A Rebuttal to the Gallup Wellbeing Survey November 2, 2010

A Rebuttal to the Gallup Wellbeing Survey

A few days ago, I posted about a Gallup poll which said that religious Americans have a statistically significantly higher level of wellbeing than nonreligious Americans.

Jeff at the blog Inquiry, Blasphemy, and Magic Missiles offers a different take on the results and explains why they may be misleading:

I would argue that those of us under the “Atheist” subgroup may be higher than the general non-religious group. Now this isn’t an entirely unfounded claim… an Atheist tends to have a few general traits that are indicative of higher well-being.

First off, most of us have gone through a long process of deciding our stance on religion and have a strong, intrinsically discovered set of beliefs. People who have been given a choice tend to display a wide array positive behaviors and emotions.

As a disclaimer to that, the same would be said for the Very religious who have questioned their beliefs and arrived to this sort of conclusion — the presence of choice tends to make people more comfortable in their convictions.

Second, there is the presence of identity. There are many psychological theories of identity, but in general, people who have a strong sense of who they are and what they believe score extremely high on measures of well-being and other positive emotions and behaviors…

What does this mean? Well, it is likely that the majority of “non-believers” and “moderates” have not gone through any of these long periods of identity achievement or self discovery (or they are still in the process of this). People who are going through this process still have slightly higher scores on the associated measures than people who are not going through the process, but it is still nowhere near those who have run the track and finished…

One of the most frustrating things about demographic studies is that atheists, agnostics, non-theists, and “nones” are often lumped together when there are differences between the groups.

“Non-religious” applies to a large number of people who wouldn’t identify as atheists, so keep that in mind when you’re looking at any poll.

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  • ML

    I hate being lumped into anything. I am an idividual. But I guess not when it comes to polls. I told someone yesterday I didn’t believe in God and they gave me this look as if they’ve just found out there’s no Santa Claus. Funny how people’s opinions of you change once you “come out” of the religious closet. I think my “wellbeing” it’s perfectly safe.

  • Heidi

    That’s actually a good point.

    Nonreligious — Religion is not an important part of daily life and church/synagogue/mosque attendance occurs seldom or never. This group comprises 29.7% of the adult population.

    Apparently, I was already non-religious when I was a believer.

  • grumble.f.kitty

    Stuff like being discriminated against and worrying about losing loved ones because of an unpopular opinion can have an impact on well-being, too.

  • Maybe though, theists do have a higher sense of well-being. So what?

    People taking LSD do too.

  • InviQtus

    George Bernard Shaw (I’m pretty sure it was him) made the point that the fact that religious person may be happier than a nonreligious one is no more to the point than the fact that a drunk man is happier than a sober one. That said I agree with Hemant’s point. I think what is most important is having some type of an overarching world view, which people identifying as atheists probably have, but those identifying as nonreligious may not.

  • Ali

    I don’t know.

    I became an Atheist through the process of discovery and evaluation, but I don’t necessarily feel any happier because I still feel like I’m part of the minority. And I am the only Atheist in my family, as well as among my friends. I feel very isolated.

    I still agree with the post, except to add that the individual is “proud” of their discovery.

  • I’m darn happy being a proud Atheist. Much more happy than when I was a theist. But to this day, Christians give me crap in a variety of ways, and that negatively affects my “well-being.” So if they ever ask why an Atheist might feel down sometimes, there’s a whole world of harm that Christians do, and it often involves us non-theists.

    I rise above it. Onward through the fog!

  • One thing I found interesting was this was a survey based on a person’s opinion of their own well-being. This was not a scientific study based on medical records, psychological testing, etc.

    All this proves is that religious people are not as realistic as non-religious people. No matter how bad their lives are going, religious people will somehow see a bright side through ignorance and denial.

    Through no fault of their own. That’s how delusions work.

  • And of course highly religious persons SELF-IDENTIFY as feeling a high sense of well-being – they believe they are special, that they’re going to dwell forever in the house of their invisible sky man and laugh as all us horrible other people are damned for all eternity. They get to feel like the part of the in-group.

    The fact that they’re wrong is apparently unimportant.

  • Russ

    I had a flight instructor who would often tell stories about the mistakes he had made over the years. He always began with, “I was flying along, fat, dumb, and happy…”

    His message was clear. A sense of well-being is a recipe for disaster.

    Of course atheists don’t have a sense of well-being. We know the universe wants to eat us for lunch and we don’t have a big magical protector.

    But, what we lose in “fat, dumb and happiness” we make up in good choices, preparedness and real (as opposed to imaginary) benefits.

  • Laura

    I think there is good evidence, not just a poll, that religion helps people feel better. Trying to argue around that seems like wishful thinking. Just like religious people do.
    There might be a way to get the feeling-better benefits of religion without illusions. What do you think?

  • Erp

    A classic case of where the distinction matters is the recent Pew Poll on religious knowledge. They separated open atheists from nothing in particular. The former got on average 20.9 questions out of 32; the latter got 15.2 on average which was below all but Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics. If atheists and nothing in particular had been put together; I suspect the 15.2 wouldn’t have changed much since atheists would have made only a small percentage of the combined group.

  • Never try and interpret these surveys without checking precisely what was asked, and precisely what was done with the data (looks at all those caveats for “controlling”, I wouldn’t be surprised if they “controlled” the signal out, for example atheists tend to be wealthier, but they control for social economic status). For starters I’d ask if the raw data had the same result. In medicine they would be skeptical of results that aren’t dose dependent, and on several scores non-religious do better than the moderately religious – a red flag that “statistically significant” results may not be as significant as they first seem.

  • muggle

    Meh, by that argument, Christians would have to be broken down by denomination.

    What I’d like to see is how our health is affected by religion. I may be Atheist but my health problems going on 53 are largely caused by my mother’s abuse and neglect as a child and her abuse and neglect were directly caused by her Christianity. So it’s religion that’s negatively affecting me now — not the absence thereof.

  • Alex

    I really don’t mind the lumping of all the non-religious. Being an atheist isn’t a title that we should give only those who have really thought deeply about reilgion and are part of the secular movement… ‘atheist’ shouldn’t be a special term, and should be synonymous (sp?) with ‘non-believer’. It shouldn’t be a big deal, just a word to identify someone who is not religious.

  • I agree 100% with Jeff’s assessment. There is a massive amount of self satisfaction, confidence, and self worth that comes with knowing one’s self and knowing one’s own values. You own yourself, and you own your values, and therefore are much more likely to be truly content. We should all focus on getting to know who we are, and that always means getting to know what we believe.

  • Fundie Troll

    Way to go Jeff, if you don’t agree with the poll just reinterpret the results…

  • gsw

    “I really don’t mind the lumping of all the non-religious.”

    Still too negative. The non-religious – whether atheist or just ‘lapsed’ – should be our allies.

    Together we are no longer a small minority and can change the direction of thought. Compare what the islamic umma achieves in countries where they are only 5% of the pop.
    Ok, so they have more bombs than we do, but we have economic, political and scientific clout.

  • Peter Mahoney

    1) Not to play the ‘victim’ card, but… perhaps for some nonbelievers/atheists our own sense of well-being is compromised by living as a minority group in a larger society that utterly misunderstands, mischaracterizes and often openly despises us.

    2) Perhaps atheists’ sense of well-being is impaired because many of us are still in the closet (due to #1 above). Living a suppressed life can’t be good for well being.

    3) Perhaps ‘atheists’ would rank better than the other groups we were lumped in with, if we were split out… who knows? (speculation, either way).

    4) Who cares? Someone who is in a delusion or has an undiagnosed cancer is more content that someone grounded in reality. As a general rule, even if the reality is not what I previously believed, or if it is not what I might want to believe… only by being grounded in reality can we make wise decisions. Thus, I’d prefer reality.

  • @Alex – It’s not a matter of if you mind of not that we are being lumped together. The problem is that you are being lumped together with fundamentally different groups (including but not limited to non-practicing believers, deists, and a half dozen other things that are the complete opposite of atheists, its like like trying to study different species of animals but dividing them up by genus)

    @Tom J. Lawson – Yes, it is based on peoples own opinions of their well-being but a large amount of psychological data is collected that way. The point is that several different questions are asked to assess the different aspects of an overarching construct, in this case, a few questions were asked about each sub-construct and the total results were merged to get an idea of well-being. This is a valid scientific method of collecting data. It’s not a controlled experiment so you can’t draw cause and effect from it, but you can draw conclusions and generally assume that it’s somewhat accurate.

  • I’d like to see this compared with similar studies from more secular countries than the US. From what I’ve gathered from The Interwebs, religion is a big deal, socially, in the US, and people have a tendency to (relatively frequently) suffer adverse consequences from being openly non-religious, or from the dissonance of being closeted non-religious. It would be very interesting to contrast this with studies from countries and regions where there is no such stigma, in order to better tease out the effects of stigma versus religious (non)belief itself.
    Also interesting would be comparing atheists with similar groups who face similar stigma, such as LGBT people? The issues are quite similar in a lot of ways, there might be something interesting to be found out there.

    However, I have to say one thing: There’s a lot of you who are saying, quite vehemently, that you dislike being lumped in with others, or that your personal experience is different to what has been described in the survey, so it must be wrong. Do I really, really have to point out that the plural of anecdote is not data? Or that when we talk about large statistical trends, there are always going to be outliers? Please. There are many legitimate criticisms that could be made, and that have been made, of this study. Don’t cheapen that with anecdotes. Also, as a sceptic, I find it incredibly important to rationally evaluate all information, even if I don’t like what it says. If there is something to this research, then it could point to something missing from the lives of many atheists and other non-religious. We would owe it to ourselves to pinpoint what that could be (and no, I don’t think it’s believe in Magic Sky Daddies!) and what changes to make.

  • Ken

    One other concern about these polls are closet atheists/agnostics/naturalists/humanists who claim or identify as Christians, Jews etc.

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