Field of Science

The war on atheism - bucking the social norm leads to social rejection and unhappiness

Take any given country, and religious people tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives than the non-religious. Quite why this is so is a matter of debate, but there's increasing evidence that part of the explanation is that happiness stems from believing yourself to be 'normal' - that you fit in with your community.

Olga Stavrova, at the University of Cologne in Germany, is an expert on how social norms affect individual happiness. For example, she's recently shown that unmarried couples are less happy than married couples only in those countries where cohabitation is disapproved of (thus showing that there isn't anything intrinsic to marriage that leads to happiness).

Now, along with colleagues, she's taken a look at how attitudes to the non-religious affect their happiness and life satisfaction (these are two closely related measures - but happiness tends to reflect how you feel right now, whereas life satisfaction reflects longer-term feelings).

Using data from the World Values Survey, Stavrova assessed how desirable it was to be religious in each country. She based this on three factors: proportion of the population who were religious, the proportion that thought that non-religious politicians were unfit for public service, and the proportion that thought that children should be encouraged to learn a religious faith at home.

You can see the results in the first graphic. In countries where there is a strong religious social norm (solid line), there's a strong relationship between and individual's religious belief and their life satisfaction.

In countries with a weak religious social norm, the relationship is still there - but it's much weaker (dashed line). (You'll also see in this figure that countries with a weak religious social norm also tend to have higher life satisfaction for all people, religious or not - but that's a different story!)

But is this because of active prejudice - or is there something else going on? To answer this, Stavrova turned to the European Social Survey.

The questions in this survey include several that address social inclusion, asking respondents whether they feel that others treat them with respect, whether they feel that they are treated fairly, and whether they feel they get recognition for the things that they do.

Overall, she found that religion was linked to social recognition, and that this did explain some of the happiness benefit to being religious (about 17% of the effect on happiness and 14% of the effect on life satisfaction was due to social recognition.

However, that varied a lot by country. In the graphic, you can see how religion relates to happiness in each country (ranging from the least religious countries on the left, to the most religious on the right), split out into three factors.

The top portion of the bar (light blue) shows the direct effect - in every country, religious people tend to be intrinsically happier, although this effect is larger in the more religious countries.

The bottom portion of the bar (dark blue) shows the indirect effect. Again, in almost every country, being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness. This effect is much stronger in the more religious countries.

The one exception is the least religious country, East Germany. Here, being religious actually leads to social disapproval - it's the one country where you could argue that there is a 'war on religion'!

This research extends some earlier work which also found that religion only makes people happier if they are living in a country where religious people predominate. And there was another paper earlier this year which found that religious people have higher self esteem - but again only in countries that are highly religious.

These new data fit in nicely with those findings, and also suggest that the non-religious suffer ill effects from social exclusion in religious countries.

And the stress of that might explain why the brains of the non-religious seem to age and atrophy quicker!
Olga Stavrova, Detlef Fetchenhauer, & Thomas Schlösser (2012). Why are religious people happy? The effect of the social norm of religiosity across countries Social Science Research DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.07.002

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


  1. I don't agree.

    Religious people are not more staisfied with their lives then not religious people.

    Religious people are just more aware that they will have success than not religious people, cause of the mafia-like religious structure of the society in Germany (the study came from the University of Cologne, where I live).



  2. Another possible explanation is that folks that are religious tend to belong to the dominant class and have more social status and have greater access to resources. Just a brainstorm. Looking forward to seeing the results of other research about this.

  3. (ranging from the most religious countries on the left, to the lest religious on the right)

    I think it should be other way (most religious on the right).

    ...happiness stems from believing yourself to be 'normal' - that you fit in with your community.

    I know, what you are saying here, but I must say, that sometimes I feel like I'm the only one 'normal' person in my community ;).

  4. @Mauro, yes - but that's kinda what they study is saying. They are more satisfied, because they are not excluded in the same way that the non-religious are.

    @Sherwin, or maybe, along the same lines: the non-religious tend to be maverick, intelligent thinkers (frustrated academics and the like). So perhaps the reason they are less likely to feel satisfied with their lives is to do with other people not giving them the recognition they feel they deserve - but this has more to do with them being intelligent mavericks, than their atheism per se.

    @Arek - damn, fixed!

  5. Frankly, bucking the social norm, if I know it to be a load of crap (like organized religion), makes me feel better. I think the researchers here are asking the wrong question. A drunk, or Rush Limpballs high on oxycodone, is probably "happier" than many sober people.

  6. I know that I am less happy than most of my so-called "religious" acquaintances. That's because I live in an area where there are few atheists, agnostics, etc. with whom I can easiy "fellowship" because of distance (and monetary considerations). As a result, I am a very lonely retired nonbeliever who most often than not must keep her mouth shut re: her non-religious beliefs.

    Betty Brogaard (author 2 published books: "Dare to Think for Yourself" and "The Homemade Atheist" - both written primarily for those just beginning their journey into nonbelief.

  7. After I wrote my comment as "Anonymous," I decided to tell you who I am.

    Betty Brogaard

  8. The Czech Republic more religious than West Germany? Sure?

  9. That graph shows the relationship between religiousness and happiness (religion makes a bigger contribution to happiness in the Czech Republic than West Germany).

    But you're right, the Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world (less religious than West Germany).


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS