God doesn’t make you happy… going to church does!

I read a great article just the other day by Emily Sohn about the link between religion and happiness. This is a subject I have read a lot about and often hypothesized with believers that the results of many studies showing that religious people are happier is simply due their sense of community within a church and not the belief structure itself. New evidence shows I was right. But, before we get to that, I want to share with you why I’ve felt this way for so long and see if you agree.

I grew up in church (so did my wife). It was full of church potlucks, picnics, sports activities, camps, caroling, youth groups, musicals, and all kinds of other group activities that made me feel like a part of something. I always looked forward to going, even if I was tired from a long Saturday full of chores or activities… church is where I got “refreshed”. For the longest time I, like most Christians, associated that will the Holy Spirit and being “recharged” by god – or some crap like that. I never thought it was just about my friends and having a country club like hangout. I was poor, but I wore nice clothes to church and was accepted like everyone else. It was another place, like school, where I could be popular – I was important.

So, when I stopped going to church full-time, around age 17 or so, it was a sad time. For a while, I associated that feeling with the lack of faith I had in god. I thought I missed “His presence” (ugh). I didn’t. I missed my friends. I missed the fellowship. I missed the huge potluck dinners with casseroles from wall to wall!

I’ve discussed this with my wife several times. She grew up Mormon but went to some protestant churches too. Lots of social functions were common in both groups. We have both been atheists for some time now, but really miss the feelings of fellowship we got with like-minded friends back in the day. We aren’t “less happy” for not believing in god, as studies say, so what is it? We are happier for believing the truth now, but what accounts for this sense of longing? A new study by Chaeyoon Lim, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison with the help of Robert Putnam of Harvard University tries to answer this question.

[The reseachers]used data from a survey that interviewed a representative sample of more than 3,000 Americans in 2006 and many of the same group again in 2007. The survey asked participants tons of questions about themselves, including dozens about the role that religion plays in their daily lives.

Results showed that frequency of attendance to religious services mattered more than anything besides health in determining how satisfied people were with their lives, the researchers report today in the journal American Sociological Review. The more often people went to services, the happier they reported being — up to about weekly, at which point wellbeing ratings reached a plateau.

Twenty-eight percent of people who go to services weekly will say they are extremely satisfied with their lives, the study predicted, compared with less than 20 percent of people who never go to a place of worship. That’s the same difference as between people who say they are in “very good” health compared to those in “good” health, and between people with a family income of $100,000 compared to those with an income of $10,000.

The findings suggest that forging close bonds with people over mutually shared and meaningful interests might boost quality of life for anyone, religious or not. But there’s something about being part of a congregation in particular that seems to build a sense of community and lead to fulfillment for many people… not just Christians.

Family dynamics aside, going to church isn’t necessarily the only route to life satisfaction, said John Helliwell, co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s program on Social Interactions, Identity, and Well-being at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

“What’s especially important and interesting about this work is it’s asking what it is about religious activity that’s most productive for people,” Helliwell said. “The most important part is time spent with friends that they make through church, and that is amplified to the extent that they all identify with that church. For all of them, church is the most important part of their life, and to the extent that’s true, the more satisfaction they get.” The results were clear: The number of close friends people had in their congregation explained the entire relationship. You can still go to church and not be happy, if you are not accepted. It isn’t believing in GOD that makes you happy – it’s being around other people that believe like you!

What do us poor, lonely atheists do? Well, the internet helps (we’ve sort of taken that over!) but it doesn’t make up for face to face interactions and “real” relationships. WE NEED ATHEIST CHURCHES!!! I know that sounds silly…

It’s getting better. The Secular Student Alliance and Freethinkers across the country are using the internet and sites like Meetup.com to find each other and have social groups that meet regularly (like churches). If you are needing that in your life, find a group in your area. If there isn’t one, contact SSA or the Center for Inquiry (CFI) and people like Debbie Goddard can help you find or start one. About 6 months ago, I started attending a student group on the campus of Kansas University (SOMA – The Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics – “The Best God-Damned Group on Campus!”). They don’t require you to be a student (although my wife is in school there). They welcomed me with open arms and it’s been a great outlet for me so far. It makes me wonder what atheist churches could do with 10% of all of our earnings (maybe 5% – we have to offer a financial benefit to being in an atheist church – lol)! No fancy cars. No giant mega-buildings and high salaries. Just helping people around us in the name of humanity… no god attached.

I didn’t know about these groups until recently and look forward to regaining the fellowship I once had with people that believed like me. The difference now is, I will fellowship with smart people that don’t judge or condemn each other and believe things based on sound evidence, logic, and reasoning… something lacking in every potluck church dinner I ever attended.

  • http://carlsagansdanceparty.wordpress.com Steven Olsen


    Excellent post! Here is a link to the quickstart guide to getting a group going that I was handing out at Skepticon. Hopefully that will help if there isn't an "atheist church" in the area.


  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    This is really interesting. It makes me wonder about two things:

    1. What is the difference in happiness of atheists in the United States compared to atheists in countries where a larger percentage of the population is non-religious?

    2. Does joining a an organization that is neither religious or non-religious, but rather dedicated to some other purpose (e.g. charities, book clubs, fan clubs, etc.) create the same level of happiness as joining a religious organization? If we were to compare the happiness of people who regularly attended, say, a book club with those who regularly attend church, would the level of happiness be the same?

    Thanks for posting this!

  • Adam

    @ Ani: I can’t answer #1. I’ve looked for research from other countries on this, but can’t find it. The only comparison I can make is from combining two statistics. The “happiest places on Earth” from a 2009 Gallup World Poll (http://travel.yahoo.com/p-interests-27761674) with stats on religious belief from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism)

    Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands rated at the top of the [happy] list, ranking first, second and third, respectively. Outside Europe, New Zealand and Canada landed at Nos. 8 and 6, respectively. The United States did not crack the top 10. Switzerland placed seventh and Belgium placed tenth.

    The top 3 countries are only about one-third religious where as Belgium and Switzerland are less than half religious. I think that is strong enough to say that the less religious a country is, the happier it citizens report being!

    As for #2 – yes, research shows that belonging to ANY group where people share beliefs or interests with you (and are friends with you – that’s important) makes you happier as an individual. This goes for church, book clubs, swinger groups, or atheist meetups!

  • Atablarasa

    Adam, I'm enjoying my wanderings through the site.

    Continuing with #2, I would guess that church is particularly powerful because it reinforces community in ways that they other groups don't (possibly excepting the atheist meetups, or the swinging meatups). You don't just get a common group for an hour or two a week, you get feedback all through the week and year – holidays are for Christians first, Sundays are days of rest no matter what in some parts of the country even now, and you get call-chains, deacons and other church staff gatherings, camps, vacation bible schools, and so on within your own church. Outside the church you get affirmations from politicians, media outlets, faux science television channels, popular songs, and even the names of towns and streets.

    And even with all of that, church isn't all that happy when the irrational angers of each little clique comes bubbling to the surface. Which is what finally pulled the plug on my rationalizing about going to church…

    Your atheist community is going to have to come up with some good music to sing with if you really want a community!

    • Adam

      "hurch isn’t all that happy when the irrational angers of each little clique comes bubbling to the surface. Which is what finally pulled the plug on my rationalizing about going to church…"

      Same here, Atablarasa, I get you completely… we still have a long way to go. But, the pendulum is swinging in our direction.

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  • Lynda Richards

    What about the Ethical Society? They have a big beatiful church in St. Louis and probably elsewhere. They are definitely Good without God.

  • Adam

    Thanks Lynda… I didn't know about them. What an inspiration. I will share a link to their website.

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