Daniel W. Drezner

God might not be great, but church is awesome

A key theme emanating from the raft of atheist books that came out in the past year boils down to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great — religion ruins everything .  And certainly, with the historical role that religion has played in war, pogroms, the guilt of my childhood, intolerance, etc., this belief ...

A key theme emanating from the raft of atheist books that came out in the past year boils down to the subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great — religion ruins everything .  And certainly, with the historical role that religion has played in war, pogroms, the guilt of my childhood, intolerance, etc., this belief would seem to be well placed. Here’s the thing, though — there’s a decent body of evidence that says religious people are happier.  For example, a recent study of Europeans revealed that religious people are better at coping with adverse shocks, and religious individuals are, overall, correlated with higher levels of happiness.  To be fair, this remains a disputed question in Europe.   In the United States, however, it’s not disputed.  As Will Wilkinson put it a few months ago, “there is no disputing the data: in the United States, religious participation is positively correlated with higher levels of self-reported happiness.”  Is this correlation or causation — i.e., is happiness causing people to find religion, or vice versa?  And why is this effect occurring?  The answer to the first question increasingly seems to be that religion is the causative factor.  Daniel Kahnemann, Alan Krueger, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone have analyzed Gallup data on what respondents were doing minute-by minute, and how much they enjoyed what they were doing.  Turns out people really like to pray.    Last night, however, at this conference I’m attending, I heard a talk by Robert Putnam on his preliminary research into the role that religion plays in promoting happiness.  Putnam’s findings flesh out the “why” of the story a bit more.  His takeaway points:

  • The primary driver of the religious effect on happiness is not the belief in God or belief in heaven/hell — it’s chuch attendance.  The more often people attend their church (or synagogue or mosque), the happier they are;
  • The primary driver of church attendance is the number of friends one makes at church.  Bear in mind that this research already controls for the total number of friends.  In other words, church friends are Superfriends
  • The effect is more powerful if your non-church friends do not share your religious beliefs.  This is pretty common, by the way — it turns out Americans are quite willing to befriend people outside one’s faith community.  I want to label this the “everyone needs a Ned Flanders” effect, but since Homer and Ned attended the same church it actually doesn’t apply. 
  • Hitchens might have the last laugh — the number of under-30 respondents who claim no religion in their survey responses is an order of magnitude greater than responses from previous generations at that age.  Generation Y has far fewer Superfriends. 

Question to readers:  assume that the effects are real and not spurious.  What do Putnam’s findings imply for American society?   

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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