Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy?

I stumbled across this study that’s been floating around the atheosphere (my new word for the atheist blogosphere), and since I think some people are getting it a bit wrong, I want to comment on it.

It’s a study on atheism worldwide, comparing countries with high and low degrees of atheism and seeing  well, how those countries are doing. It’s by Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D. titled Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns. (Sorry for the link to the cache; the original link was broken.)

Here’s the article’s summary, the bit that’s been going around:

“In sum, countries marked by high rates of organic atheism [“organic” means “not forced by a dictatorial government” – GC] are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by non-existent rates of organic atheism are among the most destitute. Nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism tend to have among the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates, and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world. The only indicator of societal health mentioned above in which religious countries fared better than irreligious countries was suicide.”

An extremely interesting bit of data. Fascinating. Informative. Useful.

But since atheists and naturalists and skeptics are always yakking on about how correlation doesn’t prove causation, I feel that we need to be extremely careful here — and not jump to the conclusion that atheism makes people happy.

There’s a flip side of this study that I’ve also seen, and it’s very relevant to this question: In the U.S., the conservatively religious “red” states have higher rates of crime, divorce, etc. than the more liberal, less strictly religious “blue” states. Some atheists have used this data (which I can’t find a link for now, sorry) to bolster their arguments that religion doesn’t actually make people moral  and that in fact, it does the opposite.

But I think this is bass-ackwards. I think it’s putting the cart before the horse, the effect before the cause.

I don’t think atheism causes social health and prosperity.

I think it’s the other way around.

And the author of this study agrees.

“I am in no way arguing that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills such as poverty or illiteracy. If anything, the opposite argument should be made: societal health causes widespread atheism, and societal insecurity causes widespread belief in God.” (Emphasis mine.)

If you think about it even for a second, it makes sense. If people are happy in this life, if they’re healthy, well-fed, secure; if they have work they care about; if they feel connected to their society and feel that they have a stake and a say in it — and if they have a fair expectation that their children will have the same — there isn’t anywhere near the same need for a belief in God and an afterlife.

And if people are poor and hungry and sick; if they do back-breaking labor with little or no hope of escape; if their society is corrupt and oppressive and they feel powerless to do anything about it — and if life sucks for their children as much or more as it does for them — then the need to believe in an afterlife that’s better than this one becomes a whole lot more pressing. When you look at the red state/blue state thing in this light, it becomes much more clear: Religion doesn’t increase the crime rate or the divorce rate. Poverty and despair increase both the crime/divorce rate, and the prevalence of religion.

(More on this in a later post about atheism and social justice.)

I’ve also seen studies showing that when people have better education, they’re more likely to be non-believers. And that’s extremely important. If a good education — exposure to scientific information, methods of critical thinking, diverse lifestyles and philosophies, etc. — is part of what softens the ground for atheism  well, one of the factors that makes these healthy atheist countries healthy is a high level of educational attainment. A country with an educated citizenry is more likely to be a country with an atheist citizenry.

But I digress, and I want to sum up. I’m going to quote from the study again:

“Again, to suggest that widespread belief or non-belief in God is the cause of societal health or societal pathology is not my intention. Rather, I am simply seeking to clearly establish that high degrees of non-belief in God in a given society clearly do not result in societal ruin, and high levels of belief in God do not ensure societal well-being.”

That’s the point. The point isn’t that atheism makes individuals happy and a society stable. The point is that it doesn’t do the opposite. Contrary to the belief of many religious believers, people without God’s moral guidance — or the fear of eternal burning and torture — do not run wild in the streets looting and murdering and having sex with farm animals. They live their lives; they do their jobs; they take care of one another. They do okay. Quite well, in fact.

I’m going to quote from the study one last time, since Dr. Zuckerman makes this point so clearly and succinctly:

“This is an important fact to stress because politically-active theists often equate atheism with crime, immorality, and societal disintegration. From Muslim fundamentalists in Iran to Christian fundamentalists in Indiana, the argument is loudly trumpeted that belief in God is “good for society” — an ultimate panacea — while rejection of the belief in God is bad for society. The above discussion reveals that this thesis is baldly incorrect.”

Baldy incorrect.

Thank you, Dr. Zuckerman.

Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy?

15 thoughts on “Is Atheism What Makes Happy Atheists Happy?

  1. 1

    Sam Harris frequently raises this point in his writings and debates; nice to hear some excerpts directly from the author of such a study.
    I’m interested in a bit from the final quotation above: “From Muslim fundamentalists in Iran to Christian fundamentalists in Indiana, the argument is loudly trumpeted that belief in God is “good for society” — an ultimate panacea — while rejection of the belief in God is bad for society.” Do theists truly argue for belief in God on utilitarian grounds? Even if it were possible to simply choose your beliefs, if a utilitarian argument carries any weight,, wouldn’t it make more sense to develop an alternative untrue-but-useful belief system that everyone could sign up to which would be much less divisive and destructive than extant religions?

  2. 2

    There are several ways to combine the results, we can say that Norway, [for example] enjoys more of the good life than a religious country would, not because of the virtues of atheism, but rather the religious country enjoys less of the good life because of its religion. In other words, atheism doesn’t endow its adherents with a better life, it simply doesn’t impede it with nonsensical dogma the good life available to everyone.

  3. 3

    Of course, I doubt they ran the numbers using the fundamentalist’s calculations, where premarital sex and especially homosexuality *equal* (rather than cause) societal disintigration.

  4. 4

    That’s actually an interesting point, Brandon. One of their measures of social health and well-being was, in fact, gender equality — something that many religious fundies of many religions would interpret as a sign of social illness, not health.

  5. Jen

    What an interesting blog post! Your point makes complete sense to me, and might also explain to a certain extent how there are more out atheists (though I realize there are dozens of other facotrs at work too) today in America. Life is certainly better than 200, 1000, or 2000 years ago.

  6. 6

    “The only indicator of societal health mentioned above in which religious countries fared better than irreligious countries was suicide.”
    I really wanted to see some numbers on suicide for Red/Blue states and look at that aspect of the findings in relationship to the USA.

  7. 8

    Stumbling upon this post rather late, very late even, perhaps the correlation between atheism and higher education is also a matter of prosperity: more prosperous people are more likely to attain higher education than more destitute people, so it isn’t what they’ve learned in school that made them atheist, it’s the easy life that got them into school.

  8. 10

    “The “happiness” that theists have often seems to be similar to the “happiness” of a drunk (compared to a sober person). Things are better when they are real!”
    Hey! As a regular drunk, I find that comparison rather offensive!

  9. 11

    On linguistic terms, wouldn’t “atheosphere” also include parts of the atheist universe that aren’t Net-, Web-, or blog-related?

  10. 13

    I can only speak for myself here, and the world seen through my naturalism is awesome: nothing is unknowable or unexplainable, and everything that’s not known or unexplained is just waiting for the right meat computer to come along and solve the puzzle. To me, that’s just one of the beautiful things in a universe where causality can be counted on.

  11. 14

    This would seem to be a lot more complex than which one causes the other. For individuals, poor conditions lead to faith, and for others, poor conditions can lead to atheism. Maybe the link between standard of living and atheism isn’t direct, but the two are actually the result of the phenomenon of logic and better education. The study looks at countries that have organic atheism, probably ignoring countries like China where atheism is enforced and still hasn’t improved things much. It seems there could be another factor that goes along better with the happiness and well being of a country, freedom of belief, not simply just atheism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *