An increasing body of research is showing that, on average, religious people are happier, healthier and more generous, at least in the United States.
This has been a bitter pill for some non-believers to swallow, but before we draw too much from these results, we have to ask a vital question: what is causing what? Readers will recall my praise of Jonathan Haidt’s article on Edge.org which touched on these questions. Aside from Sam Harris’s rant, this drew some more measured criticism. A correspondent pointed out Mark D. Hauser’s response which suggests that religion need not be a cause of the way religious people behave. Granted that religious people give more to charity, as Haidt pointed out, how do we know that religion is the cause of this generosity? Perhaps the sort of people attracted to religion are simply more likely to give to charity any way. Perhaps religious people are happier not because of their beliefs but because they lack the atheist’s clear-eyed pessimism.
Of course, we have been here before. We used to imagine that children grew up like their parents because of the way their parents raised them. Science poured cold water on this idea and has shown than nurture is irrelevant – it’s the parents’ genes that count. We also know that a predisposition towards religious belief or the lack of it is heritable. So, if the genes that give someone proclivity to believe in God also give them a tendency towards looser purse strings, we could not say that religion itself makes people generous. This might sound like a long shot, but we cannot dismiss the possibility without subjecting it to rigorous testing. We need to find out if religious people whose parents were non-believers have pockets as deep as those who were born to religious parents. Likewise, atheists with godly ancestors should be tested against those from a line of sceptics. If religion itself is a cause of generosity, health or happiness, the atheists should score the same, regardless of who their parents were. Likewise, with religious people from different backgrounds. As we already know that upbringing makes no difference to these traits and genes were ruled out by the experiment, we could be confident that religion itself was the deciding factor. In that case, non-believers would have to accept that religion has real benefits.
Of course, none of this has much impact on the question of whether or not a religion is true. Neo-atheists, like the right-wing Thatcherites as they dismantled Britain’s uncompetitive industrial sector, may have to tell themselves, “We may not be very nice, but at least we are right.”
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.