered each truth themselves through logical systems they believe they truly understand, they cannot claim that science is not a pool of beliefs founded upon a set of rules, simply because one is believing something they have not confirmed themselves. A religious person may, for example, believe that the world is going to eventually be salvaged into a period of peace, simply because their "religious logic" dictates it to be, in the same way that an atheist would believe a human being to diminish into nothingness in death, due to their irreligious logic.

      You say unbiased, the zealots say biased. When we transform water from its liquid form to its solid form, it loses density, a phenomena very much unpredictable were it not already to have been observed. Adding space in between molecules granted a more firm structure. Counter-intuitive, yet very easily explainable once understood. Who is to say religion is not just another example of this? If God were a human and all humans were fleas, the fleas could not come near comprehending the human, no matter how smart the fleas were to become...

  5. There is no point in debating with narrow-minded people like Anon in the above comments. Despite ALL the evidence for evolution that we shove in their faces, they cling to their ignorance and claim that your statements are not fact but theory and only your opinion. The same scenario happened with the clueless Wendy Wright of the so-called Concerned women for America debating Richard Dawkins. When she ignorantly asked, "show me the evidence for evolution?" Dawkins' mouth dropped. You can shove fossil evidence down their throats but they are blind and will refuse to see it because it goes against their brain-washed way of thinking and their dogma

  6. I really think that the statement "children are born atheists" is false and misleading. Children are certainly not born theists, but they are born with an intense dependance on parental figures who are almost gods to them. As they develop, they tend to see toys, rocks, trees, and other inanimate things as possessing life and consciousness. There are a lot of religious factors innate to the consciousness of infants and young children that have nothing to do with indoctrination. That's why ideas like religion (or the state, for that matter) so easily take hold.

    1. Atheism means "without theistic beliefs." Children are certainly born that way. Religion takes hold because it's incredibly infectious. At the risk of sounding self serving, read my book. It's called "The Religion Virus."

    2. I haven't read your book, but perhaps religion is so "infectious" in part because some of the core beliefs found in major religions are intuitive.

      Dualism, for example, seems to be intuitive. You could argue that humans are taught to believe in dualism (that there is an "us" separate from our bodies), but there is no escaping that we feel like we are 'in' our bodies rather than 'are' our bodies.

      Religious beliefs that depend on dualism (we each have a soul, and this is where it goes when our body dies) are therefore more intuitive than secular arguments (you are your body, therefore you cannot survive the death of your body).

      This may also be why most children will eventually realize that Santa Claus doesn't exist without being told, but only a minority of religious people reach the same conclusion about their god.

    3. Anon - I hope you do read my book ... your insights are correct, and there is much, much more.

  7. You live in a bubble.

  8. I am. Know why? After this dead-head-existence, I'm going to the Great Beyond, while you're NOW going Upstairs to be Divinely Judged, as you'll find-out too late there is a Jesus. Thank God I found you out, brudda. Think about saving your indelible soul first; then, lissen to wisdom and re-grow thy brain in this lifelong demise. Jesus is extremely patient, as He waited all this time for you to become enlightened. If God doesn’t exist, why do you hate Him so much? If God does exist, why don’t you follow us Home to Heaven Above if you‘re gonna croak as I am? How long do we have to enjoy this finite existence? 77ish, measly years? Compared to the length and breadth of eternity, 77ish years is faaar LESS than a nanometer in the whole, bloody, universe. Why don’t we have a BIG-ol, rokk-our-holy-soxx, party-hardy celebrating our resurrection for many eons? Heaven TOTALLY kicks-ass for eternity. Yes, God’s odd, yet, aren't we? Thank you proFUSEly, for the wick is running out on U.S. _thewarningsecondcoming.com_

    1. In the same argument that you've laid out, that being that a gamble of 77ish years for an eternity is stupidity, I ask that you consider the repercussions of yourself being wrong. You live 77 years of numbness in the expectancy of an eternity being available. If you were to be wrong, you just traded 77 valuable years of life for absolutely nothing.

      In my point of view, as much as I would want to believe that I have somewhere to go upon death (and believe me, if I could let you brainwash me into this belief, I would) I simply don't, and am not willing to push myself into it, because were I to be wrong in believing a second existence exists, I'd have gambled away 77ish years for absolutely nothing. At least I have those 77ish years of true life under my belt.

      The reason why atheists refuse to believe in these dogmas, has less to do with belief systems and more to do with listening to the horse shit logic that is accompanied by a weak argument to open one's heart to God. Every point you've made is a fallacy, or simply a superficially and artificially crafted point which obviously has no source other than self-interpretation. I could self-interpret that red is brown and vice versa were I to be color blind. If more people like yourself post crap like what you've posted, I will never, ever believe in religion myself, and that kind of sucks, buddy, for you and me!

  9. Gentlemen,
    I must admit I agree with a lot of what you preach. This is the way I understand happiness it is a relative state of mind which I believe is dependent on a person’s circumstances. When everything goes your way Christian or not a person is happy. When Jesus was being tortured and crucified his circumstances would not have encouraged happiness. However the Bible does say he had joy and this is where the confusion lies. When a Christian experiences joy unknowingly they describe it as being happy, happiness is dependent on circumstances and biblical joy is an inside reality which a nonbeliever can never experience. I hope that clarifies any misunderstanding.

    1. This idea of "Christians can be happy while suffering" is one of the highly developed memes I discuss in The Religion Virus. It's part of the Martyrdom Meme, and closely related to the Underdog Meme, both of which have evolved in the Christian "ecosphere" of ideas to make Christians feel special. They're very powerful ideas, but there's little truth behind them.

      The "be happy while suffering" idea is part of the whole slave mentality that Christians have swallowed. Kneel just like a slave when you pray. Be convinced that being a slave is actually good, and the natural order of things. If you suffer, there's a greater good (your master will be happy).

      Happy people are less religious (that's a proven fact), so Christianity fosters ideas that prevent people from making their lives better.

  10. Religion has more to do with sociology than theology and the fact they have survived so long means they have some survival benefits. Is it for the individual or for the society as a whole? I feel it may be for both levels of complexity. In my opinion the religions made group-living possible, an art we are still trying to perfect.
    The religions were social adaptations in human societies that started expanding in the last 5000 years or so. The religions were, in that respect, no different from the discovery of wheel, agriculture, writing etc in that all these helped man to cope with the challenges faced by him when the populations exceeded limits animals were used to throughout evolutionary history. Man was not equipped well enough for this.
    The belief that god is there to punish the wrong-doer and help the needy has deep psychological benefits for the ordinary folks. This has the same outcome as anti-depressants and anti-anxiolytics. People simply feel relieved, less-stressed when they pass on the burden of responsibility to God and that works like magic and that is the reason religions have survived this long.
    Cognitive challenges associated with group-living may sound relatively easy now but for the man living few thousand years ago this was a big task. His brain had to adapt first. He had to learn to recognise his own kin and seperate them from strangers. Secondly, he had to learn to be tolerant to people he was not related by blood. He had to share the resources with him. All this required some sort of group identity. Religions were the group identifiers that solved this social need.

  11. You definitely live in a bubble. Also, tolerance and acceptance are two radically different things, that really share only a single aspect in common

  12. Here is one good reason that religion causes misery. Romans 4:15 says, Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. According to the American heritage dictionary, wrath means: Forceful, often vindictive anger; punishment or vengeance as a manifestation of anger, and retribution for sin. Transgression means: A violation of a law, command, or duty; the exceeding of due bounds or limits.

    This is a perfect example of common sense; if there was no credit you couldn’t be in debt and if it weren’t for the law you wouldn’t have to pay any taxes. In like manner, there would be no such thing as sin, sinner, crime, or criminal (evil) unless there was a law to define (create) them. The deeper meaning of this Scripture is the fact that it is lawmakers that create wrath and transgression. This is a way of creating your own employment, dividing people, exploiting and punishing lawbreakers. Simple common sense. Still, most children are taught to respect these creators of wrath and transgression, which is the main reason for human misery and conflict.

    Law generally defines evil which by default defines good; it is the “forbidden,” knowledge of good and evil that got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden. If this knowledge got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden when they accepted it, doesn’t the same thing apply to us if we accept it? Because the clergy refuses to teach the masses this common sense lesson, our lives run by people who are tainted by the “knowledge” that God forbid man to have, but have accepted it because Satan said it was good. Doesn’t this mean they are actually working for Satan?

    For more on this subject, click on this link.

  13. You may find a recent blog post I wrote interesting. It was actually a paper I wrote for my writing intensive course on the causal analysis of anti-atheist bias, specifically the causes of the myth of atheists lacking a moral compass.

    My dual theory incorporates the deep historical roots of prejudice and how useful religion has been to the ruling classes throughout history, plus psychological roots in the DEATH DENIAL PRINCIPLE, a term which was coined by Ernest Becker in his 1973 book and whose theories social scientists have recently put to the test ...

    Hiram / founder of

  14. Sure, on average, an religious person might not be happier than an atheist, but if religious people didn't have their religion, they might have been sadder. (I guess I'm approaching it from the position that a lot of people choose religion out of a psychological need.)

    --Tim Elliot

  15. Oh, dear, what a liar.

    Religious people not unhappy in Sweden?

    I am a Swede. I left SWeden in 2004, voting with my feet, so to speak.

    No, no, a CHristian is as unhappy in Sweden as an Atheist in South Carolina.

    Neither jurisdiction officially persecutes the other party, but in both places you can get socially very much in trouble for being untypical.

    Dr Rees confirms a mistrust against "studies" ...


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