Religious devotion promotes human flourishing

Just in time for new year resolutions, this NY Times article reviews some studies that show that religious devotion promotes human flourishing (the article focuses on self-control).  Walking in the light of Truth is worthwhile for its own sake of course, but it turns out that religious people are more charitable, have better marriages, more self-control, do better in school, and are generally happier.

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About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

14 thoughts on “Religious devotion promotes human flourishing

  1. Kleiner Post author

    Either that, or there really is something to the age-old philosophical wisdom that truth and flourishing are intimately connected (and the corollary that real flourishing never travels with untruth). That point always get lost in all of the reduced ‘psychological’ (materialist) explanations of these phenomena.


  2. Jon Adams

    So if we could measure the happiness of religious persons, do you think devout Catholics would come out on top? That conclusion seems implicit in your last statement. (1) The truth, you argue, will bear fruit (happiness); (2) Catholicism is the most true religion; (3) therefore devout Catholics enjoy the most happiness. I’m not sure if you hold this curious conclusion, but it does seem to follow from your beliefs.

    About those studies that religious people to be happier: Well first, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is the case. Indeed, I should expect this to be true is ignorance is bliss. And it makes sense that religious people are happier because religions can afford people a sense of purpose. I do have some reservations with these studies, however.

    I have to wonder if it’s the religion itself that brings happiness or the community that religious people enjoy–the church-going experience. Because the studies I’ve read, they’re not ascertaining a person’s religiosity by asking him how deeply he believes, but rather how often he attends religious functions. So it doesn’t seem to be the beliefs so much as activity in a community. The irreligious often lack a comparable community. Thus the need for SHAFT.

    Second, secularism is associated with liberalism and religion with conservatism–in America at least. It is possible, then, that there is something about conservatism that affords people greater happiness over liberalism. Several studies claim to show this:

    Even between equally religious liberals and conservatives, the conservatives win out. This, analysts believe, can be explained for a number of reasons. First, the Democratic Party is a coalition of oppressed groups. These groups often have legitimate grievances, which would of course make them less happy. Second, the liberal worldview is less able rationalize away the suffering in the world. Conservatives fundamentally believe that there is a lot of opportunity in the world and America especially, and that if you’re disadvantaged, then it is probably your own fault. So the inequality and suffering evident in the world takes a greater psychological toll on liberals.

    I also think that religious people are more likely to lie about their happiness. To illustrate: According to one recent survey, Mormon women were among the happiest female demographics in the country. And yet Mormon women consume a disproportionate amount of anti-depressants. I think this disparity is because they are told to be happy (as it is a hallmark of faith), whether or not they are actually happy.

    These factors must be considered when reading studies claiming a causal link between religion and happiness.

    And finally, a couple thoughts on religious vs. secular charitableness: It is undeniably true that, in America, religious people are considerably more charitable than the irreligious. I’d again submit that the sense of community that religious people have can largely explain their charity. They may have a great love for people, because they (intimately) interact with more people, more often. They may also feel peer pressure from their congregation to donate to charity.

    And mind you that, in a number of studies, “charitable donations” include things like religious tithes, which would of course skew the findings in the religious persons’ favor.

    In regards to charitable donations too, political ideology is important. Liberals believe that helping the poor should be a function of the collective, of the government. Conservatives, on the other hand, see it as a personal responsibility–one to be satisfied by charitable donations. So it’s not that secular people (who tend to be more liberal), care less about the poor than religious people. They just approach the issue differently. Look at Western Europe. These nations are incredibly generous relative to the US when it comes to foreign aid. But this aid comes from Europeans by taxes, not personal charitable donations.


  3. Mike

    Apart from accepting useful delusions, I try to appropriate methodological insights wherever I find them. There are quite a few to be found in religion.

    I can’t say what makes other people happy but I know the happiness of not going to church on Sunday mornings.

    I’m not sure about self control but for learning patience I recommend taking on difficult problems (and having a perfectionist father).

    I still don’t know exactly what it means to pray without ceasing but that’s an attitude I tried to adopt into my psyche quite a while ago and haven’t seen the need to rid myself of it.

    “The longing for rest and peace must itself be thrust aside; it coincides with the acceptance of iniquity. Those who weep for the happy periods they encounter in history acknowledge what they want: not the alleviation but the silencing of misery.” -Albert Camus


  4. Kleiner Post author

    I don’t think these studies show too terribly much, too difficult to control for all of the things you would need to control for. They are mildly interesting and fun little shrapnel to throw at atheists.

    A few remarks to Jon:

    a) No serious person that I know thinks ignorance is bliss. The idea that knowledge (the satisfaction of a basic and natural desire of man) could make you less happy reflects a deeply disordered and really unhealthy understanding of human psyche, in my view. Most religions actually have high demands, the potential for lots of guilt, and severe restrictions. The idea that religion is ‘easy avoidance’ is just wrong-headed. (You did not really say that religion is that, I am just taking a run at the stupid idea that ignorance is bliss).

    b) One example about Mormon women and you conclude that religious people are more likely to lie about their happiness? Quite a leap. Especially since other studies show that religious people tend to be more honest.

    c) The community point is well taken. But might it be the case that a condition for the possibility of real community is some commitment to something that actually transcends the community? Why is it so hard for atheists to form communities of their own? Compare hobbits and orcs in Lord of the Rings.

    d) I don’t see why religious tithes skew anything. It is still giving. Couldn’t you tithe 10% to SHAFT, and pressure other members to do the same? If liberals think govt should handle problems, why don’t they give more to the govt? There are boxes on the tax form for you to give extra money to various things, and that can be claimed as a charitable donation. Liberals have more money to give, since they are as a rule more affluent than conservatives. Further demonstration that mere worldly (immanent) things cannot bring happiness?
    I might be wrong, but I think the US gives far more foreign aid than Western Europe, as a total or even from the govts.
    Besides, I don’t know if these studies were restricted to Americans or not. Or whether the studies would be any different if they restricted themselves to liberal religions. If the study holds up for Episcopalians, I think your conservative-liberal points become moot.

    e) I think I would – in principle – commit myself to the claim about Catholicism you first mention (that those with the most fully disclosed and most robust view of man/community/God would be generally the most flourishing). But there are just too many other contributing factors to have this be actual. But in making that claim in principle I am just following Socrates and his view of the pursuit of wisdom and its fruits.
    I don’t want to sound too universalist here, but what I find compelling about the studies is this: human life is marked principally by a tension between the immanent and the transcendent. Those that engage that tension rather than reduce themselves to the immanent (which is what materialists and atheists do) are likely to have more flourishing because they are not actively denying a part of themselves. Of course I think Christianity is especially well disposed to speak to this human tension, for in the Incarnate Christ one finds both the immanent and the transcendent affirmed (Christianity is not nearly so Platonic as Nz likes to think). It is for this reason that JPII often remarked that ‘Human life is a question to which Jesus Christ is the answer.’

    f) The article seemed to suggest that just attending a religious service, just mechanically going through the motions, was not sufficient. There seemed to be something to the level of devotion.


  5. Jon Adams

    Some fair criticisms, but here are my thoughts in rebuttal:

    a) I agree that knowledge satiates a natural desire in man, but the ignorant person does not believe he is without knowledge. The opposite is true, of course–the ignorant man is invariably more confident in his knowledge than is the wise man. He is ignorant of his ignorance.That is precisely what makes him ignorant–that certainty. And religions provide people such certainty.

    That said, I am not wholly satisfied with the “ignorance is bliss” answer–it’s too dismissive perhaps. That’s why I volunteered other explanations in my last post.

    I don’t disagree with you that religion can be demanding and difficult. I can be. But I’m not sure that that rescues religion from the charge of escapism. Freedom does not translate into happiness. Freedom is often overwhelming and oppressive. Many prefer the restrictions and legalism of some organized religions (Mormonism and Catholicism come to mind). Because in these religions there is structure and order.

    b) How did these studies find that religious people were more honest? Similar studies have been done to show that conservatives are more honest than liberals, but these studies were conducted by survey. If the studies your referencing were similarly conducted, then the religious people could just be dishonest about their honesty and secular liberals more honest about their dishonesty ha ha.

    I’ll give you that my one example alone is insufficient to support my conclusion, but I really don’t think the point I’m making is all that controversial. Religious people expect themselves to be happy, because they are told they will harvest happiness as a fruit of their faith. And for those religious people who are not happy, they would sooner deceive themselves and others that they are happy before questioning their religion or their devoutness to it.

    I don’t know. Perhaps this isn’t true for religions generally, but from my experience it is true for Mormonism.

    c) “Compare hobbits and orcs in Lord of the Rings.”

    I’d rather not lol.

    “All 20th century attempts to develop whole societies with no reference to a Beyond have ended in totalitarianism and genocide.”

    Well here’s to hoping SHAFT avoids that fate. ;)

    I imagine you’re alluding to the societies of Mao and Stalin. I think their atheism was incidental to their crimes and to their societies. The problem with their regimes was not that they were too secular, but that they too closely resembled religions!

    And today, the most secular places (Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan) are among the most healthy, peaceful societies.

    d) America gives a large sum of money to foreign aid, but relative to our GDP, it’s pathetic. We rank 14th among the richest nations in giving foreign aid (again, as a percentage of our GDP).

    And in contrast to Europe, the bulk of our aid is military assistance to countries like Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan–it’s not humanitarian.

    e) Meh.

    f) Right, but how did they measure this devotion? From what I can tell from the article, it was measured by how often they frequent church services. So again, I think these studies do more to underscore the need for community, and not necessarily the need for religion.


  6. Kleiner Post author

    ‘Meh’ to the most important point in my post? If religions (which typically embrace a tension between immanence and transcendence) have a better antrhopology, it would stand to reason that they would allow for more flourishing, would it not?
    That atheists are wrong about God is, in a way, a secondary point. They are first wrong about man and that leads them to be also wrong about God. In a sense, there is no need to argue about God, let’s argue about man. We must have an adequate anthropology first.

    I took out the genocide point but it must have been after you read it (your response was too predictable). I think the atheist response is incredibly weak. Somehow whenever religious people kill it is in the name of God (and not greed, power, etc) but when atheists kill it never has anything to do with their atheism (even though every Marxist in the world would tell you that atheism is a central tenet of their view and they kill in the name of the atheistic State!). Meh indeed.
    The point remains that secularists have a really hard time developing community. From my point of view, this simply follows again from their failure to develop an adequate anthropology. Perhaps the Obama phenomena could be pointed to as an example of a secular movement that brought people into community. We’ll see. Even if so, it did so by co-opting very religious language (the argument could be made that Obama is far more religious sounding than Bush).

    I also think the notion that ‘religion provides certainty’ is a real caricature. A hidden God, mystery, fear and trembling, and leaps of faith are not really the marks of ‘certainty’, are they?


  7. Jon Adams

    Ha ha, yeah I thought “meh” would be the most irritating response so I went with it. That and I’d like to give it more thought before I responded, because I understand that it was your most important point.

    On the genocide point: A predictable response to a predictable objection to atheism. And I’d agree that they were killing in the name of the atheistic State, but the operative word there is “State,” note “atheistic.” The State was tantamount to God in the USSR.

    Atheism is itself not a belief system–it’s the lack of one. So I don’t see how it can motivate anything, really. For that matter, I don’t think theism itself is enough to motivate much if any violence. Certain manifestations of theism, yes, but not theism itself.

    If by atheism you mean something other than the mere lack of a belief in god(s), then we probably agree more than we disagree. Certainly, brands of anti-theism spawn violence. And the USSR was more than atheist–it was anti-theist (which is–unlike atheism–a belief system).

    “I also think the notion that ‘religion provides certainty’ is a real caricature.”

    My argument need not apply to all religions to be valid. I know you value mystery and criticize atheists for their supposed lack of wonder. But do you really think this sense of mystery is the appeal of religion for most people? I don’t! Again, we come from very different religious traditions. You apparently rub elbows with theologians; I most encounter the “sheep” (their term, not mine).

    In any case, your religion nonetheless affords you a great deal of certainty on the most important questions. For instance, you believe in life after death–a belief in which most people find great comfort.


  8. Kleiner Post author

    Let’s set the atheism killing point aside. I don’t think it moves the discussion either way (that is why I deleted it from my post). Generally speaking I think everyone that unjustly kills (religious or atheist) kill for roughly the same reasons (fear, anger, hate, greed, power).
    The community point is still worth discussing though. Does community depend on something beyond the community? Can immanence only be ‘organized’ (come into real communion) with reference to the transcendent?

    I don’t mean to suggest that religion does not have her comforts, just that it is not altogether comfortable. I would not call her comforts ‘certainties’ though, since many of her comforts depend on leaps.
    Our differences here might come from the company we keep, though most of the Catholics I know are not theologians but ‘sheep’ (if those are the categories, then I belong in the latter category too). Still, there is plenty of room for criticism of bad religiousity in both America and Europe, and I am not particularly shy about participating in that critique (Kierkegaard is awesome on this).
    But our difference might also have to do with the religious traditions we have spent the most time with. I don’t think Mormonism has any real notion of mystery or transcendence. God is, for them, ultimately of this world and not beyond it.

    For a specific example, there is nothing at all miraculous about Christmas for Mormons. It is not an Incarnation, and does not bear the same transcendence-immanence meaning (2 natures – one divine, one human – in one person) that it does for other Christians.
    “The birth of the Savior was as natural as are the births of our children; it was the result of natural action. He partook of flesh and blood- was begotten of his Father, as we are of our fathers. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 8:115)
    “In relation to the way in which I look upon the works of God and his creatures, I will say that I was naturally begotten; so was my father, and also my Savior Jesus Christ. According to the Scriptures, he is the first begotten of his father in the flesh, and there was nothing unnatural about it.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of discourses, 8:211)
    “Christ was begotten by an Immortal Father in He same way that mortal men are begotten [made] by mortal fathers.” 546 (McConkie)
    “There is no need to spiritualize away the plain meaning of the scriptures. There is nothing figurative or hidden or beyond comprehension in our Lord’s coming into mortality. He is the Son of God in the same sense and way that we are the sons of mortal fathers. It is just that simple” (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, pg.468).

    The Incarnation, arguably the principle mystery of Christianity is ‘just that simple’. This is why I say there is no mystery in Mormonism, and the lack of mystery is intimately tied to the lack of a proper notion of transcendence. (To be fair, my Mormon friends will accuse me of mischaracterizing the Scriptures by importing into Scripture unnecessarily abstract philosophical concepts like ‘transcendence’).


  9. Huenemann

    On one of the smaller points: I don’t think humans naturally desire knowledge, though I think most of us desire settled beliefs. To the extent that knowledge requires the unsettling of beliefs, I think many of us actually resist knowledge.


  10. Kleiner Post author

    Interesting thought, Huenemann. A few follow-ups:
    a) There is something packed into ‘natural desire’, by natural desire I (or Aquinas) don’t mean what is in fact desired or what is easily desired. There is a connection to the good of our nature. As it turns out, on this understanding of a ‘natural desire’, natural desires may not come ‘naturally’ (automatically, instinctively, without education). So we could resist (and you are probably right that we do) something that is in our nature to desire.
    But splitting hairs on the meaning of natural desire misses your broader point, so:

    b) A question for those taking your epistemology course this spring – what, if any, difference is there between a ‘settled belief’ and ‘knowledge’?

    c) Is it necessarily the case that knowledge requires the unsettling of beliefs? I can imagine it sometimes, perhaps often, requiring that, but not always. In fact, a condition for the possibility of philosophical knowledge in the Republic is courage, defined as the capacity to preserve belief. Philosophers can only become philosophers once they have had the right opinions of the city so thoroughly ingrained into them that they cannot really question them any longer. (In fact, they go through several tests prior to being allowed to do dialectic to make sure that the beliefs are immovable).
    I think it is a modern bias that acquiring knowledge requires ‘thinking for oneself’ in the sense of bucking off tradition, beginning with doubt, etc. I don’t see it. Sign me up for the more Augustinian approach, where understanding follows from belief and the tradition, not from a questioning of belief and the tradition.
    This makes me a heretic in the modern academy, since I am arguing against the popular ‘question everything’ line that has come to characterize liberal arts education. But that is, in my view, a bastardization of the liberal arts brought on by Romanticism. After Romanticism, we now understand the liberal arts as arts that free us from the bondage of tradition and society, so that we might be freed to our own radically individual primordial state. But I think the liberal arts are the arts that free us from ignorance, and I don’t see culture and tradition as vehicles of ignorance but instead see culture as the ground from which inquiry first becomes possible. (This is why the culture wars are not a radical religious side show, but THE issue). We should learn to think with, not against, the masters.


  11. Jon Adams

    “I would not call her comforts ‘certainties’ though, since many of her comforts depend on leaps.”

    In the minds of many religious people, however, leaps of faith are not at odds with certainty. When a religious person says they have faith in, say, Jesus’ divinity, they are not necessarily expressing doubt.

    A religious person might admit that they lack evidence or reason for a certain proposition, but they are nonetheless very confident in the truth of the proposition. In other words, the ‘leap’ itself may cause the religious person some discomfort, but to what they are leaping does not. That’s sloppy articulation on my part, but I hope the point is understood.

    About the lack of mystery in Mormonism: You’re preaching to the choir. Mystery in Mormonism is just a tool for apologetics it seems–“God’s ways are higher than our own,” etc. I do not think mystery is integral to the day-to-day Mormon experience.

    The issue of community does merit more discussion:

    I’m not sure where we disagree here. I mean, I’ve granted that secular communities are neither as robust nor intimate as religious ones. If your argument is that secular communities suffer from a disconnect with the transcendent, I’d grant that too.

    Now, religion does not have a monopoly on transcendence. Many secular communities make appeals to what secular philosopher Austin Dacey calls “horizontal transcendence.” I imagine the meaning of this term is obvious enough–it is secular humanism’s response to religion’s vertical transcendence. And I think those secular communities who adopt a sense of horizontal transcendence are healthier and more successful–you volunteer the example of Obama’s campaign, which had transcendental overtones.

    Still, I’m not sure that horizontal transcendence can compete with vertical transcendence. Even if secular people had communities roughly resembling religious ones, secular people may still be less happy. All I’ve argued in this thread is that when you consider factors like politics and community, the happiness gap is likely narrower than these studies suggest. So I’m open to the possibility that there are unique benefits to be reaped in religion.

    Our only disagreement may be over whether these unique benefits stem from religion’s truths.


  12. Kleiner Post author

    You are right that though people like Kierkegaard caution against it, religious people may end up diminishing the leap in their leaping (allow themselves to experience the belief with great confidence, a tendency to believe without fear and trembling). Of course this is not unique to religious people, if Hume is right then that is exactly what scientists are doing too with respect to the PUN. For my part, I don’t think the PUN is a leap, and I am with Kierkegaard that religious persons should not forget their leaping (I say that even though I am pretty committed to ‘Hellenized religiousity’).

    I don’t think horizontal transcendence can compete either. In fact, I have to admit I think the notion of ‘horizontal transcendence’ is pretty bogus. It is like having bread without wheat. It might be a closer approximation, but I think it will ultimately not have enough to really drive the boat. The issue comes to the point about community – can the world be organized by something worldly, or must the world always make reference to something (Someone) beyond the world?

    We should read Kierkegaard sometime, he works out a lot of these questions and speaks to how much truth matters. Are you taking Contemporary European Philosophy this spring? Perhaps the class might be a little too poetic for your tastes? :)


  13. Jon Adams

    No, I’m sure I would enjoy it. Having been a part of the high school debate community, I am acquainted with philosophers like Zizek, Derrida, Foucault and others (Foucault especially is worshiped by debaters), but I’d like to get to know them much better.

    The issue is that I just cannot afford taking more classes unrelated to my majors. I signed up for and look forward to your aesthetics class, but was hesitant to take that for the same reason.

    If I could go back in time, I would have at least minored in philosophy–with only three semesters left here at USU though, I doubt I could do it.



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