Friday, 5 June 2009

Does theology make you happy?

A sociologist called Idler once (eventually) got round to proposing four ways in which religion might have an impact on people's well being:
  1. providing a sense of comfort in times of trouble,
  2. providing access to a large network of potential support providers,
  3. discouraging behaviour which might lead to health problems (smoking, drinking, sleeping around, taking drugs etc. This could, depending on how you look at it, make religious people either happier or sadder),
  4. furnishing a cognitive framework through which people can better understand the meaning of pain, suffering and death (that's the whole set of theological explanations for why bad stuff happens, including but not limited to repeated singing of Blessed Be Your Name).
Apparently, a lot of research has been done into 1-3, but not so much into 4, so a guy called Marc A. Musick did some research into the effect of Christians' theodicy on their life satisfaction, published in the Journal of the Sociology of Religion as a paper called Theodicy and Life Satisfaction among Black and White Americans.

Theodicy is about answering the question, 'How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?' Musick wanted to find out the effect of different theological answers to this question on how satisfied people were with their lives. He did this by getting hold of information from a national social survey, and comparing people's answers to questions about their wellbeing to information about their denominational membership (different denominations tend to have different theologies about the problem of pain), ethnicity (more on that later), how often they went to church, and how much they saw the world in terms of good or evil.

Musick identified one key difference between different theodicies: whether they saw the world in as fundamentally good, or as fundamentally evil, life being seen in terms of a spiritual battle against evil forces. He came up with four hypotheses about the effects of these different sorts of theodicy:
  1. "Theodicies that place more emphasis on sin and evil are associated with less life satisfaction." If you're constantly aware of the gap between the way the world is and the way God intended it to be, you're more likely to be dissatisfied, and feeling like you're constantly threatened by the forces of evil is probably not that cheering.

  2. "The negative effects of holding a sin theodicy on life satisfaction are stronger among Whites than Blacks." This one's less obvious. In addition to demographic differences between black and white Christians (Black Christians tend to be more religiously involved and committed, to view the Church more as one of the key institutions in their lives, and to be more deprived, which leads them to rely more on the church for different kinds of support), Musick thinks that a strong sense of the fundamental goodness of the world in African American Christianity was key to black American Christians' survival of slavery, segregation, and the long and difficult process of emancipation, and that it continues to shape their worldview.

  3. "The effects of holding such a sin theodicy vary by levels of interaction with fellow believers such that the negative effect is strongest amongst those who interact less frequently." It's like the difference between walking round the haunted house on your own or going round with a friend.

  4. "The effects of holding a sin theodicy vary by levels of stress such that the negative effect is stronger among people experiencing stressful circumstances." Well, duh.

So, he did his research, and all his hypotheses seemed to be supported by the evidence he found, but the strongest association he found was between service attendance and life satisfaction. Moral of the story: don't skip church, kids, it will make you sad. Overall, he found that religion seems to make people both happy and sad, satisfied and dissatisfied. This reminds me of something my dad once told me, church should 'comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable'. Which perhaps sort of answers an interesting question that this research raises for me: should theology make you happy?

Photo credit: Celestial Photography on Flickr.


Miss Mapp said...

That was going to be my exact point - is one of the goals of religion/church about achieving happiness. I would hope not, as then it becomes an end in itself rather than a truth irrigardless of the individual

Marika said...

And yet at the same time, you'd hope that in Jesus people would find fullness of life, and would flourish. I think that church should be a place where we can form meaningful community, be loved, find support, encounter God, and be transformed into the people God made us to be, all of which would, you'd hope, make people generally happier. And yet you're right: it's not just about happiness; we live in a broken world and part of following Jesus is facing up to that and perhaps engaging with it in ways we might not otherwise. New Testament scholars talk about the kingdom of God as being 'now and not yet' - it's here, we experience it, and yet it isn't fully here and we wait in hope of its full arrival. I think that's what life is meant to be like right now: caught between the cross and the resurrection, experiencing something of both.

Dustin said...

Good points. If the only reason we have religion is to make us happy, then as Paul says "we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Cor 15:19). I guess what we really need is a good way to tell the difference between "happiness" and "fullness of life".

Liz said...

I am reading this while I'm supposed to be preparing my talk for church tonight. Anyway, as well as it being another great post, I noticed that you've missed a word (or more) out at the end of the haunted house sentence.

Marika said...

Oops, thanks Liz! All better now.

L.L. Barkat said...

"Theodicies that place more emphasis on sin and evil are associated with less life satisfaction."

Funny, I was thinking about this as I sat in church on Sunday. Nothing wrong with admitting our frailties, but is there anything else we might do, say, when taking Communion? This Sunday I settled on saying silently, "I'm hungry", then accepting the sacraments as food.

Andrew said...

Becoming myself involves a deeper kind of grumpiness (does the well of irritability have a smile at the bottom, or a rude gesture? I'm not there yet). Jesus is helping me to nurture that. It makes me happier to be miserable.