by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 20
April 2022
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14:00

Secularism is leaving us feeling empty

New research shows that religiosity is linked to positive well-being
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

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. 

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Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
7 months ago

I am now quite convinced that religious belief is necessary for the human condition. The ancients realised this and we moderns have rejected that wisdom. I now accept, unlike my younger self, that a Divine is needed to lend perspective. If we, as an alternative, worship things made by ourselves we lead shallow inconsequential lives. Deep down many know that the modern ‘religions’ (populated by wealthy kids of all ages with little to do) stick in the craw and are unsatisfying.
“….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..”
Yes.
I found my higher power after years of rejecting its existence. I had a predictable story. My wife died at 46. Face with raising three school age children I decided to rely on self will and alcohol. It did not go well. After four years of resistance, my higher power came in the form of AA. Whilst this does not apply to everyone, the sense of something bigger to help us through the most painful parts of human existence was what I had lacked in my educated ‘modern’ scientific view of the world.
It appears entirely reasonable to suggest that belief and happiness are completely consistent. But it has to be a form of traditional belief. Not a foundationless one we invented yesterday.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Rogers

“self will and alcohol” – Isn’t this self-contradictory? One either has self-mastery of the will, such as how much one choose to drink, or one is an alcoholic, I don’t really see how the two are compatible.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Rogers

Glad things are working out for you Paul. I came to the same conclusion as you after fifty years.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
7 months ago

The trick, I think, is knowledge in depth. Religion is old wisdom, and if you study something like the history of Catholicism, you’ll know there’s nothing new under the sun. Nietzsche? Pelagian heresy. Trans movement? Gnosticism. You’re not going to get that strumming your tinny guitar at a Novus Ordo Mass or propping up that old rugged Cross. It’s a scandal that the Church is expending all its energy trying to bury what it spent 2000 years building.

Last edited 7 months ago by Francis MacGabhann
Andrew D
Andrew D
7 months ago

If you believe your life has a meaning you’re more likely to be happy than if you believe life is essentially meaningless. Pretty obvious really.

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago

Hmm. Delve down into the questionnaire used and it starts off asking about religiosity and only then asks about wellbeing. The order of questions may be important and influence the outcome of the survey(s). Plus there is some possible bias in that only the people interested in filling out such a survey had their results included. Were the wellbeing questions alone offered to non-believers as a control? (Not obviously)
Just as assuming away the human soul and its spiritual needs is an ideological choice, so too is the assumption that believing in the human soul and spiritual needs is associated with wellbeing.
More work needs to be done.

Josef Oskar
Josef Oskar
7 months ago

Approach to religion requires being humble and serious study. It should come as no surprise that the famous phrase:
“Love thy brother like thyself” is coming from the book of Leviticus ( the Hebrew Bible) 8’th century BC
as are many of today’s basic principles of our civilization which are taken for granted by everyone, “seculars” included.
He who saves one life saves the world entire, is an old jewish saying that was adopted, and they don’t know it, by Islam.
Respect thy father and mother is the fifth commandment. By the way in hebrew the word dibrot is not commandments, wrongly translated, but sayings. nobody is commanding you to observe them, it is your own responsibility.
It is one’s responsibility to choose between right and wrong.
I can go on for many , many lines but I hope I have delivered the messagge.

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
7 months ago

I found the term religiosity problematic so looked it up in an English and then American dictionary. UK calls religiosity excessive. American, the practice of devotion. Divided by a common language once again. I am someone of faith. I find it very irksome to be told that I believe in a literal bible. ( started mainly in 19 th Century. Previous generations thought the Bible was allegorical. I find it irksome to be told that faith is merely a crutch or the opium of the people. I find it horrendous that peoples’ beliefs can be used to control. Those control narratives also include atheistic states too. Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin? There is so much history and psychology in ancient writing. Instead, we tend to be told forms of magical thinking both religious and secular. If you pray hard enough, sacrifice enough etc. then you will get what you want instead of actually looking at what , for example, the Lord’s Prayer says. In context, the teaching urges the avoidance of virtue signaling by praying in secret for God’s will to be done , to forgive others and ourselves and to be grateful for the means of life on a daily basis. I found that a good way to negotiate the transition to becoming an adult.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
7 months ago

This is a complex issue, and to call religion the prescribed antidepressant for people with depression or other social problems would be a huge leap of faith. People with depression or other problems like addictions of any kind need help, but most of all they need to find a way out that helps them stand on their own two feet and not on some new crutch. Otherwise, they are easy prey for manipulation and may become addicted again and eventually not learn to stand on their own two feet. Religion promises things it cannot deliver, and even if many enjoy the communal aspect of their community, the moment a person tries to leave it, they will feel rejected again. Most religions understand this and have built their communities around the human need for community and a reason why we exist.

Vince B
Vince B
7 months ago

An innate advantage of being religious, or deeply spiritual, is the knowledge/faith that there is meaning to this life and all its trials and triumphs – even if one can’t identify what that meaning is. That can take a person a long way in life.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine how empty, how existentially terrifying, it must be to live a life convinced that we are nothing but electrified meat, pursuing pleasure while avoiding pain, until the lights go out.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
7 months ago
Reply to  Vince B

Well you grow up and decide without being told by a book that you should care for people you love and act generally altruistically. At the same time you’re not anguishing over absurd dogma that is self evidently not true. You don’t have dark nights of the soul because of some guilt you’re supposed to have. You don’t see war and destruction as ‘evil’. It comes from evolutionary animalistic impulses. That doesn’t make it better of course. You hate bad things but you don’t wonder why God allows it or assume it’s part of his plan like Patriarch Cyril in Russia and you don’t spend your time praying that something might or might not happen and justifying it as God’s will when it does or doesn’t. That would lead to despising one’s self wouldn’t it?

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
7 months ago

If you are one of the many secular people who have strong ethics – and routinely do good deeds for others – then there is no gap for a religion to fill.
Maybe this is the correlation you are looking for.
A lot of people haven’t discovered how good it feels to do stuff for others in “the group” which is a highly successful factor in group survival/evolution.

Last edited 7 months ago by Ian Barton
Lindsay Snoman
Lindsay Snoman
7 months ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

There are many today who are doing good things, unfortunately they seem to be keen to do it for the pat on the back (virtue signalling) rather than the warm fuzzy feeling from being a decent sort.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
7 months ago

Which one should I choose? They all have different beliefs and all claim to be correct. Perhaps Unherd is making some humorous point by publishing this next to the article about Patriarch Cyril endorsing Putin?

Last edited 7 months ago by Terence Fitch
Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
7 months ago

“… research shows that religiosity is linked to positive well-being…”

Absolutely. So are magic mushrooms.
“…Prescribing religion like a course of anti-depressants is obviously not the way forward…” a and the second part of that is not explored, why not just prescripe anti depressants, if they work out well for some?
To say “…nor is an aggressively secular policy that seeks to cleanse the public square of any hint of a higher power..”, well no doubt both the taliban and Big Pres Xi would agree with you.

Last edited 7 months ago by Prashant Kotak
D Glover
D Glover
7 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

You’re right. I’m sure Vladimir Putin feels much better about himself because of his advanced religiosity.

Vince B
Vince B
7 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I think you may be conflating happiness with meaning. Anti-depressants, ice cream and pizza can support the former, but a spirtual basis for living provides the latter.