December 15, 2010

In Life Satisfaction, Social Connections Matter More Than Religion

Image:Asr-cover2010.gif (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to a new study published in American Sociological Review (described at PsychCentral), the positive relationship between religion and life satisfaction centers on the social benefits conferred by religion and not the theological or spiritual components. This is a reputable journal, and the study was conducted by researchers at a solid research university. But my purpose in posting this is not to convince you of the merits of the study. Instead, I'd rather examine the implications for atheists.

The authors of the paper used data collected from a representative sample of U.S. adults between 2006 and 2007. They found that among people who reported attending weekly religious services, 33% of those with 3-5 close friends in their congregation reported being "extremely satisfied" with their lives. On the other hand, only 19% of regular attendees with no close friends in their congregation described themselves as "extremely satisfied." Nothing is surprising about this - the benefits of social support of emotional health and well-being are well known and have been the subject of considerable research.

The surprise, and really the key to the study, was that 23% of those who attend religious services rarely but who have 3-5 close friends in their congregations also described themselves as "extremely satisfied." Evidently, it is the presence of close friends rather than anything about attending religious services that makes the difference. According to one of the authors:
To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there.
So what about atheists? The study didn't look specifically at atheists, but I believe that there are some things about which we can at least speculate. Atheists can have close friends too, and it appears that the presence of close friends is a key part of life satisfaction. While organized religion does indeed provide participants with a place to meet potential friends and reconnect with friends one might not see much during the week, it appears that there is nothing special about the religious nature of the meeting place. This suggests that atheists who have other ways of connecting with people are unlikely to miss much.

In the study, 19% of those who indicated that they never attend religious services and thus do not have close friends in their congregations reported being "extremely satisfied" with their lives. For atheists and others who do not use religious services as a way of connecting with others, I suspect what is most important are one's options for forming social connections elsewhere.

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