It’s Amazing What You Can Find By Looking

Tom Flynn

In some magazines, the editor’s message restricts itself to “puffing” all the great articles in the current issue. Free Inquiry is not one of those magazines. But when was the last time you saw an editor’s message devoted to “puffing” an article from the previous issue?

In our August/September 2009 issue, psychologist Luke Galen reported on the first worldview identification survey aimed at nonreligious Americans (“Profiles of the Godless”). I’m gratified that this article has garnered coverage in media worldwide. His study—and one of its key findings—are important enough to merit my using this op-ed to cast a brighter spotlight on them.

Galen, an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had his Non-Religious Identification Survey (NRIS) completed online by 5,831 respondents drawn mostly from Center for Inquiry e-mail lists. (The Center for Inquiry is a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry.) The survey included many of the measures of happiness and mental health commonly seen in such survey instruments. What made NRIS special was that it was the first study of its type to direct such questions to a population of secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and other freethinkers.

Why is that important? For decades, pollsters and social scientists have used surveys to measure the religious beliefs and attitudes of believers. We have mountains of data, from the substantial to the silly; if you want to know whether Mormons or Methodists are more likely to favor cars with leather seats, such data probably exists. There’s data on the nonreligious, too, but it’s far skimpier and suffers from having been collected accidentally.

Until NRIS, surveys about religious belief targeted (surprise, surprise) religious people. Nonbelievers in the surveyed population were “by-catch.” Surveys were neither designed to solicit detailed information about the varieties of unbelief nor analyzed with an eye to developing such knowledge. All too often, the nonreligious got swept into a pigeonhole with some off-putting label like “Other,” often lumped together with respondents who checked “I prefer not to answer this question.”

What’s the harm in that? Consider a finding from general-population studies that admirers of piety never tire of hurling our way: Religious believers enjoy better mental health than nonbelievers. Whether you measure self-reported happiness, life satisfaction, freedom from depression, or sophisticated indicators of emotional well-being, believers score higher on study after study. What’s more, these mental-health indices correlate positively with the strength of belief: the more confidently respondents hold to their faith, the mentally healthier they appear. Meanwhile, nonreligious people—like the church members harboring serious doubts with whom they are often clumped—consistently score lower on these indicators of mental health. Faced with this cornucopia of evidence that faith makes people happier, secular humanists are left to grumble in a sour-grapes kind of way that it’s better to be right and unhappy than to be joyful based on false beliefs.

But what if all those studies have it wrong? As noted, general-population studies that treat nonbelievers as “by-catch” make no effort to distinguish atheists from agnostics or thoughtful skeptics from the reflexively distrustful. As a study of nonbelievers, NRIS carefully distinguished among the varied flavors of unbelief. For the first time, data on happiness, life satisfaction, emotional resilience, freedom from depression, and the like could be plotted against an accurate profile of each respondent’s life stance.

The result was stunning. “The relationship between certainty of beliefs and emotional well-being in our non-believer sample was a mirror image of general population studies,” Galen reported. Agnostics, questing skeptics, and those who recently emerged from a crisis of faith did indeed score lower on all of those conventional scales of mental health, just as the general-population studies showed. But staunch atheists and other unbelievers who reported holding their worldviews with firm conviction scored higher—in some cases even higher than the most fervent believers. If you chart any given mental-health score against life stance, you’ll find a U-shaped curve. At one high end we have the self-assured religious believers, who do indeed score high for happiness, life satisfaction, and so on. The line trends down as we move from strong believers to tentative believers to those nourishing strong doubts about their faith. At the nadir, we move from the believers’ side of the scale to the nonbelievers’ side: here we find the self-identified religious with the strongest doubts, the self-identified nonreligious who aren’t sure what they disbelieve, and those who describe themselves as “not religious but spiritual.” Compared to the strong believers, they’re a pretty miserable lot. But as we continue moving in the direction of more confident disbelief, the line swoops up again. Agnostics who feel comfortable with their inability to know for certain whether God exists score better than agnostics who don’t. And at the far end of the scale, we find the firm atheists, who score as high for happiness, satisfaction, and the rest as any believer.

It may be that all those studies that correlated religious belief and mental health weren’t measuring belief at all. Instead, they seem to have been measuring the confidence with which one holds one’s worldview, a variable whose relation to mental health scores is not surprising. It makes sense that people who feel sure about their views—whether that is the view that God loves us or the view that God is a myth—should score high for happiness, satisfaction, resilience, and freedom from depression. People who don’t feel secure in that way—whether it’s religion or irreligion that they feel so uncertain about—score lower.

Because of NRIS, then, the factoid that’s recently been the apologist for faith’s favorite weapon stands at least putatively refuted. Apparently, it’s not religious belief that makes us happy—it’s feeling confident with our worldview, whatever that worldview consists of. And why is it that we can see this now when we couldn’t before? Because there’s finally been a study that examines the nonreligious as scrupulously as mainstream investigators have long examined the religious, enabling us to see that the relation between confident belief and mental health holds on either side of the religion-nonreligion divide.

In one sense, it’s surprising that NRIS has uncovered something that seems so significant. In certain ways, NRIS was a pilot study. One yearns for a future study administered to a population broader than NRIS’s largely self-selected sample of CFI e-mail list denizens, and on a far larger scale. Still, NRIS is a remarkable first step: the social sciences’ failure to investigate irreligion as they have religion is finally being addressed. And the strongest justification for scaling up NRIS may be what it has already revealed. Whole new research vistas and new ways to interpret data already in hand appear when believers and nonbelievers are profiled in equal depth. As Yogi Berra should have said, it’s amazing what you can find by looking.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

In some magazines, the editor’s message restricts itself to “puffing” all the great articles in the current issue. Free Inquiry is not one of those magazines. But when was the last time you saw an editor’s message devoted to “puffing” an article from the previous issue? In our August/September 2009 issue, psychologist Luke Galen reported …

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