People who are active in religious congregations tend to be happier and more civically engaged than either religiously unaffiliated adults or inactive members of religious groups, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey data from the United States and more than two dozen other countries.
Religiously active people also tend to smoke and drink less, but they are not healthier in terms of exercise frequency and rates of obesity. Nor, in most countries, are highly religious people more likely to rate themselves as being in very good overall health – though the U.S. is among the possible exceptions.
Many previous studies have found positive associations between religion and health in the United States. Researchers have shown, for example, that Americans who regularly attend religious services tend to live longer.1 Other studies have focused on narrower health benefits, such as how religion may help breast cancer patients cope with stress. On the other hand, there are also studies that have not found a robust relationship between religion and better health in the U.S., and even some studies that have shown negative relationships, such as higher rates of obesity among highly religious Americans. (For more on previous studies of religion and health, see this sidebar.)
Taking a broad, international approach to this complicated topic, Pew Research Center researchers set out to determine whether religion has clearly positive, negative or mixed associations with eight different indicators of individual and societal well-being available from international surveys conducted over the past decade. Specifically, this report examines survey respondents’ self-assessed levels of happiness, as well as five measures of individual health and two measures of civic participation.2
By dividing people into three categories, the study also seeks to isolate whether religious affiliation or religious participation – or both, or neither – is associated with happiness, health and civic engagement. The three categories are: “Actively religious,” made up of people who identify with a religious group and say they attend services at least once a month (sometimes called “actives”); “inactively religious,” defined as those who claim a religious identity but attend services less often (also called “inactives”); and “religiously unaffiliated,” people who do not identify with any organized religion (sometimes called “nones”).3
This analysis finds that in the U.S. and many other countries around the world, regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement (specifically, voting in elections and joining community groups or other voluntary organizations). This may suggest that societies with declining levels of religious engagement, like the U.S., could be at risk for declines in personal and societal well-being. But the analysis finds comparatively little evidence that religious affiliation, by itself, is associated with a greater likelihood of personal happiness or civic involvement.
Moreover, there is a mixed picture on the five health measures. In the U.S. and elsewhere, actively religious people are less likely than others to engage in certain behaviors that are sometimes viewed as sinful, such as smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. But religious activity does not have a clear association with how often people exercise or whether they are obese. And, after adjusting for differences in age, education, income and other factors, there is no statistical link between being actively religious and being in better self-reported overall health in any of the 26 countries and territories studied except Taiwan, Mexico and the United States.4
Even in the U.S., the strength of the linkage between religion and health varies, depending on measures and datasets used. For example, in some years, the General Social Survey has shown that religiously affiliated people who go to church or other religious services at least once a month are particularly likely to report that they are in excellent overall health, while in other recent years this has not been the case. (See sidebar on the United States).
The exact nature of the connections between religious participation, happiness, civic engagement and health remains unclear and needs further study. While the data presented in this report indicate that there are links between religious activity and certain measures of well-being in many countries, the numbers do not prove that going to religious services is directly responsible for improving people’s lives. Rather, it could be that certain kinds of people tend to be active in multiple types of activities (secular as well as religious), many of which may provide physical or psychological benefits.5 Moreover, such people may be more active partly because they are happier and healthier, rather than the other way around. (For more information about what may be causing these links, see this sidebar.)
Whatever the explanation may be, more than one-third of actively religious U.S. adults (36%) describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of both inactive and unaffiliated Americans. Across 25 other countries for which data are available, actives report being happier than the unaffiliated by a statistically significant margin in almost half (12 countries), and happier than inactively religious adults in roughly one-third (nine) of the countries.
The gaps are often striking: In Australia, for example, 45% of actively religious adults say they are very happy, compared with 32% of inactives and 33% of the unaffiliated. And there is no country in which the data show that actives are significantly less happy than others (though in many countries, there is not much of a difference between the actives and everyone else).
When it comes to measuring civic participation, the results again follow a pattern: On balance, people who are actively religious are also more likely to be active in voluntary and community groups. This dovetails with previous studies in the United States.6
In the U.S., 58% of actively religious adults say they are also active in at least one other (nonreligious) kind of voluntary organization, including charity groups, sports clubs or labor unions. Only about half of all inactively religious adults (51%) and fewer than half of the unaffiliated (39%) say the same.7
A similar pattern appears in many other countries for which data are available: Actively religious adults tend to be more involved in voluntary organizations. In 11 out of 25 countries analyzed outside of the U.S., actives are more likely than inactives to join community groups. And in seven of the countries, actively religious adults are more likely than those who are religiously unaffiliated to belong to voluntary organizations.
In addition, a higher percentage of actively religious adults in the United States (69%) say they always vote in national elections than do either inactives (59%) or the unaffiliated (48%).
Outside of the U.S., actively religious adults are more likely than “nones” to report voting in national elections in half the countries (12 out of 24) for which data on this measure are available; in the remaining countries, there is not much of a difference. Actives also are more likely than their inactive compatriots to say they vote in nine out of 24 countries, while the opposite is not true in any country for which data are available.8
These are among the key findings of a new analysis of data from cross-national surveys conducted since 2010 by Pew Research Center and two other organizations: the World Values Survey Association and the International Social Survey Programme. This report focuses on countries with sufficiently large populations of people who are actively religious, inactively religious and religiously unaffiliated to allow researchers to compare all three groups using the same survey data. As a result, the analysis cannot be truly global: 26 countries surveyed by the WVS are used to measure self-rated health, happiness and voluntary group participation; 25 countries, also surveyed by the WVS, are included for voting; and 19 countries surveyed by the ISSP are used to examine smoking, drinking alcohol, obesity and exercise. A Pew Research Center survey provides U.S. estimates for self-rated happiness. The countries analyzed are mostly Christian-majority nations in Europe and the Americas (because these countries tend to have substantial unaffiliated populations), though the analysis also includes a few African and Asian countries and territories, such as South Africa, South Korea and Japan.
An additional reason this study relies heavily on data from Christian-majority countries is that regular attendance at religious services – a key measure in this study – is a more central practice in some world religions (such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism) than in others (such as Hinduism or Buddhism, in which there is less emphasis on communal worship).