People who are active members of a religious community are more likely than those who don’t have those strong religious ties to describe themselves as “very happy,” a new Pew Research Center study has found.
After analyzing data from over 20 countries, Pew researchers concluded that people who regularly participate in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than their peers who are infrequent attendees or who don’t identify with a religion at all.
These apparent disparities in happiness and civic involvement may suggest that countries experiencing a decline in religious engagement, like the U.S., “could be at risk for declines in personal and societal well-being,” the researchers claimed in the study published Thursday.
But there are a few caveats in the study, which Pew outlined in detailed sidebars in the report. Importantly, just because there seems to be a correlation between religious attendance and certain aspects of a person’s well-being, that doesn’t mean that regular worship service attendance is directly responsible for improving people’s lives. In other words, correlation doesn’t imply causation.
There could be many reasons why actively religious people report high levels of happiness, Pew wrote. For example, it’s possible that regularly participating in worship services offers people social connections and support networks that in turn help make their lives happier ― making it easier to find jobs, for example, or to deal with life’s stresses.
Or perhaps it’s that happier, healthier people have the ability to be active in their religious communities, while people who are unhappy and struggling with health or finances may be more isolated and less able to engage.
“While in many countries religious activity seems to be connected with certain benefits, such as higher levels of happiness, it is unclear whether there is a direct, causal connection and, if so, exactly how it works,” the researchers wrote.
Social scientists have long sought to explain how religion affects a person’s health and well-being. Previous research on the health benefits of religion has resulted in mixed findings ― with various studies demonstrating positive, negative or no correlation between religion and health.
The Pew study attempted to bring an international perspective to the issue. Researchers performed an analysis of data from past Pew surveys and two other respected research organizations: the World Values Survey Association and the International Social Survey Programme. The data used in Pew’s final report were collected from 35 countries in surveys conducted from 2010 to 2014.
For the purposes of the study, Pew divided respondents into three categories based on religious affiliation and participation. The “actively religious” identified with a specific religious tradition and attended services at least once a month. The “inactively religious” were fine with claiming a religious identity but, in practice, attended services less frequently. The religiously unaffiliated did not identify with any religion.
Although some religiously unaffiliated folk do attend religious services, this was a rare enough occurrence that it didn’t make a statistical difference in the report, Pew said.
In most of the 26 countries where data about happiness were available, researchers found that being a regular participant in a religious community was “clearly” linked with higher levels of happiness.
In America, 36 percent of the actively religious describe themselves as “very happy,” compared with 25 percent of the inactively religious and 25 percent of the unaffiliated.
Actively religious folk were also more likely than everyone else to say that they always vote in national elections. Sixty-nine percent of actively religious American adults said they always vote in national elections, while 59 percent of inactive religious people and 48 percent of the unaffiliated had the same response.
In addition, the “actives” were more likely to say they were involved in at least one nonreligious volunteer or community organization. Fifty-eight percent of actively religious American adults said that they were involved with at least one voluntary organization, including charity groups, sports clubs or labor unions. Only 51 percent of inactively religious adults and 39 percent of the religiously unaffiliated said the same.
Pew claimed these distinctions between the actively religious and everyone else persisted even after controlling for demographic factors, such as age, gender, marital status, income and education.
The implications of the report are particularly relevant in the U.S., where a growing share of all Americans appear to be abandoning traditional religious denominations. These religious “nones” ― people who self-identify as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” ― now make up about 23 percent of all American adults.
Some sociologists were skeptical about the Pew study.
Ryan T. Cragun, a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa who studies secularization, was concerned that the data about religious activity and happiness didn’t include reports from Nordic countries, such as Finland, Denmark and Sweden. These countries are often rated as some of the happiest places in the world, despite also having large numbers of religiously unaffiliated or inactively religious people.
“There is absolutely no reason to be worried about declining levels of personal or societal well-being that might result from declining religiosity,” Cragun said. “Anyone who has traveled to Norway, Sweden, Finland or Denmark (or France or Switzerland or Austria, and so on) can attest to the fact that the society is extremely healthy, the people are healthy, and most people are very satisfied and happy with their lives.”
Cragun also said that the Pew study didn’t appear to control for chronic health conditions that prevent people from being able to attend religious services. In addition, he wondered whether the reason why less religious and nonreligious people aren’t as happy is because “they experience prejudice and discrimination in societies that privilege and favor religion.”
“This report strikes me as religious fearmongering,” Cragun said. “It is designed to make people think that the declines in religiosity that are occurring in the U.S. are going to lead to something bad.”
Conrad Hackett, one of the lead authors of the report, told HuffPost that the researchers were constrained by the available data in the World Values Survey and International Social Survey Programme data sets ― which didn’t measure chronic health conditions. The available data set also meant that some Western European countries were left out of the analysis.
However, Hackett said the analysis did include some countries with significant unaffiliated populations. For the happiness data, for example, that included Estonia, Uruguay, Japan and Australia. In all of those countries, the actively religious were more likely to say they were “very happy” compared with the inactively religious and the unaffiliated.
“While prejudice and discrimination against less religious people could certainly hamper their well-being, we don’t have evidence this is a primary cause of the broad differences described in our report,” Hackett said.
In addition, Hackett pointed to a 2018 Pew Research Center study on religion in Western Europe that found a significant difference between actively religious Christians and religious “nones” in terms of their participation in civic groups. In Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 21 percent to 23 percent of “nones” said they spent an hour or more in the last month participating in a community group or neighborhood association. On the other hand, 33 percent to 34 percent of highly committed Christians said the same.
Ellen Idler, a sociology professor at Emory College who studies the effect of religious participation on health, was an adviser on the report. Idler told HuffPost that there is a long history of social science research that shows religiously affiliated people also volunteer for nonreligious organizations.
“You could say it is a common kind of affiliative, prosocial, service orientation ― finding ways to feel compassion and to serve others is a teaching of all faiths,” Idler said.
Idler said she often gets asked whether the activities that unaffiliated people flock to (yoga classes, meditation classes, etc.) offer the same social benefits as a religious congregation.
She said there are certainly similarities ― both types of activities involve rituals, peaceful experiences and “wise words” ― but religious congregations have a wide array of ages, from babies to the very elderly, and that age diversity is often lacking in secular classes, for example.
“Religious services are the one age-integrated experience you can have on a regular basis,” Idler said.
But Cragun had a different view about the importance of religious communities:
“Other activities (that don’t have to be spiritual) are absolutely fulfilling the role/function of religion in society,” Cragun said. “People find community in other ways once religion is gone. Religion is not remotely necessary for happy, healthy, functioning societies.”