In an earlier post, I challenged the generalization that religious people are happier. That claim is often made but the evidence is very mixed. Researchers find that religious rituals are calming. Yet, religious intensity is greatest in miserable places and unhappy situations.
Where objective living conditions are good, people report being happy. Hence the tendency for happiness to increase with individual wealth and with economic development of nations. The same conditions erode religious belief and practice (1).
Where you find intense religion, you find a lot of misery
Countries with the highest average self-reported happiness are the least religious (1). The happiest nations include Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands (2). Sweden, Denmark and Norway are the second, third, and fourth least religious countries, being exceeded only by formerly-communist Estonia in their atheism.
Why are the happiest countries also the least religious ones? Both happiness and religiosity are affected by the highly developed character of these countries. All score close to the top on the UN’s human development index that measures the overall quality of life in terms of health, wealth, and education.
Residents of highly developed countries are happy because their quality of life is better. The key factor may be an expectation of living to old age without fear of extreme poverty. Because they are confident in their own welfare, they have less need of religion as a salve for the difficulties of life.
Religion as security blanket
In widely read earlier posts, I argued that the basic psychological function of religion is coping with anxiety. More specifically, it helps people to deal with the stress of uncertainty from third-world living conditions. In countries with a better standard of living, basic anxieties about food supply and illness recede and religion fades along with them (2).
Religion has a primary soothing function rather like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort. We now have good scientific evidence that religious rituals and prayer work in just this way. Each produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming (3).
Religion functions as a form of emotion-focused coping similar to anti-anxiety drugs. When a person has a frightening experience, they are liable to utter a prayer (if religious) – or to take alcoholic drink. War is said to be so frightening that everyone gets religion (i.e., no atheists in foxholes, or trenches).
Religion and alcohol probably have their uses in helping people to cope with very upsetting experiences in their lives. Yet, there are pitfalls to relying upon either as a fix for perennial problems such as poverty and high child mortality.
Alcoholism is a self-destructive illnesses that spreads misery of its own. It creates problems rather than solving them. Religion may, or may not, cause a lot of misery depending upon whether one blames differing belief systems for religious wars, or whether religion is merely a badge like ethnicity.
The real problem with religion as a coping strategy is that it gets in the way of being proactive about solving problems. Instead of fantasizing about being reunited with dead children, it might be better to takes steps that reduce child mortality as the Gates Foundation and others are doing in sub-Saharan Africa.
Similarly, surviving an earthquake is more likely if one lives in an earthquake-proof home. People who rely upon religion to save them are fooling themselves. That is why an earthquake striking Haiti has a much higher death toll than one of equal magnitude striking California where homes are built to be quake proof.
In conclusion, if you are in a really bad situation, you feel unhappy but religion relieves despair. The problem is that religious people are fatalistic and do not do enough to improve their lives by solving practical problems. Hence the misery, and religiosity of poor countries in contrast to their developed counterparts that are happier and less religious.
Is it better to use emotion-focused coping, or to solve the practical problems that create so much unnecessary misery in the world?
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Gallup (2010). Religiosity highest in world’s poorest nations. Accessed at: http://www.gallup.com in July 2011.
3. Paul-Labrador, M. D. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166, 1218-1224.