2010 December 07 Tuesday
Social Aspects Make Religious Belief Most Rewarding

The people who make friendships in their religious congregations report the most satisfaction with their lives.

"Our study offers compelling evidence that it is the social aspects of religion rather than theology or spirituality that leads to life satisfaction," said Chaeyoon Lim, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who led the study. "In particular, we find that friendships built in religious congregations are the secret ingredient in religion that makes people happier."

In their study, "Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction," Lim and co-author Robert D. Putnam, the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, use data from the Faith Matters Study, a panel survey of a representative sample of U.S. adults in 2006 and 2007. The panel survey was discussed in detail in the recently published book American Grace by Putnam and David E. Campbell.

According to the study, 33 percent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation report that they are "extremely satisfied" with their lives. "Extremely satisfied" is defined as a 10 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10.

In comparison, only 19 percent of people who attend religious services weekly, but who have no close friends in their congregation report that they are extremely satisfied. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who attend religious services only several times a year, but who have three to five close friends in their congregation are extremely satisfied with their lives. Finally, 19 percent of people who never attend religious services, and therefore have no friends from congregation, say they are extremely satisfied with their lives.

This raises all sorts of questions. Does the ability to share values and experiences with others of similar belief deliver the biggest benefit (in this life anyway) from religious belief? Do religious people who attend services regularly have more friends on average?

There's the aspect of competition between religions: How do the religious denominations and major religions compare in terms of the opportunities they create for the formation of friendships? Could a church or other religious institution compete better by adopting practices that increase social interactions? If people are all sitting there listening to the preacher they are not relating to each other.

Finally, does this result hold any useful insights for companies? Could companies have more motivated employees by forming people into work teams that encourage friendship formation?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2010 December 07 08:53 PM  Religion Appeal

sestamibi said at December 8, 2010 10:01 AM:

That doesn't surprise me. In fact, I'll bet that those congregations that provide opportunities to meet members of the opposite sex are even MORE successful!

Years ago when I was single I had lunch with a colleage in my company who was also a member of The Tribe. I told him that I had just joined a synagogue in the new community in which I had recently relocated. He was one of those smug married assholes who immediately began grilling me and indirectly challenging my motivation--as if one had to be intensely religious in order to do so. I leaned over the table and fired with both barrels: "And just where do you think Jewish children come from??!"

We never talked after that.

WJ said at December 9, 2010 9:50 PM:

Whether or not you agree with their truth claims (and I don't# Mormons seem to do a good job of creating strong social ties among their members. Congregations #"wards") are deliberately kept small, around 300 active members; there are no megachurches in the Mormon faith. The wards have tight geographical boundaries, so in most cities people live near their church members. In Utah your neighbors are the same people you attend church with, so everyone Mormon knows their neighbors. Nearly every adult member has a job in the congregation. Rather than have the preacher dominate the service each week, members give speeches, musical numbers, and "bear their testimonies." Perhaps most importantly of all, members are expected to live up to the professed ideals of the faith. Pre-marital sex, adultery, and tobacco, alcohol, and drug use are verboten, and members are disfellowshipped or excommunicated for violating these rules.

The result is that on many measures of quality of life Mormons are at or near the top: teen birthrates, illegitimacy, abortion rates, life expectancy, divorce, etc. They have higher birthrates, too. Unlike most denominations, it is the best educated Mormons who tend to remain as the least educated leave.

Religion provides a social support structure that society dearly needs. For most people, there is nothing else remotely capable of replacing it. Many of the changes seen in mainstream denominations over the last few decades - loosening of moral standards, ignoring all but the soft, feel good parts of the Bible - have been the exact opposite of that which creates long-term loyalty to a religion, and that which makes it beneficial.

Randall Parker said at December 9, 2010 10:54 PM:


Good points. It can be argued that Mormonism is like an improved American form of Christianity. It produces better outcomes. How can you argue with that?

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