The Religious Engagement Paradox

Is religion toxic to human flourishing . . . or is it supportive of human happiness, health, and helpfulness? Let’s make this empirical: Is religious engagement associated with humans living well, or with misery, ill-health, premature death, crime, divorce, teen pregnancy, and the like?

The answer differs dramatically by whether we compare places (such as more versus less religious countries or states) or individuals.

 For starters, I manually harvested data from a Gallup World Poll, and found a striking negative correlation across 152 countries between national religiosity and national well-being:

Then I harvested General Social Survey data from the U.S. and found—as many other researchers in many other countries have found (though especially in more religious countries) a positive correlation between religiosity and happiness across individuals.

For additional striking examples of the religious engagement paradox—associating religious engagement with life expectancy, smoking, arrest rate, teen pregnancy, and more (across states versus across individuals)—see here.

Princeton economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Arthur Stone have recently been struck by the same paradox. They ask (here), “Why might there be this sharp contradiction between religious people being happy and healthy, and religious places being anything but?”

Before answering that question—and wondering whether the more important story is told at the aggregate or individual level—consider a parallel paradox, which we might call “the politics of wealth paradox.” Question: Are rich Americans more likely to vote Republican or Democrat?

When we compare states (thanks to Chance News) we can see that low income predicts Republican preferences. Folks in wealthy states are more likely to vote Democratic!  So, being rich inclines one to liberalism?

Not so fast: comparing individuals, we see the opposite (and more expected) result—high income folks vote more Republican.

These are the sorts of findings that excite behavioral science sleuths. Surely there must be some confounding variables. With religiosity, one such variable is income—which is lower in highly religious countries and states. Controlling for status factors such as income (as Louis Tay did for our article with Ed Diener) and the negative correlation between religiosity and well-being disappears, and even reverses to slightly positive. Likewise, low income states differ from high income states in many ways, including social values that also predict voting.

Ergo, my hunch is that, in both the religious and political realms, the most important story is found at the level of the individual. Nevertheless, there are practical uses for these data. If you’re wanting to make religious engagement look bad, use the aggregate, macro-level data. If you want to make religious engagement look good, use the individual data.