April 20, 2022 - 2:00pm

Writing in The Atlantic about young people and well-being, Derek Thompson begins with a disturbing statistic: 

From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26% to 44%…
- Derek Thompson, The Atlantic

Those are figures from a CDC survey of 8,000 high schoolers. It’s more than possible that Covid and lockdown have made things worse, but the trend predates the pandemic. So how does one explain it?

Thompson considers four contributory factors: social media use, the decline in real-life social interactions, exposure to depressing news, and parenting practices. Each explanation has something to be said for it, but there’s another possible factor — the long-term decline in religious affiliation among young Americans.

Of course, to consider this as a potential cause of growing unhappiness, one would need to establish a link between religiosity and personal well-being. Various studies have found such a link, but how robust is it? 

Well-being isn’t like body temperature or a heart rate — it is hard to measure, and the data is open to multiple interpretations. Bringing religion into the matter introduces further scope for disagreement.

To help cut through the confusion, a study led by Suzanne Hoogeveen of the University of Amsterdam asked 120 different research teams to analyse the same international dataset. You can read the whole study on PsyArXiv Preprints or there’s an excellent summary above.

The big result is almost all the research teams concluded that religiosity and self-reported well-being were positively correlated. Only three teams did not find a positive correlation. 

The research teams were also asked to look at a second question. Does the relationship between religiosity and well-being depend on whether religious adherence is considered “normal and desirable” in the relevant country? On this issue, there was less agreement among the research teams — with a minority concluding that there was evidence against the hypothesis. 

It could be that complying with a prevailing social norm — whether religious, irreligious or anti-religious — is less stressful than dissenting from it; but, on the other hand, participants in a belief system may derive more benefit if they’re making a sincere personal commitment, not just following the herd. 

There’s a wider question here for policymakers. If they see it as their business to address questions of well-being among the citizens they’re responsible for — and especially young people — then how should they respond to the evidence that religious belief and practice is, on balance, a positive factor? 

Prescribing religion like a course of anti-depressants is obviously not the way forward, but nor is an aggressively secular policy that seeks to cleanse the public square of any hint of a higher power. To assume away the human soul and its spiritual needs is not a neutral position, it is an ideological choice — and I’m not sure it’s working out for us. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.