Relationship Between Religion, Societies and Happiness

I read something the other day that was titled Atheistic Societies are Happy Societies. It's based on a study by Phil Zuckerman and finds that the most organically atheistic countries in the world are better off.

The top 10 non-religious countries according to the study are:

  1. Sweden

  2. Vietnam

  3. Denmark

  4. Norway

  5. Japan

  6. Czech Republic

  7. Finland

  8. France

  9. South Korea

  10. Estonia

This is from the paper, from the site I was at:
High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world – particularly nations with high birth rates – atheism is barely discernible.

Unfortunately the link to the paper leads to a dead end. But I did some other research to try to find out more. Phil Zuckerman wrote a book called Society without God. I have to point out, though, the study that Mr. Zuckerman conducted was interviewing 150 Danes and Swedes over 14 months, so while the results are quite compelling, it wasn't an enormous amount of data that he pulled from.

I found a site with another paper by Gregory S. Paul rather wordily titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies". I didn't read the whole thing, but from what I gathered, it's coming to a similar conclusion as Zuckerman.

Then I found this gem of an article at Slate entitled "Does Religion Make You Nice? Does Atheism Make You Mean?" written by Paul Bloom. This thought provoking piece addresses several different ideas such as how Americans feel about atheism, religion and morality, on both sides of the issue.

He talks about some experiments called The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality where it seems that people are nicer and more generous when they a primed with religious words. But Paul Bloom says the same effects can be shown when people are exposed to posters with eyes on them, so it would seem that people are nicer when they feel they are being watched, and are never alone, which christians believe.

Paul Bloom goes on to say that in America there certainly is a correlation between religion and "niceness" and then mentions Gross National Happiness where Arthur Brooke finds that atheists are less charitable than god fearing folks. Atheists donate less blood and offer less change to homeless people, which he speculates makes atheists more miserable.

Now, here's where things get interesting and go back to Zuckerman. As mentioned above, he studied the Danes and Swedes who are organically atheist. But they're quite nice to each other. They're committed to social equality and they have less rape and murder than America.

Then the next paper I talked about, by Gregory S. Paul, looked at 18 democracies and found that the more atheistic societies had relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

What does it mean then, when you put it all together?

Paul Bloom has a fascinating explanation that seems to make sense. It's about community and society, more than believing that you're under constant surveillance by an invisible man in the sky. Humans are better and happier when connected to others. Robert Putnam, a sociologist, wrote Bowling Alone where he says we need to associate with others for happiness and health as well as a more stable democracy.

That's what Zuckerman found with the Danes and Swedes, who are very community oriented and who often identify themselves as Christian even though they don't actually believe in god.

Back in the old US of A, atheists are shunned and left out of community life. Religion is one of the main ways that people come together, so atheists are left out in the cold. PZ Myers says, "Scattered individuals who are excluded from communities do not receive the benefits of community, nor do they feel willing to contribute to the communities that exclude them."

I have to say, this strikes home for me. As an atheist living in a rather religious area, it sucks. I certainly feel little or no community with all the people who worship god out of the right side of their mouth, and spew forth hypocrisy from the left. They don't want anything to do with me either.

While I'm rather generous to the people in my small group of friends and family, when it comes to my community I don't have much to do with it. I don't flaunt my atheism around here, but I don't kowtow to their bullying christian ways either.

I also have to say, I'm a rather happy atheist. I'm certainly not miserable because I am godless. But it wouldn't be inaccurate to say it would be nice to be more connected to society and not feel so isolated.


  1. I saw Hitchens debate Rabbi Wolpe on Thursday. Wolpe claimed that it has been shown through numerous studies that religion makes people happy. I think you are right here, though. It is more likely the community and solidarity bonds formed more than the content of the faith.

  2. Yup, it sure seems like that is the case. What did Hitchens say in reply to Wolpe?

  3. Hitchens replied by saying that he is skeptical of the worth of such studies. Do they include suicide bombers in their surveys? Or just suburban church ladies?

  4. Awesome! Most clever. I'd have to agree with him. Thanks, James. :)