The following blog entery refers to the results of a Gallup survey linked here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/144080/religious-americans-enjoy-higher-...
As most of the people reading this are probably aware, a recent Gallup survey relieved that Americans who qualify as being very religious (according to Gallup this would be individuals who attend church at least once per week) score higher on their well-being index than did individuals who they defined as being moderately religious and non-religious (those two groups were tied). Overall, the well-being of the very religious citizens of the USA was superior to the none-religious by a full 7%. Upon initially reading this report, my first instinct was to conclude that it must be wrong, that it was absurd to believe that being religious actually conveyed any real benefit; however after reviewing the report I've concluded that it's probably largely accurate though perhaps occasionally misleading. So, assuming the accuracy of the report, what does it mean for this whole “religion poisons everything” concept advanced by numerous anti-theists? Has religion been vindicated by the Gallup survey; is weekly church attendance really the key to human well-being? Of course there are a number of theists who would like to argue that this in fact is the case...that if you want to be happy, start going to church. Not surprisingly, I have a different take on the matter...mostly. I do have to acknowledge that there are some significant advantages to conformity in our particular culture. Let's face it, as an atheist (or homosexual) living in the USA, you can avoid a lot of headaches by simply keeping quite about your “deviant” tenancies and pretending to be one of the herd. We don't have to like it, it's just a fact. I have personally known people who have be ostracized by their family and/or friends because they came out...people who have had to completely start over simply for admitting to being an atheist. I also know many individuals who simply will not publicly admit to being non-religious for fear of the consequences. The reality/fear of ostracization in this predominately religious nation cannot but help to have had an effect upon how we as individuals perceive our own well-being and thus effecting how we would report our well-being in a survey such as the one having been conducted by Gallup. I suspect that you would find the same tendency among individuals who confessed to being communist in Nazi Germany or capitalist in Stalinist Russia. These individuals would likely report that their non-conformity had a significant impact upon their personal well-being; while at the same time these individuals would realize that their ostracization was in no way an indication of the truth or falseness of their beliefs. The same could be said of individuals of African ancestry throughout the history of this nation. I have a hunch, that at every point in this nation's history, the African American population would have scored lower on the Gallup index of well-being than would have white Americans...this of course should not be viewed as a vindication of the white supremacist agenda but rather a reflection of the inequities still present in our society. So yeah...there are certainly advantages to being a christian in this nation; advantages that are not inherent to Christianity but rather the result of a society still openly and covertly discriminatory towards people who refuse to conform. This reality may or may not be enough to account for the discrepancy in well-being between the religious and non-religious; however, there may be additional very real reasons why the very religious in this nation are better of that the rest of us .
It's quite possible that whether we non-religious types like it or not, there might actually be a psychological advantage to believing that you have a personal and very deep relationship with the creator of the universe; that you have been noticed and deemed special by the most powerful entity in all of existence. Sure it's crazy, but if you honestly believed it then I suspect that everything else being equal you would likely be happier than a person who's beliefs were founded solely in reality. I know a few Christians who's lives are pure shit but they take solace in the belief that Jesus loves them and is looking over them...again crazy, but without their belief in Jesus, they likely would have blown their brains out long ago. Certainly this would provide some insight as to why the very religious report having a higher sense of well-being than the rest of us.
Two of the categories established by Gallup as being measurements of well-being are “Physical Health' and 'Healthy Behavior'. While I think it's redundant to track both “physical health' and 'healthy behavior', none-the-less I do believe that Gallup justifiably placed a lot of weight on our physical health when rating our personal well-being. Though I haven't personally seen any valid studies on the topic, my own anecdotal experiences indicate that individuals who I would consider very religious are less likely than the rest of us to become habitually dependent on drugs or alcohol. This doesn't mean that it never happens, but the few drug addicts I've known in my life were definitely not particularly religious. I think almost certainly that very religious Americans would tend to be less likely than the rest of the population to participate in high risk lifestyles...again there are exceptions, but I think its safe to say that you average crack and heroin addict isn't attending church on a regular basis (if you don't count soup kitchens). Ultimately, it boils down to this, most devote theists in this country tend to live lifestyles with an emphasis on a common sense level of risk avoidance. I'm not exactly sure what it is about being religious that promotes this, but there's certainly no reason to believe that it's the result of magical intervention from the creator of the universe.
There are probably numerous other factors involved as well, but at this point we can conclude that while religious Americans really are slightly better off than the rest of us, at the same time we have no reason to believe that this is because their theology is accurate or their god is real. However, it could be argued that whether a god exits or not, this Gallup survey indicates that being an active participant in your local church will make you a happier, healthier person...right? Well, maybe not. Let's look at just how religion has benefited various other nations throughout the world. In August of 2010 Gallup released the results of another study, this time on the relationship between religiosity and economic prosperity...and what did they find out about the relationship between religion and wealth? Let's put it this way, the name of the report is “Religiosity Highest in the World's Poorest Nations”. Not surprisingly, this Gallup study didn't make the headlines and most of us have never heard of it. Various other studies have indicated that the same correlation exits between levels of education and religiosity. One things for certain, the same theists arguing that the Gallup survey on religiosity and well-being is proof of the existence of their god also argue that religion doesn't make you poor...and of course they'd be correct for exactly the same reason that believing in a god doesn't have any real effect on your well-being. Other studies have shown that several nations with significantly lower levels of religiosity that that of the USA are also on average much happier and again Christians argue that this proves nothing about whether or not their god exists...and again they're correct.
In the end, this Gallup survey reveals little about the value of religion or the existence of god. To be honest, I'm not sure what value the survey actually has...if any.