Benefits of Religion Limited to Fervent Believers

New research finds the well-documented link between religiosity and happiness applies only to those whose faith is robust.
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The benefits of belonging to a religious community don’t have to be taken on faith. Numerous studies have linked participation in a congregation with good physical and mental health, as well as higher levels of subjective well-being.

But a new paper offers a rather large caveat to those findings.

“While fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion,” a research team led by Daniel Mochon of the Yale School of Management reports in the journal Social Indicators Research. “As commitment wanes, religious involvement may become detrimental to well-being, and individuals may be better off seeking new affiliations.”

Mochon and his colleagues examined data taken from a survey of 6,465 people from all 50 states, a sample that offers “a good cross-section of the American population.” They noted each respondent’s age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, education level, household income and political and religious affiliation.

Based on their answers to a series of faith-related questions, participants were placed on a scale of 1 (least religious) to 7 (most). Their well-being was assessed from their responses to such questions as “How do you feel right now?” and “How satisfied are you with your life in general?”

They found that “[w]hile people who are highly religious seem to have the highest levels of subjective well-being, those with more moderate belief seem to suffer from their religious involvement.”

Specifically, those at the top end of the religiosity scale “reported significantly higher well-being” than those at the bottom. But those in the middle were no happier than the nonreligious, and those with moderate to low levels of religious belief reported lower levels of well-being than atheists and agnostics.

“Those with temperate faith can be harmed by their affiliation, and may be even less happy than those who have chosen to forgo religious affiliation altogether,” the researchers report.

Why would this be? Evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber, who was not involved with this study, arguably put his finger on it when he noted that religions, whatever their doctrinal differences, “promote the conviction that our existence is purposeful and our lives worthwhile.” This positive outlook “carries a substantial health premium,” he notes.

But if one is regularly hearing about this sense of purpose but doubting its veracity, it’s easy to see how any immune system-boosting benefits could be negated. Under such circumstances, it might be less stressful to simply abandon the shaky belief or find another that is a more comfortable fit.

These findings are particularly interesting in the light of newly released data finding that while overall church affiliation in the U.S. continues to decline, membership in Pentecostal churches, which emphasize enthusiastic belief, is rising. That fervor, it appears, stimulates the here-and-now benefits of belonging to a religion.

The bottom line for churchgoers: If your faith is strong and you take comfort in being part of a community of like-minded people, you’re probably doing yourself some good. On the other hand, if you’re standing in a large, drafty building listening to a message that doesn’t really resonate, it might be best to respectfully take your leave.

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