Religion, Happiness, and Your Metric Weapon of Choice

A particular article is making the rounds on social media again, and it’s actually quite depressing to see that people are buying into it.

It started with Jezebel. Rather than respond to each asinine point individually, I would rather focus on two concepts:

1) if secular parents were doing “better” than religious parents, we would also expect to see secular adults being happier than religious adults. They’re not. In fact, the opposite is true.

2) The measures of outcomes are purely subjective and muddy the waters of what we are actually talking about. Odd metrics like militaristic tendencies, desire to fit in with the “cool” kids at school, and nationalism have suddenly turned from expressions of loyalty and attempts at navigating social interactions to demerits in the neighborhood softball league of parenting. Social science is about making things clear, not imposing your political worldview onto your research, which is a particularly common vice in psychology and sociology.

My largest frustration is that the author uses the comments of one sociologist, who can only be described as ignorant of omitted variable bias (although most of his publications have been books and commentary that are not peer reviewed, and his CV contains roughly 10 peer-reviewed publications over the course of 20 years, so maybe we’re asking for too much scientific method), as justification for her anti-religious bigotry and ignorance of social science and of what actually makes religion tick.

To quote her comment to the Christians with whom she grew up: “[To your] fear-mongering attitudes and pervy youth group leaders and gross, self-righteous, hypocritical, sexist, homophobic, racist, shallow, anti-intellectual, anti-questioning, anti-books, anti-music, anti-art…Christianity. FACE. Big, stupid FACE in your FACE.”

Religion and Happiness

If secular parents were doing so well and imparting principles that apparently make them “better,” we would expect secularism to yield greater long-run happiness. Yet there is a longstanding correlation between self-reported happiness and religious participation. More recently, that correlation has been studied causally.

Religious participation causes an increase in self-reported happiness. That’s a causal relationship.

See here, here, and here for just a few papers.

If we care about the long-term happiness of children, imparting the values of religious participation places them in a better position to be happier.

Social Science Should Use Scientific Measurements

The author of the original LA Times piece, which the Jezebel author used as an ironically vengeful method of angry retaliation against any religious person from her upbringing, Phil Zuckerman, says plainly:

“Many psychological studies show that secular grownups tend to be less vengeful, less nationalistic, less militaristic, less authoritarian and more tolerant, on average, than religious adults.”

Being militaristic is a tradition of high moral values, self-sacrifice, and of being committed to justice. At some point after Vietnam and once the Flower Children realized they needed to go home and get a job in order to have something to eat, they and their children in academia began to downplay the value system inherent in the desire to serve in favor of the caricatures of soldiers used for propaganda during the war. The same goes for nationalism.

Pride in one’s country and desire to maintain it was the motivating force behind Lincoln’s determination to preserve the Union during the Civil War. The generals that would not engage militarily were disgraced and dismissed from duty (e.g. General McClellan). We don’t fault Lincoln for doing so. We built a memorial to him for exactly those actions. Yet it is easy for an academic to claim that because nationalism played some role in bringing Europe into two World Wars, they can label it as a socially undesirable outcome.

To assert that nationalism is a net negative is not far from the attitudes of those who get angry when someone says, “God bless America,” as the offended party silently adds the parenthetical statement (“and damn all the others”) unnecessarily, as if nationalism must come at the expense of international cooperation and goodwill.

Then there is the claim of racism among religions. The paper that the article links to explicitly connects racism among religious people to in-group dynamics that understandably lead to suspicion of outsiders. Religious people have the strongest and most functional social networks and the tightest in-group dynamics, as well as having high correlations of in-race sorting. Put a group of tightly bound and monolithic atheists and agnostics in a room, you will get the same amount of suspicion toward those outside the group. The only difference is that we have a history of overcoming racism as an out-group bias which is not PC, while anti-religious sentiments are still acceptable and have less of an outrage factor.

Looking at the comments section of the Jezebel article, the amount of anti-religious fervor now brewing in the United States among group-think prone elites and some groups of LGBT activists, and the bigoted sentiments expressed exactly by the author herself, we have direct evidence that group dynamics are the cause. It’s as if the author didn’t read the paper to which she linked her story, because it harms her case as much as she hopes it would be made. The same goes for comments on empathy from the author and Zuckerman. In tribal groups, empathy extends only so far as the identity of the group, hence the hostility toward religion that “empathy” in and of itself does not overcome in secular groups, because, from an evolutionary perspective, empathy was designed for group cohesion, not intergroup cooperation.

But Christianity, at its core, imposes on itself bounds on this self-serving nature of tribes: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”

Alongside this go the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, and justice, which insist Christians extend themselves beyond their groups. Do many Christians fail to live up to this? Sure. But at least the laws that govern their behavior demand such high ideals without excuses and rationalization.

If I want to measure doing “better” as how many friends my children or I have in order to make religious people look good, I could simply point out that religious parents tend to make more friends themselves and for their children (as the author admits–that she would have more friends if she were involved at a church). But I am not out to make anyone look better. I’m not interested in wielding a metric weapon to settle old scores against those I feel have slighted me.

I’m interested in asking a question and getting to the answer the best way I know how. That’s how science works. If you believe in science as you claim, then let’s talk social science and stop with this pseudo-science.


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