Religious practice makes us happy, says Laurie Santos who teaches classes on the psychology of happiness at Yale University.
In an interview with the New York Times magazine, the popular cognitive scientist discusses what contributes to our happiness and, among other factors, she mentions religion.
She reckons that practising religious makes people happy. “There’s a lot of evidence that religious people are happier in a sense of life satisfaction and positive emotion in the moment”, she says.
But Santos also claims that religious people are happier not so much because of their beliefs but because of their actions. Being religiously active means to engage in social connection, to volunteer, to feel belonging to a community, to develop a sense of meaningful life together with those with kindred principles.
We get benefits not from theological principles but from the commitment to our group, she says.
This claim rebukes two common opinions among the critics of organised religion. Not only it contradicts the allegation that religion is repressive and detrimental, but it also confirms that it is organised religion – and not just spirituality – that makes us happy. Belief is not sufficient. In order to be beneficial, religious practice has to happen in some organised form, within a group.
“You need a cultural apparatus around the behaviour change”, she tells in the interview. This apparatus has two elements: theological principles and commitment to the group but the latter “doesn’t have to come with a set of spiritual beliefs”, she claims.
In another interview she explains that religious traditions induce us to do acts of charity, having gratitude, being in communities where we connect with others. All those actions give us a boost, but nonbelievers can get a boost from those habits, too.
Her position is problematic, nonetheless, for two reasons.
Firstly, it seems she suggests that all beliefs are equal and what matters most is the cultural apparatus around them. “Could someone get as much benefit from actively participating in a white-nationalist militia as he could be actively participating in a Quaker church?”, asks the journalist.
In her reply, prof. Santos explains that she won’t advocate for such organisations, but she reckons that they give a sense of meaning and belonging to those who are involved in them.
Moreover, her claim that the benefits of religion can come from some substitutes is not convincing. Being involved in communal activities – from playing sport to engage in active politics- gives purpose and sense of belonging but I doubt it can be as meaningful as knowing that God is our Father and we are loved by him. They don’t bring happiness, unless we understand happiness in a very narrow sense, as some kind of temporary pleasant experience.
People give up their lives more often for their religious faith than for their golf team or stamps club. Not all communal activities are equally valuable.
In any case, it is good to have one of the main gurus of the “science of happiness” confirming international studies which have shown that the level of happiness cross-correlates with the level of religiosity.
The contribution of religion to mental health and wellbeing is well established, and some surveys suggest that Christians are the happiest among the faith groups.
But one could say that the primary purpose of religion is not happiness in this life but to make us closer to God. It has positive effects, but these are not the best motivation for practising a faith.
Religion can be dangerous; it might involve persecution.
Still, those who suffer because of their faith do not abandon it, because they believe it is true even when it doesn’t make them happy.
It is good to pursue happiness, but it doesn’t lead us to God. Seek God, instead, and you will find happiness.