Jason Byassee: Does religion make for happiness?

Does religion make for happiness? A recent survey says "no." A slightly-less-recent one says "yes." But what is happiness anyway?

Does religion make one happy?

It’s a preposterously large question, but it’s the sort of question that sets the web to buzzing.

Dianne Winston’s ever-fascinating religion and media watch at USC and this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education are almost ecstatic at the evidence that religion does not, in fact, make one happy. In fact, two of the most irreligious countries on planet earth, Denmark and Sweden, are two of the happiest places around. Take that, Religious Right and all would-be sympathizers. Phil Zuckerman in the Chronicle hints strongly that irreligion leads to societal bliss. The data is in: if you want to be happy, go pagan.

But is it so? A survey of people in the same countries just a few years ago by New Science magazine revealed something rather different. For this one, Nigerians were the happiest people on earth, followed hard by Mexicans, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, and Puerto Ricans. The least happy were Russians, Armenians, and Romanians. The quick read here: if you want to be happy, go to a place where Christianity is booming. If unhappiness is your bailiwick, go to a place where Christianity was outlawed for most of the last century. Plus this was a survey. Someone went and actually asked people how happy they were. The evidence for the triumph of godlessness above comes from a study by some guy named Ruut who’s an academic in Rotterdam, who apparently thinks that, whatever the Nigerians say, Danes are happier.

On the other hand, Denmark and Sweden are not simply pagan cultures. They are post-Christian cultures. Many of the social advances that Zuckerman praises could be traced to those countries’ Christian heritage rather than their rejection of it. Socialism was later taken over as a secular and then anti-religious cause, but many of its earliest adherents were fiery Christians. And the fact that Danes and Swedes want their poor to be well-cared for and justice for oppressed peoples around the world may have something to do with the fact that their countries were Christian for a millennium. So Zuckerman’s storyline of the this-worldly triumph of irreligion at least needs some nuancing.

The relationship between faith and happiness is a complex one. Christians take from our Jewish forebears the notion of a God who is not all sweetness and light—who is a consuming fire, whose holiness devours, who demands justice and judges our wickedness. We also take from the God of Israel a story of unfathomable mercy, undeserved grace, and unlimited healing. In the face of such a story the word “happy” seems not to fathom the depths of things adequately.

And yet Jesus promises happiness, “blessing,” to those who live as he preaches: the poor, the persecuted, the mournful, those who weep. This is not merely an other-worldly promise, as many Christians in Nigeria and many post-Christians in Denmark seem to know. The Sermon on the Mount is a recipe for one’s best life now (to borrow a phrase).

Jason Byassee is an executive director for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.