This relates to my Want a Good Marriage? and Want to be a Charitable Person? posts, which were prompted by a commentor who argued that Christianity offered nothing based on his dubious representations of social science data, including the erroneous claim that Christians had the same divorce rate as everyone else. That is not the case, as Christians have lower divorce rates than the national average and Christians who attend church regularly have dramatically lower divorce rates. Also, Christians -- especially those who attend church regularly -- are much more likely to give to charity and give significantly more than do the Nonreligious.
Another social benefit of Christianity is that it promotes happiness. As Jonathan Haidt, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, notes, “surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people.” (emphasis added). Dr. Haidt is an atheist. As he states in this November 2007 interview, ”I'm an atheist, I don't believe that gods actually exist, but I part company with the New Atheists because I believe that religion is an adaptation that generally works quite well to supress [sic] selfishness, to create moral communities, to help people work together, trust each other and collaborate towards common ends.”
Professor Haidt's statement that numerous polls showing that religious believers in the United States tend to be happier finds ample support, especially when one looks at the relationship between attendance at religious services and happiness. Of course, I do not believe that happiness is the ultimate value. Sometimes happiness may unavoidably give way to other values. But I do think happiness is in general a valuable thing.
First, I looked at the Pew Research Center data, which found that those who attend religious services are happier than those who do not.
People who attend religious services weekly or more are happier (43% very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31%); or seldom or never (26%). This correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance has been a consistent finding in the General Social Surveys taken over the years.
The same pattern applies within all major religious denominations. For example, 38% of all Catholics who attend church weekly or more report being very happy, while just 28% of Catholics who attend church less often say they are very happy. The survey also finds that white evangelical Protestants (43%) are more likely than white mainline Protestants (33%) to report being very happy, but this difference goes away after taking frequency of church attendance into account.
Notice the portion that I put in bold. The GSS data has been consistently showing similar results to the Pew Survey.
Religion and church attendance are obviously not the only characteristics that increase happiness levels. Having more money, being married rather than single, being in good health, being a Republican also substantially increase happiness levels. The study takes a closer look at religion and income and suggests that religious attendance edges out income as an indicator of happiness and makes a 16 point difference for people of the same income.
Next, I looked at the results of a Scripps Howard/Ohio University performed in 2006, which found that compared to marriage, "[a]n even stronger factor is the power of organized religion _ any religion _ on a sense of well-being." Here are the results:
Although their numbers were small, Jewish participants in the poll were the most likely of any group to say they are very happy. Protestants _ especially self-identified "born again" evangelicals _ also report a high rate of contentment.
Sixty percent of people who have recently attended worship services at a church, synagogue or mosque say they are very happy, compared to 46 percent of people who have not publicly worshiped and 44 percent who have no religious preferences."
Additionally, this survey found that, controlling for other factors, "people of different races, regions and urban settings are about equally likely to be happy."
There is a more recent survey conducted in 2007 by the Associated Press and MTV, which focused on younger people and their happiness.
An extensive survey by The Associated Press and MTV found that people aged 13 to 24 who describe themselves as very spiritual or religious tend to be happier than those who don’t....
Eighty percent of those who call religion or spirituality the most important thing in their lives say they are happy, while 60 percent of those who say faith is not important to them consider themselves happy.
This study is a little different in that it does not measure happiness by church attendance, but by the self-reported importance the respondent places on religion. Still, the results are consistent with the above data. There is a twenty point difference in happiness levels between young people who greatly value religion and those who say it is not important.
In conclusion, these polls suggest that faith and regular attendance at religious services promote happiness. Certainly other factors do as well. But religious commitment appears to be one of the more important factors, edging out even income, though likely not health.