Why are religious people happier, on average, than atheists?
Religion can be a source of meaning in various ways:
- Religious communities give people a sense of belonging (communal solidarity, mutual support, ethnohistorical purpose, etc.).
- Religious mores and practices give people a sense of order (theistic morality, ritualism, liturgy, etc.).
- Religious faith and beliefs give people metaphysical hope and purpose (divine judgment, cosmic justice, afterlife, etc.).
- Religious doctrines give people a framework to make sense of mystical experiences (guided spirituality, existential fulfillment, eternal significance, etc.).
- Religious wisdoms give people psychological support during tough times.
But is religion also a vital source of meaning? Are irreligious people inevitably void of complete meaning? Do atheists lack something believers have? Do they wither in profane selfishness, empty consumerism, and materialistic world-boundedness? More specifically, is religion necessary for people to experience the positive effects of belonging and community, of order and morality, of hope and purpose, and of spirituality?
Consider that religion is not one unitary source of meaning; it is a bundle of sources. As a consequence, if every part of the bundle can be secularized without tarnishing experienced meaning, then there is no need for religion.2 So let’s see whether the distinct religious sources of meaning can be tapped into without religion:
- To feel a sense of belonging, one does not need to be part of a religious community. One simply needs to be part of a community. Every family, group, or tribe has the potential to spark heartfelt solidarity, social responsibility, and a motivation to let one’s personal will dissolve into a greater, collective will.
- Morality presupposes two things: a group of moral agents and a common will (a shared goal, e.g., maximizing well-being). It does not presuppose a God responsible for divine retribution. Furthermore, order and rituals emerge organically from social institutions and the habit-prone human condition; they can even be self-created if one has the discipline to proactively reform his life.
- Metaphysical hope and purpose are inseparable from religion. However, divine judgment, cosmic justice, and self-preserving afterlife do not exist in the physical world, and the physical world is the real world. Metaphysical purposes are directed at a fantasy world and therefore pointless, not meaningful, or at least not more meaningful than worldly purposes directed at fantasy stories (e.g., the creation of art). Moreover, people do not need metaphysical hope to get the boost in well-being that comes from religion. The emotional benefits of religion are not contingent on theistic belief. Although “churchgoers are happier and more charitable than stay-at-homes,” as Stephen Pinker writes, “Robert Putnam and his fellow political scientist David Campbell have found that these blessings have nothing to do with beliefs in God, creation, heaven, or hell. An atheist who has been pulled into a congregation by an observant spouse is as charitable as the faithful among the flock, whereas a fervent believer who prays alone is not particularly charitable.”3 Not metaphysical belief, but communal belonging makes the difference, and the community need not be religious (see #1 again).
- Spirituality is easily secularized, even though sacred chants, dances, prayers, and other meditative practices have traditionally been used in a religious context to induce and express mystical experiences. Essentially, spirituality is not tied to religion, but to ineffable awe, existential gratitude, and esoteric humility (egolessness). In fact, pure mysticism is beyond words and thus beyond belief, beyond scripture, beyond religion. The social construct called religion does not add meaning to the sacredness of being; if anything, it takes from it by confining it with semantics (linguistic meaning).
- Religious teachings that give psychological support can do so either because they instill superstitious hopes or because they are worldly. Superstition places meaning in the happenstances of life, calling it destiny (“everything happens for a reason”), but the laws of the universe have no intentional reasons—they care about no one, they are meaningless. Worldly wisdoms, by contrast, can be uplifting, and they uplift people regardless of their religious affiliation. An atheist may feast his soul on the Book of Proverbs, a Christian on the Tao Te Ching, and a Taoist on Epictetus’s Discourses. Does a lack of religious commitment diminish the wholesomeness of such wisdom? Maybe somewhat in some cases, but those with an open mind are able to benefit from a much broader range of insights than sectarian bigots are.
In conclusion, religion is not an integral source of meaning because there are secular substitutes for all its non-metaphysical functions, and religious metaphysics is not worth the distraction from the life we have nor worth the loss in rationality. Hence, there is no need to buy into religion as a package. As Stephen Pinker put it, “If there are justifiable reasons behind particular activities, those activities should be encouraged, but the movements should not be given a pass just because they are religious.”4
Are there any important aspects of religious meaning I have failed to address or failed to address adequately? If you think so or if you have a good reason to believe that religion is an un-unbundleable package deal, please tell me in the comments below.
- See, for example, Dariusz Krok, 2015, The Role of Meaning in Life Within the Relations of Religious Coping and Psychological Well-Being, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 54(6), pp. 2292-2308.
- One might argue that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that religion is more than a bundle, namely, a holistic whole with emergent properties that either enhance meaning or constitute it altogether. While this could be true, it would require clarification of what those emergent properties are that make religion more than a bundle. I have not seen a convincing argument of that sort yet.
- Stephen Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 432
- Stephen Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 432