Religious countries are more unhappy

January 15, 2016 • 10:15 am

Six days ago, I wrote about some data (presented by the Telegraph and Christian Today) showing the degree of religiosity among various countries in the world—the proportion of inhabitants who agreed that “religion was very important in their lives.” A subjective look at the rankings suggested that the most religious countries were also the least well off. That impression is statistically supported by Greg Paul’s observation of a negative correlation between religiosity and well being, the latter quantified by using the “Successful Societies Scale.”

In short, countries having more successful societies are, on average, also those that are less religious. There are various interpretations of this correlation, though I tend to agree with many sociologists that people in dysfunctional societies tend to turn more or cling more to God. I call this the “Marx Hypothesis,” based on his famous quote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

I won’t defend that hypothesis in this post, though there are data showing that when people become less well off, they subsequently become more religious. If that’s the case, then the way to eliminate religion and its superstitions from this planet is simply to eliminate the conditions that breed it: that is, to make societies better off.

In that post I also gave data from the 2013 “World Happiness Report“, a survey of 156 countries published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In their report, “happiness” is estimated using several indices of well being. Looking at the ranking of the 25 happiest and 25 unhappiest countries in the world, I said this:

I haven’t run the stats on these, but I’ll bet that happiness is negatively correlated with religiosity.

Well, a kindly reader, who earns big plaudits from me, has run the stats incorporating the degree of religiosity of many countries. As he noted:

 I used all the available data from Pew website on the question of religious importance in order to include as many countries as possible, and I found the data download for Figure 2.2 of the World Happiness Report to be sure to include as many countries happiness data as possible.  So my list of countries might not match the list of countries in the graphs in the articles.

And, sure enough, the happiest countries turn out to be the least religious. Here’s the reader’s plot showing the relationship for 52 countries having data on both measures:


There’s a best-fit regression line (in red), and the Pearson correlation, as seen in the graph’s legend, is – 0.518, which for 50 degrees of freedom is highly significant (p < 0.0001).

As you can see, the relationship is striking: there’s a bunch of countries at the upper left and lower right, and those in the former region tend to be First World countries in Europe, while the latter tend to be those in Africa and the Middle East. There are of course some outliers, like poor Bulgaria, which is both atheistic and unhappy, and Brazil, which is both religious and happy.

While the data support the hypothesis that unhappiness makes or keeps people religious, it also supports the hypothesis that religion makes people unhappy. And, of course, the correlation could reflect other variables not considered. As I said, I happen to think the first idea is correct (people tend to either turn religious or remain religious if they don’t have a strong sense of well being), but I won’t discuss this at length. And remember that these data points are probably not independent, for both poverty and religiosity tend to have historical causes that go beyond countries to entire regions of the world.

But regardless of the reason for this correlation, it certainly doesn’t support the claim of believers that religion brings happiness.

36 thoughts on “Religious countries are more unhappy

  1. Ibn Khaldun states that no man can survive alone in the desert. The only way to survive is group cooperation, which has historically been instilled through Desert monotheisms of various stripes. The second point is not only can you survive in the desert, but Desert Monotheism is a way of organizing tribes politically, and creates a very powerful, cohesive fighting force, which is probably why you have civilizations based on the religion of the Conquerors (or adapted from the religion of the Conquerors in Christianity).

    So if desert monotheism promotes group survival and cooperation in difficult environments (man-made or natural), one would expect people in greater distress to be more religious (poverty, war, disease, oppression, etc.), and why Scandinavian countries are so atheistic (peaceful, secure, wealthy, egalitarian and ethnically homogeneous). Of course, this does not rule out that desert monotheism might not contribute to distress.

    1. Desert monotheisms of various stripes

      A “desert monotheism” … sounds very implausible. I notice that Judaism started in a fairly arid, low productivity scrubland area – but definitely not desert. Christianity developed from it in the towns and cities of the Roman empire and spread through all sorts of climatic zones. Islam developed from some mish-mash of Judaism , Christianity and “desert animism,” but it developed in the cities of Western Arabia. It certainly didn’t develop in the desert, because people spent the minimum amount of time they could manage in the desert itself, because deserts tend to be effective at killing people.

  2. Cause and effect will be debated of course but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries who are actually run politically by religions turn out to be shitholes.

    Interestingly the happiest countries all turn out to be social democracies with strong social safety nets where the bulk of the population have their minimum survival needs taken care of, where education and health care are easily available.

    1. Often when you get social safety nets in a society, the church plays less of a role since they previously provided these safety nets solely. This probably contributes to the decline in religion as well since when the church provides its charity, it often forces its views as well.

  3. Marx’s thesis about religion and unhappiness suggests we should look forward hopefully to economic “growth” and a world wide increase in wealth and standard of living to reduce belief. Unfortunately, although increasing wealth should be the long term future of humanity, climate change is likely to work against that. Most economists who have studied the issue believe the effect of climate change will be to depress world economies something like 25%. If so, we may have to wait for quite a long time for the desired effect.

    1. Does it require economic growth all the way? Most of the psychological experiments I’ve seen in the casual literature indicate that, beyond covering basic needs, security, and comforts, further increases in GDP, personal income, wealth, and so on, contribute little or nothing to such measures as life satisfaction, self-reported happiness, and other societal dysfunction scales. The lesson if anything seems to be that economic security and equality is a higher priority than economic growth.

      1. Right. I put “growth” in quotes. The problem of increasing worldwide well-being is poorly defined. First of all the third world would be looking for a different type of improvement that first world countries, etc. Economists probably think in terms of the amount of wealth broadly enough distributed to make a difference overall. A serious depression would certainly lead to widespread reductions in standard of living and probably higher rates of religiosity.

      2. If one scientist is right we are going to have serious problems from soil erosion due to farming, which is could lead to mass starvation. Which will no doubt lead to problems creating wealth for the masses.

  4. I would tend to go with the comparison of economic health of the individuals in the country, with religion and leave the happiness part out. I say that because it seems much easier to define and measure. Also, economic health of the individual and not the country is what I mean.

      1. Sorry, I didn’t notice the “individual” part. The Pew graph doesn’t show that, it only shows per-capita GDP.

        1. That is still very interesting. The U.S. is almost on a planet by itself. Religious and Rich. Thanks for the info.

          As the poor and middle class continue to lose ground in this country, I don’t know if we can hope for a less religious country for a long time. If they would elect Bernie, would be a good start but fat chance.

      1. Without your comment, I wouldn’t even mention that my nation is in the graph! Thank you. As for our result… we are whiners. Below, I am translating literally some verses by our poet Slaveykov (1875):

        “We are no nation, we are not nation but carrion,
        People who don’t want to do anything.
        Everything is hard, everything is difficult for us!
        “I don’t know! I can’t!” is the common cry.
        And we don’t know, can’t, don’t want
        To work for ourselves day after day.
        The only thing we know, can and want
        Is to eat each other with malice…
        We are no nation! We are no nation but carrion,
        I’ll say again and I’ll end with this.”

        I don’t know similar poems in English or any other language :-).

        1. we are not nation but carrion,

          What a cheerful chappie!
          It could be worse. At least Dostoyevski wasn’t Bulgarian.

  5. From what I’ve read, and the pieces I’ve been able to put together, it seems that unhappiness has what I would call a higher cognitive load on people than happiness does. This higher cognitive load makes people default to their System 1 thinking more than their System 2 thinking. Which leads to people being more superstitious, more prone to conspiracy theories, more likely to engage in hyperactive agency detection, more promiscuous teleology thinking, and ultimately, more religion.

  6. ” it certainly doesn’t support the claim of believers that religion brings happiness.”

    Ah, but only TRUE religion brings happiness. There’s where ya be goin wrong.

  7. Anecdotal so take with a grain of salt: The most religious people I know are the ones who most focus on trying to “get happy”. It’s sad to watch. I’m close to them, so I can’t just say “stop trying to find happiness in mythology and invisible friends and learn the reality around you.”

    1. Oh, I forgot the resulting characterization:

      Being a priest is now, based on those statistics, considered the most dangerous work in Sweden.

      Poison to the mind, poison to the body.

  8. One factor that could partially explain outliers such as Bulgaria and Brazil is the rate of progressive taxation. Bulgaria’s tax rates are effectively flat while the difference between the highest and lowest tax rates in Brazil is similar to many European countries. (See Oishi, et al. 2012)

    1. Google tells me that the per-capita GDP in Bulgaria is $7,498 USD. According to this pew graph:, that would put them very far into the “poorer nations” category. So the marvel isn’t that Bulgaria is unhappy, it’s that Bulgaria isn’t more religious. That anomaly is explained by it’s communist history as part of the Soviet sphere of influence.

      So basically there are two categories of countries in the graph: communist and former communist states and everyone else. In the communist category unhappiness and lack of religion are correlated (presumable because many communist states suppressed religion). In the “everyone else” part of the graph happiness and lack of religion are highly correlated.

      1. Said another way… being happy makes countries naturally give up religion. Suppressing religion in a country doesn’t make people happy.

  9. I’m not sure how this relates, but there is something called the World Values Survey, which is based on a questionnaire given to people in the country, so an entirely different methodology. They find a link between religion and happiness. They also find a link to the A allele in the fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) gene variant rs32442. See Or the Wikipedia article on the survey, tho it does not speak of the gene.

  10. But within the USA (and to a smaller, not statistically significant extent in 2 other countries), religiosity is positively correlated with happiness. Source. Maybe it’s the stupid laws that get passed in religious countries, that make people unhappy? Just kidding. I think.

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