Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do We Need Religious Belief for Happiness and Emotional Security?

I'm pressed for time, so this is just going to be a brief note with some ideas that I need to develop later.  It's widely believed by theists, skeptics, and atheists alike that religious belief serves an indispensable emotional function by giving people a sense of hope, emotional security, and happiness.  So despite all of the powerful arguments in favor of atheism, or at least undermining objections to theism, that doubters present, this response recurs:  "Ok sure, the reasons for believing in the resurrection, God, or other gods are lousy, but what's wrong with someone who still believes, keeps it to themselves, and who derives some personal contentment and emotional security from it?  Why do you have to pick on them?"

Here's the thing:  First, it's not at all clear that the widely accepted link between believing and emotional benefits is true.  Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, has been arguing on the basis of secularism in northern Europe that nonbelievers are actually happier.

Here are a few sources:
Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns

Here's a video of Zuckerman:
Zuckerman: Atheists, Agnostics, and the Irreligious

Here's Zuckerman on bias and discrimination against atheists in the U.S.:  Washington Post: Why Do Americans Still Dislike Atheists?

Do we need God to have a happy society?

Second, humans are notoriously bad at predicting or knowing what will make them happy.  See Dan Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness  Ask people what the effects of a horrible accident or losing a loved one will be on them and they will estimate the effects as much more devastating than they actually are when those traumas occur.  Our basic levels of happiness, contentment, and personal satisfaction reassert themselves in time, even after events in our lives that we estimate will have a long, irreversible negative effect on us.  

So it seems to me that these two issues need to be connected and that we need to re-evaluate the alleged emotional and pragmatic justification for religious believing.  If Zuckerman is right, then it appears that there isn't even a emotional justification for believing.  Getting rid of religious belief might, contrary to what people think, make us happier, healthier, and more emotionally content.


just asking how said...

Couldn't agree more. Putting any god aside can make us happier. In my case it wasn't a case of losing happiness in the process of becoming an atheist, but fear. Yeap, they would told me when i was a child that hell was waiting for those who do not believe. It took a bit of effort to overcome that but it was definietly worth trying.

Unknown said...

I haven’t read the articles yet, but I think it comes down to confidence. If one is confident with their worldview, I believe they can achieve happiness regardless of the truth of said worldview. Couldn’t this be on par with superstitious beliefs in sports? There may be a correlation between the happiness of non-believers and their confidence in knowing they are rationally justified in their non-belief.

VinnyJH57 said...

I think that what we do know about the functioning of the human mind is only a tiny fraction of what we don't know.

I think it possible that our spiritual proclivities are the product of an evolutionary adaptation that enabled man to cope with the profundity of being conscious of his own mortality.

So for me the question is not whether we need religious belief, but whether we have some need that religious belief meets reasonably well and whether we know enough about that need to be sure that it can be met in some other manner more effectively.

Matt DeStefano said...

Here is a short article that points to some empirical measures about this topic.

Matt McCormick said...

Perfect. Thanks MD. Let me get you a beer.

Matt DeStefano said...

I would never refuse a beer from you, MM.

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