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KEY QUESTIONS: Is personal happiness associated with religious belief and involvement?
KEY CONCEPTS: religious belief, religiosity, religious affiliation
KEY SOURCES OF DATA: 2004 General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center.
QUESTION FOR REFLECTION: Answer this polling question, now and compare your responses to those of your peers. After you've read the data analysis, you'll be asked to respond to this question again. See whether your views or your peers' views have changed!
INTRODUCTION: Although sociologists long ago recognized that religious differences were often the source of social conflict, they have also noted that religion meets a variety of positive functions. For example, religion presumably helps provide people with meaning and purpose, a sense of security, and ethical guidelines, although Karl Marx, as discussed in the text, put a negative spin on such functions. He argued in the 19th century that religion was the "opium of the people," deflecting their attention from their material conditions and therefore from participation in the class struggle. But, what about religion today in our society? What do the empirical data show? Does religion actually tend to make one happier?
DATA ANALYSIS: While only you can address the question relative to your personal happiness, we can determine the relationship among the adult American population by examining a recently gathered set of representative data (General Social Survey, 2004).
Although over 90 % of respondents indicated that they believe in God, such belief does not appear to be related to differences in reported unhappiness. As shown in Table 1, proportions of respondents who suggested that their lives were unhappy (implied by the "not too happy" category), were nearly identical to those who said they believe in God (11.3 %) as opposed to non-believers (13.8 %). However, believers and nonbelievers do appear to importantly vary by relative degree of happiness: that is, believers were more likely to indicate that they are "very happy" (31.8 %) compared with nonbelievers (22.5 %).
TABLE 1. HAPPINESS BY BELIEF IN GOD *
|BELIEVE IN GOD|
|NOT TOO HAPPY||11.3||13.8|
* Sample size varies across tables because certain questions were asked of the entire sample, while other questions were limited to sample subsets.
Such patterns are essentially replicated in Table 2, where happiness is shown in relation to religiosity. Like belief in God, reported religiosity does not seem to strongly influence whether one is happy or unhappy. Those who reported that they are "religious" were more likely to indicate that they are "very happy" compared with those who define themselves as being "nonreligious". Those considering themselves to be neither religious nor nonreligious fell roughly in the middle of these two groups.
TABLE 2. HAPPINESS BY REPORTED RELIGIOSITY
|NOT TOO HAPPY||11.8||14.4||16.6|
Religious activities, rather than beliefs, are examined in Tables 3, 4, and 5. As indicated in Table 3, happiness does not seem to be strongly linked to religious affiliation. The only difference worth noting is that Protestants and Catholics were about twice as likely to report being very happy than were Jewish respondents. Further analysis (data not shown in tabular form) indicates that those from conservative Protestant groups are not more likely than Protestants from more liberal denominations to report being "very happy."
TABLE 3. HAPPINESS BY RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION
|NOT TOO HAPPY||11.6||13.8||17.6|
While affiliation is somewhat related to happiness, it is clear that attendance at religious services is positively linked to happiness. As shown in Table 4, those who said they attended on a weekly basis were considerably more likely than less frequent attendees to say they were "very happy." Moreover, they were twice as likely (42.7 %) to report this as opposed to those who never attended (20.5 %). Likewise, a considerably smaller proportion of regular attendees indicated that they were "not too happy" with their lives in comparison to those never attending religious service.
TABLE 4. HAPPINESS BY SERVICE ATTENDANCE
|FREQUENCY OF ATTENDANCE|
|NOT TOO HAPPY||20.5||13.9||8.4|
Finally, as shown Table 5, reported prayer activity is similarly associated with happiness. Those praying daily are more likely to indicate the highest happiness level than those praying weekly or less.
TABLE 5. HAPPINESS BY PRAYER FREQUENCY
|REPORTED PRAYER FREQUENCY|
|NOT TOO HAPPY||12.1||12.8||17.9|
We should note in closing the analysis that many other variables in addition to religious beliefs and activities seem to influence happiness. For example, older people are more likely than middle-aged and younger adults to indicate higher levels of life happiness, and socioeconomic status (SES) has a very significant positive associate with happiness. Since age and SES are both directly associated with religious belief and activity, it is important that we control for their effects in trying to estimate the influence of religion on happiness. Therefore, let's control for age and SES by looking at the strongest religion-related variable, service attendance, among only younger (< 30 years) respondents who are college educated.
As indicated in Table 6, service attendance appears to have very similar effects among this subsample as it did for the larger sample: proportionately almost twice as many weekly attendees as those never attending report being "very happy," whereas attendees report far less unhappiness than do non-attendees.
TABLE 6. HAPPINESS BY SERVICE ATTENDANCE (FOR YOUNGER COLLEGE-EDUCATED ADULTS)
|FREQUENCY OF ATTENDANCE|
|NOT TOO HAPPY||12.3||6.6||3.9|
Now that you've had time to review the data, answer the polling question again and compare your response with your peers' responses.