Mental Health, Intelligence, And Wealth: What Science Says About The Religious vs. Non-Religious

Religious vs. Nonreligious
What does science have to say about how religious people differ from non-religious? A lot, actually. Bruno, CC BY-SA 2.0

Normally, I’m the quiet passenger in a taxi cab. I’ll ask the driver how he’s doing and follow through with a bit of small talk, but after a few minutes I retreat into my own bubble, watching New York City’s lights pass me by. But around 4 a.m. on a cold Wednesday morning last December, I was on my way home from a concert, sitting in an Uber cab, and the conversation didn’t stop.

Not long after I hopped in, my driver started talking about his faith — he was a devout Christian and pastor — and the hope and peace it has brought to his family. These types of conversations, in which God is mentioned more than a few times, would normally make some people uncomfortable, especially those who either question his existence or deny it outright. For me, however, it was an opportunity to see the world through a different lens (I’m agnostic), and about five blocks before we reached my apartment building, his wife was talking to him through his phone’s speaker, reciting prayers before going to bed.

This conversation might have gone in a different direction if we’d been in a different city — NYC is one of the most tolerant in the country. Sometimes atheists feel the need to compare their beliefs to those of someone who is religious, and they form opinions on why atheism is better. In truth, it’s simply not right to compare like that; each person is entitled to their own faith. But, because we live in a society that’s constantly clashing, it should come as no surprise that scientists have already found some interesting trends when it comes to the health, personality, and intelligence of both groups.

Here’s what they’ve found.

Religious People Are Happier

One thing my driver showed me during our ride to Queens together was how content he was with his way of life. Believing in God, and his plan, put him at ease, and it brought his family and friends together. Surprisingly, it’s the latter, having a community, which confers these higher levels of happiness, according to a study published in 2010.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Harvard surveyed 3,108 adults in 2006, asking them about their religious activities, beliefs, and social networks. A year later, they called back just under 2,000 of them to ask the same questions. They found that, overall, religious people were more satisfied with their lives than non-religious — 28 percent reported being “extremely satisfied” compared to 19.6 percent of non-religious folk.    

“We show that [life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect of religion,” sociologist Chaeyoon Lim told Live Science. “We found that people are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church, because they build a social network within their congregation.”

Non-Religious People Are More Tolerant

It’s probably important to note now that there are a variety of ways people can be non-religious. Some are atheist, meaning they lack a belief in God, while others are agnostic, who neither believe nor disbelieve in God. Secular groups tend to include people who’ve strayed from religion — the growing population of Americans who’ve become unaffiliated.

Secular groups, a 2010 study from Duke University found, are far more likely to be tolerant of other races. Looking at the links between religiosity and racism since the Civil Rights Act, researchers found that “religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups,” because being part of the in-groups “promotes general ethnocentrism.” While some of these groups’ racism tended to recede as societal acceptance of racism decreased, it was only “religious agnostics,” or secular groups, that were racially tolerant. Moreover, the researchers found racial tolerance wasn’t evinced from humanitarian values, or treating others as you would like to be treated (the Golden Rule), which was “consistent with the idea that religious humanitarianism is largely expressed to in-group members.”

Other studies have shown that because morality among secular groups is based on the Golden Rule, secular groups tend to be less vengeful, less militaristic, less authoritarian, less sexist, and less homophobic than religious groups, Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

Religious People Can Handle Stress, Anxiety Better

It’s a common response in our brains to immediately become anxious or stressed when we make mistakes, or get things wrong in general. People who believe in God, however, seem to be protected against that response, at least to a certain extent.

A study from the University of Toronto, Scarborough, found that a higher belief in God resulted in lower activity in the area of the brain responsible for the bodily states of arousal associated with a stress response — the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). They discovered this by asking participants to write about religion or complete a scrambled word task that included religion and God-related words. Then, they had participants complete a Stroop task, in which they were told to name the color of a word printed in a different color while hooked up to electrodes that scanned their brains — the test is meant to elicit a high rate of errors.

They found believers were less likely to experience activity in the ACC when compared to non-believers, and suggested the reason could be because belief in God provides a way to order the world and explain seemingly random events.

Non-Religious People Are More Intelligent

Atheists can call this one, as they probably wanted to. A review of 63 scientific studies spanning the ages — OK, maybe just since 1928 — found “a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity” in 53 of them, and a positive correlation in 10. However, only two of those showed a significant link. The researchers defined intelligence as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.”

How is this true? According to the University of Rochester researchers, “First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs. Third, several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence. Intelligent people may therefore have less need for religious beliefs and practices.”

In other words, intelligent people already have many of the qualities religion seeks to bestow on a person because, well, they’re intelligent. “Intelligent people typically spend more time in school — a form of self-regulation that may yield long-term benefits,” Miron Zuckerman wrote. “More intelligent people get higher level jobs, and better employment may lead to higher self-esteem and encourage personal control beliefs.”

Religious People Have Better Physical Health

Maybe it’s because they’re so happy and stress-free, but several studies have found religious people's physical health benefits from believing, too. One such study, from researchers at the University of Missouri, Columbia, found people coping with chronic health conditions and disability, such as spinal cord injuries, stroke, and cancer, fared better when they had religious and spiritual support.

“Both genders benefit from social support provided by fellow congregants and involvement in religious organizations,” said co-author Brick Johnstone, a health psychology professor, in a press release. “Encouragement to seek out religious and spiritual supports can assist individuals in coping with stress and physical symptoms related to health issues.”

In that same vein, another study from Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that out of 92,395 postmenopausal women, those who frequently attended religious services cut their risk of death by 20 percent.

Non-Religious People Are More Generous

It’s common in almost any church to pass around a collection plate, in which congregants can donate. And donate they do, according to a 2012 study that found states with more religious residents were also the most charitable. These states included Utah, where residents gave about 10.6 percent of their discretionary spending to charity, as well as Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In comparison, states along in the Northeast, like Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine were the least charitable — only 2.5 percent of Maine residents gave to charity.

But giving more to charity doesn’t make a person more generous. It’s common in religious communities to give up to 10 percent of annual income to charity, a practice called tithe. While the donation amount varies with each faith, it’s typically encouraged as a way to thank God, care for others, and show faith in God’s giving. It’s worth reminding that religious in-groups tend to show humanitarian values most to those in their congregation.

By contrast, atheists who give to charity tend to do so on the basis of empathy and compassion, according to another 2012 study. Researchers arrived at their conclusion after conducting three experiments, one of which involved 101 adults who were asked to watch two videos — one neutral and the other about children living in poverty — and then given 10 “lab dollars” to donate however much they wished to a stranger. Those who were least religious were more motivated by the emotionally charged video, and thus gave more money to a stranger.

Although science has all this to say about one group prevailing over the other, it really shouldn’t matter whether you’re religious or not. Religious people can also seek education and become successful, and today there are more tolerant views of people of different races, sexual orientations, and religions all over the country. At the same time, atheists and other non-religious groups can still build communities that support each other, as well as develop systems of meaning that help instill an understanding of the world.

 

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