Field of Science

Moderate believers might benefit from less, not more religion

I always enjoy analyses of religion done by people whose main research focus lies in other fields. They tend to have quite a refreshing take.

So here's a study written by three outsiders. You probably already know Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational (and if you don't, well then get out and read the book this moment!). The lead is Daniel Mochon, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, and the other is Michael Norton, an Associate Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School.

So, three specialists in marketing, who have set out to discover who, exactly benefits from religion. To do this, they used an online survey company to gather responses from over 6,000 people across the UK. Their basic aim was to relate two different measures of religion: affiliation (i.e. whether they said that they were a Christian, or a Methodist, or a Wiccan etc) and religiosity (i.e. how religious they are, on a scale from 1-7).

They measured well-being by asking a bunch of questions related to life satisfaction, hopelessness, depression, self esteem, how they felt right now and in general, and how satisfied they were with their spiritual and religious life.

The graphic shows the headline results. The well-being of religious adherents follows a clear U-shape, with the least happy being those people with moderate faith.

The straight lines show the well-being of people who didn't declare a religious faith - those who said they were atheists were the happiest, agnostics were less happy, and those who were just 'none' were the least happy of all.

In addition to this plot, they also ran a bunch of simple models to explore all the different factors and to put the results on firmer statistical grounds. But these models basically confirmed the picture that's so eloquently depicted in the graph.

So the only religious adherents who are really happy are those who are very religious. Those who are only moderately fervent could benefit by ramping up their faith - but they could also benefit by toning it down still further.

If this sounds familiar, well you're right. There's already evidence that those who are firm non-believers are actually quite happy, thank you very much (see The Happiness Smile). But these new data are the strongest so far.

I'll leave the last words to the study authors:
Were we to place our own children in the distribution of religiosity, the option with the highest expected well-being would entail enrolling them and encouraging them to believe strongly; were we not certain that our children would attain sufficient levels of belief, however, we might prefer them to remain unaffiliated.
Indeed, the non-linear relation between religiosity and well-being suggests that many moderate believers would benefit from reducing their level of religiosity rather than increasing it.
Mochon, D., Norton, M., & Ariely, D. (2010). Who Benefits from Religion? Social Indicators Research, 101 (1), 1-15 DOI: 10.1007/s11205-010-9637-0

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. It also seems that this study confirms the charge made by many theists that "Atheism is a religion ":

    Atheism is an intentional worldview with commitment levels stronger than those of agnostics and yet stronger than folks with "no religion". This seems to imply that Atheism is climbing the religiosity slope.

    So the question is: How do Atheists keep climbing that steep cliff or should they? Well-being seems desirable, but only (as you imply) if it is stable.

  2. @ Sabio Lantz:

    Correlation is not causation. So no, that erroneous charge remains erroneous.

    The take home message from the graph would be that atheists are stably happy, since they aren't affected by levels of religiosity.

    How anyone could get it completely backwards is maybe a matter of - faith. =D

  3. @ Torbjörn
    Hmmm, I think it all hangs on how 'religiousity' is defined and if it could be written broad enough to include what Atheists do in their mental maps to engender anchors for meaning, identity and a sense of security.

    Don't you think some Atheists are higher up the well-being slope than others? Do you think any of them do it with mental models? Why do you think atheists have more well-being than agnostics?

    What is your model? What do you think is the cause?

  4. I don't think Torbjorn's interpretation is quite right. The graph doesn't plot the non-religious as being stable, rather the study just treats atheists, agnostics and Nones as undifferentiated masses. It would be interesting to see what would emerge if they actually plotted the strength of the non-religious views (i.e. repeat the "Religiosity" but for "confidence in your views" or similar). Would it also show that fervent atheists were happier than ambivalent atheists, for example?

    Another point: how confident can we be with self-reported answers to questions about how happy people are that they're not also differentially distorting their answers. (Do we really think the Phelps are happy-go-lucky? That ilk of strong belief seems more inclined to frustration and pent up hatred!) In other words, maybe this shows that extreme religionists are the most happy - or maybe it just shows that cognitive dissonance makes the most religious people liable to report higher levels of happiness? (And to be fair the same could go for those who report being atheist over those who are more agnostic or "None".)

  5. Sabio: I don't think you can just reduce religion to "Any strongly held Worldview". And I think the take home from this study is that confidence and self belief (to believe that your ideas are right), is an important component of happiness.

  6. Bob: Yes, exactly right. And it would be interesting to plot security of worldview against happinness.

    Regarding your second point, another concern I have is that some people are just the kinds of people who tend to put reponses at extremes. So people who rate the religiosity as very high and their happiness as very high might just do that because they tend to tick the boxes at the ends of the line rather than in the middle!

    I do think, however, that other research shows that these measures of life satisfaction are generally reliable. But yes you can never fully trust questionnaires.

  7. @ Tom
    Well, that was sort of my point. I felt Bob was repeating my point. Maybe I did not say it well. But confidence and self-belief are very fuzzy. I think strong belief in a view that offers meaning and security (false or otherwise) does this -- be it a religion or an atheist worldview. So, it is strong belief in a meaning-supplying worldview that offers well-being. In this way atheism and religion can be the same.


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