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Is there a connection between misery and religion?



Among US states, suffering and belief in god are highly correlated, even after controlling for income and education.

Via Jesse Bering‘s excellent The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life:

In another clever study, Gray and Wegner created a U.S. state-by-state “suffering index” and found a positive correlation between a state’s relative misery (compared to the rest of the country) and its population’s belief in God. To create an objective measure of such relative misery, the investigators used data from the 2008 United Health Foundation’s comprehensive State Health Index. Among other manifestations of suffering, this regularly compiled index includes rates of infant mortality, cancer deaths, infectious disease, violent crime, and environmental pathogens. What Gray and Wegner discovered was that suffering and belief in God were highly correlated, even after controlling for income and education. In other words, belief in God is especially high in places such as Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina— and so is misery, at least as it was defined in this particular study. And that, say the authors, is no coincidence.

As I’ve posted previously, religion’s ability to provide happiness is relative to where you live. In poor areas with fewer resources, the well-being increasing effects of religion are more profound.

Where life is good, religious and nonreligious people are more equal in terms of happiness because the nonreligious have other ways to increase well-being.

As we estimate here, 68% of human beings-4.6 billion people-would say that religion is important in their daily lives. Past studies have found that the religious, on average, have higher subjective well-being (SWB). Yet, people are rapidly leaving organized religion in economically developed nations where religious freedom is high. Why would people leave religion if it enhances their happiness? After controlling for circumstances in both the United States and world samples, we found that religiosity is associated with slightly higher SWB, and similarly so across four major world religions. The associations of religiosity and SWB were mediated by social support, feeling respected, and purpose or meaning in life. However, there was an interaction underlying the general trend such that the association of religion and well-being is conditional on societal circumstances. Nations and states with more difficult life conditions (e.g., widespread hunger and low life expectancy) were much more likely to be highly religious. In these nations, religiosity was associated with greater social support, respect, purpose or meaning, and all three types of SWB. In societies with more favorable circumstances, religiosity is less prevalent and religious and nonreligious individuals experience similar levels of SWB. There was also a person-culture fit effect such that religious people had higher SWB in religious nations but not in nonreligious nations. Thus, it appears that the benefits of religion for social relationships and SWB depend on the characteristics of the society.

Source: “The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?” from J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Aug 1

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Related posts:

If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out?

Why do people say they’re “Spiritual but not religious”?

What can we all learn from religion — whether we believe or not?


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