Ignorance is Bliss: Why Religious People Seem Happier Than the “Nones”

A new Pew Research Center study released last week that examines the relationship between religion and everyday activities brought out a number of eye-catching headlines, including “Highly Religious Volunteer More, Lie Less, and Claim to Be Happier” from the Houston Chronicle and “Strongly Religious People are Happier than Non-Religious” by the Christian Daily. The study determined that 40 percent of highly religious adults—defined as those who “pray every day and attend religious services each week”—consider themselves to be “very happy,” compared with 29 percent of less religious adults.

Pew compared other activities such as visiting family members (47 percent of the highly religious do at least once a month compared to 30 percent of the less religious), volunteering (45 percent compared to 28 percent), and donating money or goods to the poor (65 percent compared to 41 percent).

So, are religious people happier than nonreligious people? Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, doesn’t buy it:

This study shows the same methodological flaw seen time and time again: measuring religiosity in large part by how often people attend religious services. This creates a comparison that doesn’t measure the differences between the religious and the nonreligious, but instead measures the difference between those that have strong community connections and those that do not. “Community” has positive outcomes, not religion.

Speckhardt brings up a very valid point. It shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone that one’s happiness generally correlates to how well-connected a person is to other humans and to a greater community, whether it be a religious community or a community centered around likeminded interests. If “highly religious” was redefined to include anyone who regularly attended any type of community gathering—religiously- based or not—the percentages would likely come out a lot closer in number.

Without a religious house of worship, humanists and atheists have their own communities in the form of local chapter groups and meetups. A fairer study would compare the happiness of a religious person who attended church services weekly and the happiness of an active member of such groups like the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, which holds a twice-a-month Sunday lecture in its own community building in Mesa, Arizona, or the Humanists of Houston, which hosts as many as five social and volunteering events every week. Communities can be formed in a variety of ways—neighborhoods, book clubs, athletic teams, online gaming, college alumni groups—the list goes on and on.

There’s also something to be said about a false sense of security and happiness that religion may bring. Speaking to the Huffington Post in 2014, blogger Hidaya Nawee said, “Because I have a sense of community and a sense of whatever happens God has my back, it’s very hard to not be motivated when you have something to fall back on when everything falls apart.” Amherst College psychology professor Catherine Sanderson confirms this in the Washington Post: religious people are happier because beliefs “give people a sense of meaning…a sense of well-being or comfort.”

Recognizing that this is the one life we humans are likely ever to have, humanists and atheists can’t rely on a higher power that will simply take care of everything for us or a heaven where we’ll see our family and friends again. These are concepts that might make some of us feel less happy and secure, sure, but certainly more honest and realistic. Ignorance may be bliss, but for many who came to atheism or humanism after years in a traditional religion, there is often a sense of happiness in the freedom that comes from thinking critically, shedding outdated (and quite often discriminatory) religious beliefs, and embracing truth. This realization forces us to find our own happiness and sense of meaning in the here and now.

As with most studies, it’s important look beyond the headlines and take this one with a grain of salt—it’s not all gloom-and-doom for us nonbelievers. To quote George Bernard Shaw: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”