Religion & Happiness: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

There’s been a great deal of research on the connection between religiosity and happiness, and the consensus finding is that religious people tend to be happier and to suffer less from anxiety, depression and stress. (Summary via Wikpedia.) I don’t think this necessarily tells the whole story. A study by the Council for Secular Humanism argued, essentially, that if you looked at “resolute atheists” (instead of merely non-religious people) that finding disappears. That seems reasonable, and in my mind the simplest explanation is that people with extreme beliefs are happier because they experience less cognitive dissonance.

But every now and then you’ll find some particularly militant atheist who simply cannot abide the scientific evidence connecting religiosity and happiness. The most recent such eruption occurred on AlterNet a couple of days ago. The basic thesis is this: states with high religiosity have higher anti-depressant use, ergo religion makes people sad. This isn’t a new theory, it goes back to at least the 1990s when Cherrill Crosby wrote an article for the Salt Lake Tribune called “The Ups and Downs of Prozac” in which she implicated Mormonism for making Utah women unhappy. Unfortunately for the decades-old thesis, the doctors that Crosby interviewed wrote a rebuttal stating, in part, that Crosby had decided to:

ignore one of my most important observations: the fact that Prozac is widely used in Utah may be evidence that [psychiatric] treatment in Utah is superior to other parts of the United States which might benefit from increased prescriptions of antidepressants. Epidemiologic studies clearly show that depression is markedly under-diagnosed and under-treated in the United States. How different the article would have been had the author used this point as her underlying assumption!

The photo from the AlterNet article about how religions makes everyone cry.
The photo from the AlterNet article about how religions makes everyone cry.

So, to recap, militant atheists for the last 20 years have chosen to ignore solid, direct evidence that religiosity makes people happier. Instead, they prefer to rely rely on shaky, indirect evidence and unreasonable assumptions to believe the opposite. So much for science, eh?

What’s really telling to me, however, is that this is a win-win proposition for atheist. If religion makes people happy, it’s the opiate of the masses, and atheist depression shows that they are suffering for their integrity. It religion makes people depressed, it’s an oppressive institution and atheist joy shows they are enjoying their liberation from captivity.

If there’s one thing that human beings are good at it, it’s finding a narrative to fit the data that protects their preconceptions. It’s not surprising that religious people do this (after all: isn’t religion just one big story to shield us from our fear of mortality?) but it’s a bit richer in irony to the see the scientific skeptics engaging so brazenly in the same sort of inventions.

(The story about the Salt Lake Tribune and the rebuttal quotes come from the article “Religiosity and Life Satisfaction among LDS Women“.)