Are believers happier?
Christians are happy people and atheists are not. I’ve heard that a lot but always from Christians. I get messages from the faithful telling me I must be unhappy, miserable and angry. Why? Because I’m an atheist.
Most of the time I’m in a pretty good mood. I have my ups and down like anyone but even during some real crap that life can throw at one I tend to keep my sense of humor and have a good laugh. I’ve loved and been loved and that means I’ve been lucky. I lived pretty much the life I’ve wanted and seen a lot of the world. So far I’ve packed more into my time on earth than most people and got some years to go I hope. And I would say I’m happy.
Are there things that would make me happier? Of course. It’s not material things but the people I love and care for that I can’t be with. Those are the only things that would really make me much happier.
Now I’ve been a Christian and an atheist. I’ve known hundreds of Christians in my life and hundreds of atheists. And quite honestly I was not able to tell a huge difference between them when it came to happiness. The only difference I could find was that during my religious days the Christians had strong motives to cover up any unhappiness or depression. God’s people were supposed to be happy and they played that role. It was expected of them. My atheist friends had no such motive.
I remember a guy I went to seminary with. His name was Mike. I really liked him. He worked as a security guard while putting himself through seminary. He was married and had a family and always said how happy he was in the Lord. I believed him. Even after I left the seminary he and I remained friends right up until the day he committed suicide. I never found out why he killed himself. It was a shock. No one ever expected he was unhappy. But obviously he was.
Now I’m a fan of John Stossel. I like his work. I know it comes across as simplistic but I also know there is a huge amount of professional literature backing up what he says in his reports. I enjoyed his newest book Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity. But John says that religious people are happier than non religious people. But if you read what he actually says it is slightly different: “People who say they’re actively religious are more likely to also report that they’re very happy.”
So people who identify themselves as very religious also identify themselves as very happy. I wouldn’t dispute that. I would not assume that means they are actually happier just that they say they are happier. Like Mike they could be faking it. Why? Because there is a lot of peer pressure in these churches. Whether the Christians like to admit this it can be hell living up to the expectations of your fellow believers.
So there are all sorts of things Christians will underreport. Rev. Jimmy Swaggart would never admit he was frequenting prostitutes until they caught him and filmed him. Rev. Jim Bakker would never admit he was having an affair until he was caught red handed. Rev. Jack Hyles (pdf file) ran the largest fundamentalist church in America and every Sunday preached from the pulpit with his mistress sitting almost right next to him. The women had been his secretary for years. And Hyles' son, who was also a minister, had more dark secrets then you could shake a stick at.
Ask these people if they were happy and I’m sure they would say they were. Ask them if they were committing these acts in secret and they would lie about it. Why? Because there are expectations. Christians are supposed to be happy. “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” goes the song. And everybody would clap. No one wanted to admit they weren’t happy especially if it was the church that was making them unhappy.
One of the stories we used to feed the non-believers was that we Christians were joyous in the Lord, thrilled to know Jesus, happy in the Spirit, etc. And even when I was feeling unhappy as a Christian I still pretended I was and so did everyone else. I can’t think of a time when anyone I knew in church, in the prayer groups I attended, at the Christian school I attended or at the seminary ever admitted they were unhappy. It just wasn’t done.
Happiness was assumed to be a result of your salvation. To doubt your happiness would be, well you can get the drift. People were going through all sorts of periods of doubt about what they believed. Would they admit it? Not usually. To admit doubt about the Gospel was unacceptable. Anything that didn’t live up to the expectations of the church was unacceptable. It was best to hide it, lie about it, go into denial, etc. And they did.
Christians have always been good at denial. There are so many areas where the hypocrisy is apparent and well known. I don’t see why reported happiness simply isn’t another one of them.
I also think that atheists are more likely to tell the truth about such things. There is no pressure in being an atheist. There is no expectation per se due to one’s lack of a faith in a deity. There is no expectation that your life has to be a “witness”.
An atheist is more likely to admit whether they were sexual active before marriage or even unfaithful while married. They are more likely to admit they are depressed or unhappy as well. You aren’t considered to be failing the “faith” or the “church” for these things. So you can be honest about them. It is much harder for Christians to face the truth about themselves and their beliefs and their life.
Now when you know people personally you can see through the facades they put up. I saw lots of unhappy Christians and unhappy atheists and I’ve seen people who were happy in both cases. I didn’t see much differences between them except that the Christians had more reasons to pretend everything was fine.