Sigmund Freud counted himself an enemy of theistic belief. “When a man is freed of religion,” Freud once declared, “he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life.”
Recently, however, several studies have examined the role that theism plays in the lives of believers. These suggest that Freud, had he gone through the trouble of actually testing his claims, might have reached a different conclusion.
In a 2006 paper titled “Deliver us from evil: Religion as insurance,” researchers Andrew Clark and Orsolya Lelkes surveyed hundreds of studies on the effects of faith. Speaking at a 2008 Royal Economic Society conference, they argued that those who believe in God are happier than those who do not. Their research showed that activities like praying and attending worship serve to bolster well-being. Moreover, they found that atheists suffer more psychological damage from the divorce or death of a partner than theists – the opposite of what Freud anticipated.
When a study attributes benefits to faith, atheists commonly respond by alleging that the benefits are actually coming from some correlation of faith. For example, religious people tend to have more friends and smoke less. This rebuttal constitutes a kind of concession to theism, as it implies that something about belief in God promotes healthy behaviors. Regardless, the point is moot: researchers have tested for these factors – and when they do, the results become even more compelling.
Consider a five-year study by David Campbell and Robert Putnam, which shows that people who attend religious services are more inclined to be “neighborly” than those who don’t. Or, in the words of Toby Young in a Nov. 16, 2010, Telegraph article, “Religious people are actually much nicer than atheists.”
Not only did the authors control for one’s number of friends, but they discovered that, in their own words, “While having more friends is, for civic purposes, better than having fewer friends, what matters most is having friends within a religious congregation.” The study showed that Americans who regularly attend worship services volunteer for the poor and elderly more than their less devout peers. It even found that religious Americans donate more to secular charities than secular Americans.
Similarly, a seven-year follow-up to the 1987 National Health Interview survey conducted partly at the University of Colorado at Boulder controlled for education, income, marital status, number of friends, number of relatives, smoking, alcohol use and broad indexes of health and behavior. It found that people who never attended religious services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period, giving the religious, on average, about seven additional years of life.
Atheists who admit that faith provides benefits may still contend that they are not relevant to the truth of theism. It’s difficult to imagine, however, a useful concept of truth that ignores the results a claim produces in actual practice. Had these studies found that holding atheist beliefs makes one happier and healthier, atheists certainly would not hesitate to hold them up as a validation of their worldview.
William James, a 19th-century American philosopher, argued that certain beliefs must be held before one can obtain the evidence that they are true. For example, if you refuse to engage in friendship with others until they’ve first proven themselves as your friends, you are unlikely to make many friends. Likewise, James said of theism that “evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we met the hypothesis half-way.” Recent research reveals that this evidence manifests in the lives of those who believe.
At a Feb. 1 debate on theism at Purdue University, prominent atheist Alex Rosenberg concluded his argument by telling listeners, “Believe if you want to. Have faith in Jesus Christ if you need to.” Statements like these seem to grant that believing in God offers benefits while also asserting that atheists somehow do not need faith to get them. However, the data consistently suggests that this is not the case. Atheists, by all indications, are less happy and healthy than believers.
It warrants mentioning that many studies, like a famous 2010 Pew Forum survey, show that atheists also tend to be very well-read and intelligent. My own conversations with atheists, of whom I know several, have certainly affirmed as much.
Ultimately, atheists are limited by the same basic human needs as you and I, and they have a worldview that leaves one of these needs unmet. It’s the freedom religion gives us, it turns out, that truly gives us the best chance at a wholesome life.
Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.