Religious believers tend to be happier than non-religious folk, according to a long line of psychological research. Scientists have suggested several possible explanations for this phenomenon, including the ideas that religion offers a greater sense of control, provides a purpose for life, and reduces uncertainty.
So if religious belief makes people more satisfied with their lives, why is secularism growing in many countries? A new study offers one possible answer: A belief in scientific and technological progress can also serve as a source of life satisfaction. Indeed, it may even offer more lifetime happiness than religion does.
The study appeared in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, and the research team that conducted it was led by Olga Stavrova, a psychologist at the University of Cologne. The researchers first did a deep analysis of how the belief in scientific and technological progress affects the life satisfaction of a representative sample of nearly 1,500 Dutch citizens. They then compared life satisfaction measures with belief in sci-tech progress across 72 countries. In both cases, they found "a strong belief in scientific–technological progress was associated with an enhanced sense of personal control, which in turn contributed to higher life satisfaction."
The Dutch survey asked people a battery of questions about their values, religiosity, personality traits, beliefs about progress, sense of personal control, and life satisfaction. The researchers measured the respondents' beliefs in scientific-technological progress, for example, by asking them to rate how much they agreed with such statements as "Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable" and "Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation."
Participants were asked how often they attended religious services and whether they believe in God. They were also asked, "How much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out?" A rating of 1 indicated "no choice at all" and 10 signified "a great deal of choice." They subsequently answered a 5-item Satisfaction With Life Scale, assigning each item 1 to 7 points. Finally, participants answered standard gender, education, income, employment, and marriage queries.
The researchers concluded that "both belief in scientific–technological progress and religiosity were positively associated with life satisfaction, yet the association with belief in scientific–technological progress was significantly larger." In fact, life satisfaction was three times more likely to correlate with a belief in sci-tech progress than belief in religious doctrine. Progress enthusiasts also tended that have a much stronger sense of personal control over their lives, while religiosity was negatively associated with personal control.
Belief in progress and religion were largely independent of one another rather than mutually exclusive. In addition, "men and educated individuals showed a stronger belief in scientific–technological progress than women and individuals with lower formal education."
For the cross-cultural section of their study, Stavrova and her colleagues used data from the World Values Survey (WVS), which probes the religious and sci-tech progress beliefs of representative numbers of citizens in 72 countries. They measured sci-tech progress, religious beliefs, and a sense of personal control on essentially the same scales as in the first study. On life satisfaction, the WVS asks respondents to rate on 10-point scale the statement: "All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?"
Stavrova and company concluded that the "correlation between a belief in scientific–technological progress and life satisfaction was positive and significant in 69 of the 72 countries." On the other hand, the relationship between religiosity and life satisfaction was positive in only 28 countries and actually negative in 5 countries. Similarly, belief in sci-tech progress correlated with a sense of personal control in 67 countries, whereas religiosity was positively associated with personal control in only 23 countries—and was negative in 10 countries.
Stavrova and her colleagues speculate that this negative association between a belief in God and a sense of personal control might arise from dispositional differences. Primary control strategies aim to change the external world so that it fits with one's personal needs and desires; secondary control strategies seek to change personal needs and desires so that they fit with the external world. Earlier research has found that religious believers tend to score higher on secondary than primary control strategies. Stavrova and her fellow researchers suggest that future studies might "examine whether a belief in scientific–technological progress, in contrast to a religious belief, entails individuals to rely more on primary rather than secondary control strategies."
So why do people who believe in sci-tech progress tend to be happier than the religious faithful? Stavrova and her colleagues propose that "achieving control over the world and mastering the environment has always been one of the major goals of science. Believing that science is or will prospectively grant such mastery of nature imbues individuals with the belief that they are in control of their lives." This sense of personal control in turn contributes to a higher life satisfaction.
It turns out that people who rely upon the efficacy of the human intellect to solve problems have a greater chance of living satisfying lives than those who cling to the supernatural hope that an unseen sky-God will somehow save them from their troubles.
Disclosure: I have been an out-atheist since my early teens. I hover around 30 points on the Life Satisfaction Scale.