Studies across decades have found evidence of a significant positive correlation between religiosity and subjective well-being (i.e. happiness, life satisfaction, etc.). However, a new study by Katharina Pöhls, Thomas Schlösser, and Detlef Fetchenhauer of the University of Cologne in Germany questions such a linear link.
Analyzing data for 24 countries from the World Values Survey, they concluded that there are “no differences between highly religious, indistinct non-religious, and atheist individuals’ level of life satisfaction when the fit between individual (non-)religiosity and country characteristics was included.” In other words, “only in religious societies, identifying as non-religious/atheist is related to lower life satisfaction.”
“We looked at the country characteristics, the share of religious individuals in the country—which describes how religious a country is on average—and the societal level of development—that is the standard of living, health, and education,” Pöhls explained. “When we included those factors in our statistical analysis, that explains the differences [between life satisfaction of highly religious people and atheists], and statistically speaking they [the differences] disappear because of that.”
Her team surmised that an explanation for this disappearance could be due to lower levels of discrimination faced by atheistic individuals in more secularized societies.
“Simply using the label atheist may be perceived by religious individuals as an expression of blasphemy and a provocation (by claiming that god(s) do(es) not exist), which may lead to social exclusion,” the study’s authors wrote.
Pöhls’ study is not the first to challenge the wide breadth of literature that contend a positive link between religiosity and subjective well-being. Michael Minkov and his colleagues conducted a study of 40,534 randomly selected participants from 43 countries and found that “The association between religion and happiness is not random. It depends on how rich and individualist or poor and collectivist a country is.”
In more developed countries, according to Minkov, people tend to value personal freedom more, thus tying happiness more to autonomy than religiosity. The converse is true in less developed countries with more conservative and collectivist cultures.
“Rising individualism and emancipative values, as an outcome of modernization, diminish the importance of religious faith for people’s happiness, while increasing the importance of subjective freedom. We conclude that the dominant emancipatory direction of cultural evolution favors freedom over religion,” Minkov said.
However, the U.S. is an anomaly. Religious Americans report higher life satisfaction than non-religious Americans. “I do not have a good explanation for this phenomenon,” Minkov admitted. “If I had to hypothesize, I would say that—unlike the other rich and democratic countries—the U.S. has a lot of social inequality and a socioeconomic system that leaves many people behind.”
The U.S. is not the only country that does not fit Minkov’s model. The Pew Research Center conducted a study of 26 countries around the world and found that actively religious adults in the U.S., as well as in 12 other countries, are happier than the religiously unaffiliated by a statistically significant margin. Within those 12 are countries like Japan, Australia, and Germany.
The Pew study also calls into question the conclusions of Pöhls’ study (that highly religious people are not more satisfied with life than atheists in more secularized countries). In Japan, for example, Pew’s study found that 57% of Japanese are religiously unaffiliated, yet 45% of religiously active people reported being “very happy,” compared with just 31% of the unaffiliated. Similarly, in Uruguay, 61% of people are religiously unaffiliated, yet 43% of religiously active people reported being “very happy” compared to just 30% of the unaffiliated.
In other countries where a majority of the population is religiously active, such as in Ecuador and South Africa, the religiously active reported lower happiness levels than the religiously unaffiliated. The positive link between religiosity and life satisfaction may very well not be generalizable, but whether it is due to the reasons Pöhls hypothesized remains uncertain.
By definition, subjective well-being is a difficult thing to measure. It is even more difficult to pinpoint the effect of one thing—such as religion—on a person’s well-being without the influence of confounding variables. Nevertheless, Pöhls argued, “It probably isn’t that simple that one thing like high religiosity is beneficial for every individual. The situation is a lot more complex; it depends on the person, the characteristics of the person, the context the person lives in.”
In a way, Pöhls is right; it isn’t that simple. The Bible does not lie when it says that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing.” For some, religion may be something that lowers their life satisfaction. But for others, faith is the only reason they are alive.
Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism.
Paulina Song is a summer 2021 intern with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She is studying international politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.