Friday, March 27, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Religiosity and national happiness ratings

Religion promises you heaven but gives you hell. – Anon.

One could be forgiven for thinking that something as subjective and nebulous as happiness (thesaurus entries range from ‘content’ to ‘exultant’) is pretty near impossible to objectively measure. One could also be forgiven for questioning the credibility of averaged-out happiness measures for entire national populations. But that’s what some statisticians do to earn their pay, and expressions such as “national happiness capital” and the like are now being used in serious academic discourse, and happiness ratings are compiled for numerous countries.

Last Friday was the International Day of Happiness and we were all reminded of the happiest places in the world according to the World Happiness Report of 2013.  Let’s assume that the figures do actually convey something meaningful (well, everybody else seems to do so). I’ll just remind you of the top 10 (of the list of 85), in descending order: Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Australia. At the other end of the list as the least happy 10 places are, again in descending order: Indonesia, Turkey, Libya, Bahrain, Montenegro, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, Honduras, Portugal.

Analysis of the happiness data vis-à-vis other indicators revealed that there was a good correlation with national wealth as measured by per capita GDP. Other indicators that helped explain the observed variation in happiness were average life expectancy, people reporting that there was someone in their life they could count on, people feeling that they were able to make important life choices for themselves, low levels of corruption, and generosity. These six factors explained three-quarters of the overall variation.

Looking at the top 10 and the bottom 10 above, much of this does appear to make some sense. The top 10 are affluent liberal democracies where people live long, are largely free to make their own choices, and with clean and effective public sectors. It’s not quite as clear-cut for the bottom 10, though. Most have pcGDPs in the lower-middle range; none of them are dirt poor, and Bahrain and Portugal stand out as being well above lower-middle. Most of these countries are ‘democracies’, although the adjective ‘liberal’ would be somewhat debatable for at least a few of them.

One factor nobody has looked at to the best of my knowledge in relation to national happiness ratings is religiosity. It seems a perfectly valid factor to investigate in relation to how happy people are, and there is plenty of good information around about the status of religion in the countries of the world, among them the Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism compiled by WIN-Gallup International. One of the things their analysis of 2012 data revealed was an inverse correlation (more of one measured variable, less of the other) between religiosity and pcGDP. While the plots did not form a nice neat straight line (as you wouldn’t expect such crude averaged-out measures to do anyway), the scattergram clearly points to a line of best fit running downwards from the upper left quadrant (low pcGDP, high religiosity) to the lower right quadrant (high pcGDP, low religiosity). 

Looking at our top 10 countries, we see a cluster of what may be called ‘post-Christian’ societies. This does not mean that there are no believers left in those countries, but rather that religion no longer plays a discernible role in governance and an at best residual role in public life. Polls (including Eurobarometer Polls for European countries – useful as they are directly comparable) tend to show that the number of people professing belief in the conventional Christian God in these countries is less than half (in Sweden it’s down to 18%), although significant numbers may profess a belief in some sort of supernatural power. Levels of professed atheism and agnosticism are also high in these societies, outnumbering traditional believers in the Netherlands and Sweden. It is also noteworthy that these countries have a Protestant heritage (although Catholics outnumber Protestants in Switzerland). What religion there is left is markedly ‘liberal’ – for example, it has come to accept scientific accounts of origins, and exhibits ‘progressive’ attitudes towards gender roles and homosexuality. Looking at our bottom 10 countries, we see societies the official figures for which claim them to be overwhelmingly Muslim in six instances and overwhelmingly Christian (non-Protestant) in three, the remaining one being Nigeria with a near 50:50 Christian/Muslim split. Some of these countries’ government authorities do not recognise atheism and agnosticism as valid religious categories and do not report them as such. While most of these 10 countries have nominally secular governments, religion continues to play a highly visible role in governance and public life – and there is nothing remotely ‘liberal’ about much of it.

Of our top 10, eight countries also appear in the WIN-Gallup religiosity and atheism ratings. For religiosity, they rank from 37th (of 57) to 53rd, while for atheism they rank from 7th (of the same 57) to 21st. Four of them are on the list of the 10 countries that showed the biggest declines in religiosity between 2005 and 2012. Of our bottom 10, only three countries appear on the religiosity list and they are very spread out – 2nd for Nigeria, 12th for Pakistan and 54th for Turkey. They are a lot closer together on the atheism list at between 38th and 49th place.

Although a simple thesis along the lines of “more religion, less happiness” doesn’t quite hold, there would appear to be a relationship between the two that is at least as good as some indicators that have been tested against the happiness index ratings. In liberal democracies where people are largely in control of their own lives and are free to think about and discuss matters such as politics and religion, people are happier than are their counterparts in more prescriptive and oppressive societies. The source of oppression may be the State but it may also be the religious establishment. The ubiquitous, overbearing presence of a stultifying religious order that aims to control people’s minds and lives is not conducive to happiness.

I think that it all boils down to how confident people feel about being in charge of their own lives. A free and open society where people make their own choices and where their voices are heard simply has to produce happier populaces than a restrictive and closed society where people are dictated to by secular and/or religious authorities who brook no argument. The good old Protestant individualistic ethos paved the way for the modern Western liberal democracy. It also paved the way for the affluent capitalist society and – ironically – for the demise of religion as a guiding force in public and private life.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at


Jonathan Spink said...
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Thank you for enunciating something which I have long had at the back of my mind. I think it is very true.

Anonymous said...
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In the states of the USA, there is a strong negative relationship between median household income and religiosity. This might be expected.... Proverbs 30:9 (or near to that) is a prayer in which the author, pretty much an unknown, asks God that he neither be poor nor rich as the poor tend to steal to survive and the rich tend to forget god's law. If you consider societies in which the middle class is predominant over the lower class, then you'd expect a mostly negative relationship between SES and religiosity, even on the basis of a verse at least 2500 years old.

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