I was perusing the Gallup website the other day and wandered across a very interesting four part post about a survey they conducted which correlated levels of religiosity with levels of wellbeing. (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) In summary, people across all faiths have consistently higher scores for wellbeing in all areas tested when they are “very religious” and consistently lower scores when they are “nonreligious”.
It’s a little bit more complicated than just that though, because one of the faith categories was “No Religion/Atheist/Agnostic”. I think that just by being included as a category we atheists have unknowingly thrown a wrench in the works for anyone who would say this is proof that religion raises wellbeing.
Overall wellbeing was determined under six categories:
- Life Evaluation
- Emotional Health
- Physical Health
- Healthy Behavior
- Work Environment
- Basic Access
Very religious — Religion is an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs at least every week or almost every week. This group constitutes 43.7% of the adult population.
- Moderately religious — All others who do not fall into the very religious or nonreligious groups but who gave valid responses on both religion questions. This group constitutes 26.6% of the adult population.
- Nonreligious — Religion is not an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs seldom or never. This group constitutes 29.7% of the adult population.
As might be expected the atheists fall at the bottom of the religiosity list. What first confused me was why we appear on it at all. Clearly someone who identifies themselves as atheist would by definition be 100% nonreligious, right? Well I was forgetting, as I tend to do, that not everyone is exactly like me. In fact there are about 6.5 billion people out there and all of them are different from me.
There is certainly a subgroup of atheists, quite a few actually, who acknowledge their own lack of belief but continue to go to church for various reasons. Most notably would be that they are not out of the closet to their family, but I’m sure there are other reasons one might still attend religious services. They may just enjoy the people, or agnostics may try to glean the good bits they can from services, or maybe like me they just have a masochistic obsession with religion. But for whatever reason, there are very religious atheists who got polled, and they scored higher on overall wellbeing than nonreligious atheists. (ugh, my head hurts when I say that)
Now we’re seeming a little more legit as an option, but even though we come in third for overall wellbeing on this list, the nonbelievers who attend church services regularly clearly have a significant increase in wellbeing. That’s not the kind of wellbeing margin a rational mind would choose to ignore out of convenience. Of course I would love for nontheists to top every list, I’m sporting a chubby just thinking about it. But we aren’t, so now it’s our responsibility to figure out why and to fix it.
Now as far as I can see, the argument that belief in religion leads to better wellbeing (as far as this study is concerned) can be dismissed because the wellbeing benefit of religious attendance is shared by those who lack similar belief, or outright oppose faith altogether. So if the belief isn’t the key to wellbeing, then it must be a social aspect. There must be some part of human kind that fundamentally needs community and acceptance and a group to belong to. I think that’s the thing atheism is lacking right now. We need a stronger community.
So many of the atheists I have met, including myself, are headstrong individualists. We prefer to stand on the outside, to define morality and fashion and cultural norms on our own without anyone else’s input, thank you very much. But the very thing that makes an atheist strong when atheism doesn’t exist as a movement (the ability to be fulfilled leaving a group and standing alone) could be the worst thing for an atheist movement that is taking it’s first steps. I think we should be pushing for greater group involvement.
I’m not saying make atheist churches, that’s not at all something I would enjoy. Screw the format, it’s not an appealing one. But maybe we should recognize that religion has us beat in one major area, and then steal their success right out from underneath them by doing it better. Because I know you guys. I know what nonbelievers are like, what we’re good at, and we are fucking fun. I’ve never experienced any of the Lord’s faithful who could hold a candle to the kind of no-reservations, let it all hang out kind of atmosphere we heathens embrace all day every day. Look at the gay rights movement and what do you think of? Flamboyant style, outrageous public parades, scandalous club scenes. We could do all of that so damn well. Basically, in order to save the world from god, we’re going to have to party like hell, and we have to invite people to that party. If a social connection is something that religion does well, then we need to start connecting socially more often, and do it better when we do get together.
And now for some good news.
Overall we’re ranked number two baby! That’s for the overall wellbeing index score for each religious grouping. So clearly the Jesus bump (as I have affectionately nicknamed it) doesn’t really bring everything into factor, it merely reflects one aspect of overall wellbeing. I take extra pleasure in pointing out that protestants are losing to both mormons and muslims.
Second is quite good considering atheism as a movement is in it’s infancy, giving our counterparts in many cases a head start of several thousand years. In addition, I think we deserve a little pat on the back for holding our spot near the front of the pack despite the fact that we are persistently one of the most hated groups in America, which would almost certainly negatively affect our scores in emotional health and work environment, and arguably all our scores through less tangible prejudice.
Overall I would say this poll should give atheists a positive outlook on the present and our future, but also a new challenge in improving our own culture through self examination. Arguments, additional points, and tangents are encouraged in the comments. The internet is a forum, not a pulpit.