The Human Truth Foundation

Happiness and Religion
Does Belief Make You Happy Or Does Unhappiness Make You Believe?

By Vexen Crabtree 2014


#atheism #buddhism #happiness #human_development #religion #religions #secularisation

Scattergraph of god-belief (theism), religiosity and happiness, by country


Religious believers often say that their religion makes them happy and that this is one of the reasons for them remaining loyal to their religion3,4. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was distraught by this, blurting out that no-one should "regard a doctrine as true merely because it makes people happy... happiness and virtue are no arguments"5. But even more unfortunately, it happens that across the world, religious countries are still unhappy.

Adrian White, a University of Leicester psychologist [analyzed] more than a hundred studies that questioned eighty thousand people worldwide. [...] White's work clearly shows that high levels of belief do not guarantee high levels of happiness for societies. Based on the data, high levels of nonbelief seem more conducive to a society's overall happiness than belief.

Adrian White
Science Daily (2006)6

In other words, religious beliefs are more prevalent in unhappy countries. But do unhappy people become more religious, or, is it the case that if a country becomes too religious, it descends into a state of unhappiness? Put the other way around, if people become happy overall, do they forget about religion, or, if people abandon their religions, do they begin to become more happy? The answers are not easy to find, but, at least, we can see the happiness and religion are certainly negatively correlated on a country-by-country basis, and, within populations. This is made possibly worse by the fact that religious adherents are amongst two groups more likely to over-estimate their own happiness simply because they are institutionalized into repeating the story of 'how happy my religion makes me'7. Atheist countries, including Buddhist ones, are happiest4. And the non-religious are happier than religious folk.

1. Questions on Causation Verses Correlation

There are important questions to be asked, and I attempt to answer each one below. Some questions are based on the assumption of a causal link between religion and happiness, whilst others are looking for the underlying cause of both unhappiness and religiosity if they are not linked. The questions:

  1. Do unhappy people become more religious?
    (Is it a coping mechanism?)

  2. If people become happy overall, do they forget about religion?
    (Does materialism suppress spiritualism?)

  3. If people abandon religion, do they become happier?
    (Is being 'care-free' the explanation?)

  4. What causes underdeveloped countries to be both more religious, and less happy?
    (It could, for example, lack of education.)

  5. Is there something about highly developed countries that both causes irreligiosity and causes happiness?
    (Free-market capitalism, or, materialism for example.)

  6. If a country becomes too religious, does it descend into a state of unhappiness?
    (Does religion cause angst and division?)

Reading each of these, it is easy to imagine situations that support each and every one of these six cases. For example, religion is negatively linked to intelligence. Given the complexity of hard-to-define terms like "belief" and "religion", the chances are that all the factors mentioned so far play a part. Clearly, to obtain a clear view of causality is going to be very difficult indeed.

1.1. Do Unhappy People Become More Religious? Is it a Coping Mechanism?

#psychology #thinking_errors

Some studies have found that people who attend religious services are happier than others who do not4. Sociological surveys into the causes of religion have found that there times when people are more susceptible to conversion to a religion. These are the 'hard times', where life is unsure, the future seems as troubled as the present, and the individual feels helpless. A portion of us humans find that in such times, religious conversion is more likely. I have already talked about statistical regression and religious conversion during hard times on What Causes Religion and Superstitions?:

The regression fallacy occurs when people extract too much meaning from chance events under specific circumstances. Disease and fortune come and go: because of the law of regression when things are at their worst they are likely to simply get better on their own no matter what we do. But when things are bad, some will "try" all manner of superstitious, meaningless and misguided practices - including all kinds of alternative therapies. Social psychologist David Myers agrees: "when things reach a low point... whatever we try - going to a psychotherapist, starting a new diet-exercise plan, reading a self-help book - is more likely to be followed by improvement than by further deterioration"8. Because we rarely employ controls and statistical analysis in our personal lives, it seems that any attempted solution, from the zany to the insane, has actually worked. This is the cause of untold numbers of superstitions, magical practices, religious beliefs and pseudoscience, and can sometimes lead large numbers of people astray, especially when stories and anecdotes are published by the press.9,10,11,12

This is why many cults, religions and pseudo-therapeutic fads prey on the weak, depressed, down-and-outs and those who have recently experienced catastrophe. Such people are more likely to try new religions13.

The solution is to be more cognizant of Human thinking errors. Cause and effect must be analyzed statistically, carefully, and by (social) scientists who know how to discount confounding factors. Simply put: do not assume that some action or event causes a change in the frequency of another event without investigating it properly; no matter how much it goes against common-sense to deny the correlation, cognitive thinking errors such as the regression fallacy can easily lead us to false conclusions based on limited data.

"Statistical Regression: Causes of Strange Beliefs and Pseudoscience" by Vexen Crabtree (2017)

It seems that this explains the statistical trend whereby national happiness is inversely proportional to the popularity of religion: unhappiness simply causes more people to be convinced by religious evidences and ideas of the hereafter.

1.2. Do Happy Nations Forget About Religion? Does Materialism Suppress Spiritualism?

Religious conversions are more likely during hard times and such affects will be greater during times of national turmoil. But consider the opposite: if a nation gradually becomes happier and happier, conversions will become rarer and rarer. If conversion is linked to the importance placed on religion, then, it seems that happy people place less importance on religion so, over time, national happiness will undermine religion. Therefore the correlation between unhappiness and religion is explained because as a country recovers from depression and becomes more peaceful, people lose interest in religion. So this is not the case of materialism suppressing religion.

1.3. If People Abandon Religion, Do They Become Happier? Is Being 'Carefree' the Explanation?

#denmark #estonia #sweden

Although there is a clear trend that the less religious a country is the happier it is (see the chart at the top of this page), there are partial exceptions. In Estonia only 16% of the populace say that religion is important to them, and only half of them believe in god(s). Yet, happiness is low for such a country, rating only 5.1 on the Overall Life Satisfaction as reported by the United Nations (UNHDR, 2011). This peculiarly low satisfaction with life may well be due to unique factors affecting only Estonia, but, it is still the case that Estonia is on the top half of the happiness scale despite having abandoned religion.

Moralistic religionists, normally the monotheistic type, would clearly like to claim that by giving up religion, people live a less moral, a less conscientious, and a more materialistic life, and, are therefore happier. However, a number of highly non-religious countries such as Sweden and Denmark are also the most crime-free and rate very well on other measures that indicate that their lack of religion is certainly not impacting negatively on morals. It seems that the care-free argument, that irreligious people are simple living more selfishly, is not true.

Aside from national statistics, individuals in religious countries who pursue a path of reason and skepticism are ordinarily more troubled than the unthinking hordes around them. There is a long series of philosophical books examining the association between deep thinkers and the lack of happiness born from materialistic and social sources. Immanuel Kant wrote that such deep thinkers "find that they have, in fact, only brought more trouble on their shoulders. Rather than gained in happiness; and they end by envying, rather than despising, the more common stamp of men"14. An incredible examination of such people was penned by Colin Wilson in "The Outsider"15.

All of this serves to tell us two things:

The irony is that those on the front line of rational thought do not battle against religionists because they are pursuing happiness, however, the overall effect of their battles is an increase in happiness for everyone else. And during these battles, theologians often state that the non-religious are seeking happiness at the expense of morality. They could not have their facts more wrong!

1.4. What Causes Underdeveloped Countries to be More Religious and Less Happy? Is it Lack of Education?

#belarus #buddhism #estonia #hinduism #russia #vietnam

National under-development, low national average intelligence and poor social stability are all correlated with high rates of religious belief. In other words - as a country gets richer, better educated and more stable, religion declines. The more well developed the country is the less religious it is. For our purposes here, we need to also consider education to be of note. Mass education is one of forces that works to undermine religious thinking. Social stability relies on the arms of government such as police, justice and infrastructure management to be in good functional order. Corruption, poverty and poor governance affect an entire countries health - including mental health.

Chart data footnote: 16

Chart showing National Development is negatively correlated with national religiosity

In countries with a per-capita GDP equal to or below $2,000, the average religiosity rate is 95%. For rich countries, with per-capita incomes higher than $25,000, the rate is half as much - 47%. A few countries do not fit this trend, but, there are clear historical reasons for this. All four lower-income countries with low religiosity rates (Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Vietnam) were all subject to long-lasting restrictions against religion17.

Dr Nigel Barber has analysed many of the same sets of statistics as I have, and his published works are somewhat more methodical than mine and show the same results. He writes that "the question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence" (2011).

Likewise, researchers Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have approached this from an evolutionary and a sociological stance and both argue that belief in God is correlated with the level of difficulty of life in general - that "in countries where food is plentiful, health care is universal and housing is accessible, people believe less in God than in those countries where their lives are insecure"18. Sociologist of religion Professor Roderick Main writes that "where the technology and resources to mitigate major sufferings such as poverty and sickness exist, it is understandable that, for some, the appeal of religious consolations should diminish"19

The link is between development and our understanding of the world. In other words, the more mysterious and hard to control the world is, the more strongly religion suits people's demands20 for an ultimate victory over life. This future may take the form of a perfect afterlife (and maybe punishment for wrongdoers), or it may take the form of absolute dissolution where all the trials of life can be seen to have been steps towards annihilation - the former one being a typically "Western" solution adopted by Abrahamic religions whereas the latter is "Eastern" as adopted by Hinduism and Buddhism.

1.5. Is There Something About Highly-Developed Countries that Cause Happiness and Irreligiosity?

Chart data footnote: 1

Scattergraph of god-belief (theism), religiosity and happiness, by country and UNHDR 2011 development category

It might not be the case that religiosity affects happiness. Wealth could be the true trend-setter; as countries get wealthier, they may get happier and at the same time lose their religions. This would mean there was no causation involved between irreligiosity and happiness. To find this out, I devised Chart 2 to show the happiness trends with the data set divided into development categories.

The UN Human Development Reports (UNHDR) categorize countries by their overall development level, taking into account a wide range of factors (wealth, education, crime rates, stability, etc). LDI is "Low Development Index" countries, "MDI" is Medium, HDI is "High" and VHDI is the Very Highly Developed Countries. There are the same number of countries in each category.

Chart 2 shows that although the overall trend exists, that happiness increases as religiosity falls, it is not a simple correlation and the trend varies by development level.

The developmental trend is clear: the more highly developed countries are happier and less religious. As in the case of Very Highly developed countries which has a flat line, it seems that once a certain level of education, wealth and stability is attained countries do not see their happiness change in accordance with the importance given to religion by the populace. In highly developed countries, happiness has nothing to do with religion.

The other three trendlines are somewhat unclear. Every trend from this data has a low R squared value, meaning, that the correlation is weak between religiosity and happiness, although, the overall trendline, which contains all the data points, is of higher accuracy.

Given the weak correlations and the flat line of the VHDI trend, it seems apparent that developmental factors such as wealth, stable food supplies, stable governance, low crime and good education, are all more important to happiness than religion, at least, at the average national level. There is scope for communities within nations to be more influenced by religion.

1.6. If a Country Becomes Too Religious, Does It Descend Into Unhappiness? Does Religion Cause Angst and Division?

In the West, in Chart #2 above, there is no link between religiosity and happiness at the national level. But some communities within nation-states are more affected by religion than others. For example, psychologists have found that highly religious Protestants more from obsessive-compulsive disorders compared to others21.


But in general, it has not been possible to pursue this line of inquiry. There are not many countries that are becoming more religious, and therefore it is hard to gauge any effect on happiness. Of those countries where religion is increasing, many are ex-communist countries recovering from their periods of the repression of religion. It is easy to imagine that the road to democracy is littered with bumps and surprises, anxieties and reliefs, and this makes it very hard to distinguish between political, economic and religious effects on national happiness.

2. The False Lure of the Pursuit of Happiness

There is a prominent line of thought that in order to govern properly, you must go down the path that leads to the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This is called the "greatest happiness principle"23. From small groups of friends to the setting of national policy, this rule of thumb seems the most natural guideline to follow. But there are serious problems, easily acknowledged when thinking about this as a method of governance. Spending freely makes people happy, but only for so long: the resultant economic crash will also make many people unhappy. Promising that God will soon come to rule the Earth may fill believers with zeal, but, after a few generations, the promise is a cause of embarrassment. The skeptical misanthrope Anton LaVey, with disdain for the poor quality short-term choices that people make in the name of happiness, states "a comfortable falsehood will always win out over an uncomfortable truth"24: But it is more to the truth to admit that all of us make some decisions in the name of short-term happiness, and some decisions in the name of strategy and wisdom, even if it means forgoing some immediate pleasure. Many people would admit the observations of psychologist William James and philosopher Immanuel Kant:

What immediately feels most "good" is not always most "true".

"The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James (1902) [Book Review]25

Unfortunately, the notion of happiness is so indefinite that although every man wishes to attain it, yet he never can say definitely and consistently what it is that he really wishes and wills. [...] We cannot therefore act on any definite principles to secure happiness.

"Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals" by Immanuel Kant (1785)26

The search for long-term policies that create the most amount of happiness is full of arbitrary lines: how much of a population's unhealthy habits do you tolerate in order to keep them happy in the short term? Is it right to demolish and undermine someone's belief system, by providing them with sound arguments and evidence against it, if it causes them unhappiness?

Ancient philosophers often engaged in these very debates just as modern ones do, and amongst both groups there is almost universal denial that happiness alone is an absolute good. Even one of the philosophers whom many would assume to be found declaring so, John Stuart Mill, actually argues against happiness being an absolute value. His philosophy of Utilitarianism contained a very well developed sense of morality and public good and is most well-known for arguing that "the multiplication of happiness is, according to the utilitarian ethics, the object of virtue"27. He argues that people, and beings, that are capable grasping the "higher faculties" of thought react with horror at the thought of stepping down into a mode of life that was less enlightened, even if it would make them happier:

Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast's pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. [...] If they ever fancy they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering [...] than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence.

"Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill (1879)28

It is hard to deny the human truths which John Stuart Mill has brought out into the open. It is clear that some elements of self-identity - our core sense of ourselves as developed higher beings - are simply more important to us than happiness. So, we might bitterly cling to a religion that makes us unhappy and causes us conflict with our neighbours, or, we might sadly move on from a cherished religion because we have discovered its 'truths' to be untenable in the face of scientific evidence. We do not make such choices based on a cost-benefit analysis of our eventual happiness. We make these choices because we value truth more than happiness. Or, at least, many people value truth more than happiness. It is of course the case that many are simply content to be content (and to hell with the truth and other abstract problems!). John Stuart Mill, other enlightened folk and elitists might call them lesser humans, but the fact remains that they exist in enough numbers that it makes it difficult for statisticians to study the correlations between happiness and religion at the national level.

Current edition: 2014 Aug 31
Last Modified: 2018 Jan 18
Parent page: Human Religions

All #tags used on this page - click for more:

#atheism #belarus #buddhism #denmark #estonia #happiness #hinduism #human_development #psychology #religion #religions #russia #secularisation #sweden #thinking_errors #vietnam

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References: (What's this?)

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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.

Abramowitz at al.
(2004) The authors are Jonathan S. Abramowitz, Brett J. Deacon, Carol M. Woods, and David F. Tolin. Article "Association between Protestant Religiosity and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms and Cognitions" in Depression and Anxiety 20 (2004): 70-76. In Stenger (2007)1 p257.

Armstrong, Karen
(2005) A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4. 2008 Kindle edition. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.

Barber, Nigel Ph.D.
(2011) article in Psychology Today (2011 Jul 14).

Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. An e-book.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.

Gilovich, Thomas
(1991) How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. 1993 edition. Published by The Free Press, NY, USA. A paperback book.

Goldacre, Ben. MD.
(2008) Bad Science. Published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, UK.

Harrison, Guy P.
(2008) 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Prometheus Books, New York, USA. An e-book.

James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. A paperback book. Book Review.

Kant, Immanuel. (1724-1804) German philosopher.
(1785) Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. Amazon Kindle digital edition prepared by David J. Cole prepared by Matthew Stapleton. Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott (1829-1913). An e-book.

LaVey, Anton. (1930-1997) Founder of the Church of Satan.
(1998) Satan Speaks!. Published by Feral House, USA. A paperback book.

Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
(2009) Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Richard Lynn, John Harvey and Helmuth Nyborg. Published in Intelligence (2009 Jan/Feb) vol. 37 issue 1 pages 11-15. Online at, accessed 2009 Sep 15.

Main, Roderick
(2002) Religion, Science and the New Age. This is chapter 5 (pages p173-224) of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002)2 (pages p173-224). Pearson, Joanne
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. A paperback book.

Mill, John Stuart. (1806-1873)
(1879) Utilitarianism. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Julie Barkley, Garrett Alley and the Online DistributedProofreading Team. Reprinted from 'Fraser's Magazine' 7th edition, London Longmans, Green, and Co. An e-book.

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(1886) Beyond Good and Evil. Published by AmazonClassics. Translated from German to English by Helen Zimmern (1846–1934). An e-book.

Pearson, Joanne
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK. A paperback book.

Pessi, Anne Birgitta. Academy Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Collegium for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland.
(2011) Religion and Social Problems: Individual and Institutional Responses. This is chapter 52 (pages 941-962) of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011)3 (pages 941-962). Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.

Stenger, Prof. Victor J.
(2007) God, the Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA. Stenger is a Nobel-prize winning physicist, and a skeptical philosopher whose research is strictly rational and evidence-based.

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Zuckerman, P
(2007) "Atheism: contemporary numbers and patterns" in M.Martin (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2009)4


  1. Chart data from multiple sources.
    1. Gallup (2009) on The survey question was "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and results are charted as a percent of those who said "yes". 1000 adults were polled in 114 countries.
    2. Overall Life Satisfaction data is from United Nations "Human Development Report" (2011)29, Table 8, and goes from 1 to 10.
    3. Belief in God from Zuckerman, P. (2007). The belief in God question was phrased as disbelief so the data here is inverted. This exaggerates the numbers of theists, as more shy away from directly saying "I think there is no God", meaning that the chart shows agnostics as well as theists.
  2. Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2009) .^^
  3. James (1902). Digital location 1090. Added to this page on 2017 Jan 25.^^
  4. Harrison (2008). Chapter 10 "Believing in my god makes me happy".^^^
  5. Nietzsche (1886). Para39. Added to this page on 2018 Jan 18.^
  6. Article "Psychologist Produces the First-Ever `World Map of Happiness" published in Science Daily (2006 Nov 14).^
  7. Pessi (2011). P947. Added to this page on 2016 Apr 12.^
  8. Myers (1999). P115-116.^
  9. Gilovich (1991). P23-27,128.^
  10. Goldacre (2008). Chapter 4 "Homeopathy" digital location 628.^
  11. Goldacre (2008). Chapter 13 "Why Clever People Believe Stupid Things" digital location 3428.^
  12. Carroll (2011). Chapter 1 "Believing in the Palpably Not True" p12-13.^
  13. Armstrong (2005). P117.^
  14. Kant (1785). P6. . The slightly strange English is in the original. I corrected capitalisation.^
  15. Wilson (1956) .^
  16. Two data sets. (1) Religiosity from Gallup (2009) on The survey question was "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and results are charted for those who said "yes". 1000 adults was polled in 114 countries. (2) Human Development Index data from United Nation's Human Development Report 2011.^
  17. Gallup (2010 Aug 31 article "Religiosity Highest in World's Poorest Nations". Accessed 2015 Jan 10.^
  18. The Economist (2009 Feb 07). Article "Evolution: Unfinished business".^
  19. Main (2002). P174.^
  20. Barber (2011).^
  21. Abramowitz at al. (2004).^
  22. Stenger (2007) .^
  23. Mill (1879). P5. , so named by Bentham.^
  24. LaVey (1998). From the chapter of statements and aphorisms at the end entitled simply "Satan Speaks!". Added to this page on 2016 May 05.^
  25. James (1902). P37.^
  26. Kant (1785). P55-56. Added to this page on 2016 May 05.^
  27. Mill (1879). Chapter 2 "WHAT UTILITARIANISM IS" p28.^
  28. Mill (1879). P5,13.^
  29. UN (2011) .^

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