Are Unbelievers More Resilient?

Tom Flynn

As sociologist and author Phil Zuckerman notes in this issue, the study of unbelievers as a demographic group in its own right is finally gathering steam. Until recently, everything social scientists and pollsters could tell us about nonreligious Americans was “by-catch”—tangential information acquired in the course of studying religious Americans.*

This state of affairs could not continue. Since the 1990s, Americans reporting no religious affiliation have grown to comprise 15 to 16 percent of the population. A reported 10.7 percent are self-described atheists or agnostics, or they’re so-called hard seculars, men and women who don’t check the box for “atheist” or “agnostic” but nonetheless lead lives effectively untouched by faith. Given such numbers, it’s not surprising that demographers are belatedly discovering atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and other unbelievers and studying our various communities on their own terms.

Future issues of Free Inquiry will devote increasing attention to this “secular studies” phenomenon. For now, suffice it to say that for the first time Americans who live without religion are objects of inquiry at locations across the land and at levels from the scholarly monograph to the popular opinion poll.

If I can, I’d like to offer an immodest proposal for the direction of some of this research. It’s based on nothing but personal experience and anecdote, to be sure; still, by the end of this column, I hope to develop a slate of questions that lends itself to scientific examination.

Let’s get started. I know an awful lot of unbelievers, and with very rare exceptions they’re some of the happiest people I know. By contrast, most of the melancholy, dejected, and discontented people of my acquaintance hold more or less conventional religious beliefs. Wretchedness, thy name is Piety—or so it seems according to the admittedly unscientific sample of People Tom Flynn Knows. (When I share this view with other freethinkers, they usually agree. Of course, that’s just piling anecdote upon anecdote.)

Assume for argument’s sake that my observation is correct. If so, isn’t it remarkable that less religious people are happier, considering that by most measures unbelievers should comprise a more psychologically vulnerable population? It’s well attested that nonreligious people tend to have fewer deep social connections (starting with the fact that most of us go to one fewer church than many members of the general population). Our community is top-heavy with “loners” and “nonjoiners”—the “cats” about whose herding atheist and humanist activists so frequently despair.

The prospect that nonreligious people might actually be happier than believers is trebly remarkable when we consider that most unbelievers do without a particularly close and friendly source of support most churchgoers take for granted: one-on-one, face-to-face affirmation, mentoring, and counseling such as is offered by a priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or other leader of a local religious community. Granted, some atheists and humanists find close substitutes in a humanist counselor, Unitarian Universalist minister, or Ethical Culture leader, but many nonreligious Americans—in all likelihood, the majority of so-called secular humanists—opt simply to leave this void (if it is one) unfilled.

Given all this, we might reasonably expect the nonreligious to be miserable! Even if unbelievers were on average only as happy as believers, that would clamor for explanation—to say nothing of my claim that the nonreligious lead more exuberant lives.

“But wait,” some may say. “Haven’t I read about piles of studies in which religious people score higher and unbelievers lower on multiple indices of happiness, life satisfaction, personality adjustment, and mental health?” Funny you should ask. Multiple studies do claim to advance that conclusion. But one of the first secular-studies projects FI reported on suggested a reason (spoiler alert: it’s not because those studies are correct).

In “Profiles of the Godless” (FI, August/September 2009), Grand Valley State University researcher Luke W. Galen described the NonReligious Identification Survey (NRIS), a pilot psychological study of nonreligious Americans he designed and administered online with the aid of Center for Inquiry–Michigan. NRIS was one of the first survey projects to focus on unbelievers as such. It gave strong evidence that studying unbelief as a phenomenon in its own right is critically important.

As Galen noted, numerous studies have suggested that believers are happier, more satisfied, and better adjusted than unbelievers—in a word, that believers are more likely than unbelievers to thrive. Often these studies include a graph whose single diagonal line trends from high religious belief/high “thriving” in one corner to low belief/low “thriving” in the opposite corner. Invariably, these are studies of religious people that clump all their nonbelieving respondents into a single unhelpfully labeled category such as “Other.”

NRIS released its unbelieving respondents from that cramped pigeonhole. Atheists or agnostics, deists or doubters, lifelong nontheists or newbies who tearfully jettisoned their hopes for heaven a week ago last Tuesday—NRIS charted each subgroup independently alongside its members’ responses on standard measures of “thriving.”

As Galen reported, having more nuanced data made a profound difference. Instead of a straight diagonal line, in NRIS those “thriving” indicators graphed against religious belief and unbelief in the shape of a U. Apparently the older diagonal graphs had not been measuring a link between “thriving” and religious belief or disbelief after all. Their real connection linked “thriving” with how confidently one embraced one’s life stance, religious or nonreligious. On the religious side, strong believers scored higher on “thriving” indices than weaker ones; wavering believers plagued by doubt scored lower still. The pattern repeated on the nonreligious side of the scale. Atheists scored higher than agnostics; those uncertain in their disbelief or who had recently abandoned a long-held faith scored lower. The most confident atheist scored as high as the most confident believer. It wasn’t whether one believed or disbelieved or whether one’s worldview included the supernatural that mattered. What mattered in terms of “thriving” was how assuredly one held one’s metaphysical view, whatever it was.

Presumably this has always been so, but previous studies failed to detect it. Agglutinating nonreligious respondents into a single group caused the loss of data on relevant differences among them.

The upshot? Apparently—and at the risk of oversimplifying—everything you know about religious belief being associated with more robust “thriving” is wrong.

This brings us back to the puzzling—and, again, admittedly anecdotal—observation that unbelievers seem to thrive better than believers even though believers enjoy access to sources of social and emotional support that many unbelievers, who live without a parochial community rooted in a shared life stance, lack. Why might this be? I offer two hypotheses, one tongue-in-cheek, the other more serious.

My tongue-in-cheek hypothesis: Most pastors do such an execrable job of being a counselor or therapist that close contact with them actually degrades the average believer&rs
quo;s happiness. Maybe that’s because psychology is so immature a science that even the best-trained practitioners harm more than they help; or maybe the problem lies not with psychology but with the great numbers of clergy, especially on the “storefront church” side of the spectrum, who dispense pastoral services though their education includes no training in valid counseling or therapy techniques. On this view, not having a pastoral connection turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to many unbelievers.

My more serious hypothesis is that unbelievers enjoy better average outcomes in their lives simply because they approach their lives with greater confidence. Again, that confidence can be modeled in two very different ways. First, maybe unbelievers enjoy greater confidence because they are free from supernatural beliefs that, if held, would erode that confidence. Unlike believers, they don’t feel corrupt and worthless by comparison to an all-powerful god that, after all, does not exist. They aren’t seared by guilt when they fall short of moral expectations that are cruel precisely insofar as they are impossible. They aren’t bruised by trying to reconcile God’s supposed love and goodness with a world awash in relentless evils, and so on.

Second (full disclosure: this is the interpretation I favor), maybe individuals who enjoy higher levels of confidence and self-esteem are simply more likely to wind up unbelievers. A majority of today’s unbelievers began their lives in some religious tradition then thought their way out of it. Maybe individuals already disposed toward greater confidence, self-reliance, and fortitude are better able to follow their worldview odyssey clear to the shores of unbelief. Or maybe it’s because nonreligious people self-select from among the emotionally hardy that we can better handle the stress of abandoning our previous certainties, attain greater happiness and life satisfaction, and—perhaps most important—do all this while retreating from community, sometimes family, and almost always pastoral support, all of which are often thought indispensable for exuberant, zestful living. In other words, maybe we nonreligious are more resilient.

Having reached this point, I offer a slate of questions that members of the fast-growing secular-studies community might find worthy of scientific scrutiny: Are the nonreligious actually happier, more satisfied—more apt to “thrive”—than believers? Are they happier despite their greater isolation from community and pastoral structures? If so, why? Are these community and pastoral structures actually harmful although we’ve never realized it before? Or might unbelievers as a group share some quality—resilience?—that empowers us to thrive with lower levels of the social and personal support that others require more abundantly?

It may be years before secular-studies researchers reveal the answers. Unfortunately, I don’t have years; I have to write another op-ed in two months! In it I will pose the following impertinent question: If nonbelievers are more resilient, what does that imply for the suddenly fast-growing (and to some observers, oxymoronic) field of humanist chaplaincy?

To be continued.


* For a thorough exploration of the problem, see Frank L. Pasquale’s entry “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect of” in my 2007 New Encyclopedia of Unbelief.

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).

As sociologist and author Phil Zuckerman notes in this issue, the study of unbelievers as a demographic group in its own right is finally gathering steam. Until recently, everything social scientists and pollsters could tell us about nonreligious Americans was “by-catch”—tangential information acquired in the course of studying religious Americans.* This state of affairs could …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.