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Happiness, Religion, and the Status Quo

Behavior & Belief

Stuart Vyse

December 4, 2014

It is no defense of superstition and pseudoscience to say that it brings solace and comfort to people... If solace and comfort are how we judge the worth of something, then consider that tobacco brings solace and comfort to smokers; alcohol brings it to drinkers; drugs of all kinds bring it to addicts; the fall of cards and the run of horses bring it to gamblers; cruelty and violence bring it to sociopaths. Judge by solace and comfort only and there is no behavior we ought to interfere with. ~ Isaac Asimov, The Humanist

This famous quote from Isaac Asimov makes good sense to many of us. Many rationalists believe there is never an excuse for holding ideas that are unsupported by evidence. “It makes me happy,” is not a good reason. Nonetheless, the emotional benefits that accompany many superstitious, paranormal, and supernatural beliefs undoubtedly make them more difficult to discard. A recent study of religion and “system justifying beliefs” sheds light on just what is so comforting about religious belief in particular.

New York University (NYU) social psychologist John Jost, working with six other collaborators, published a study in the February 2014 issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology entitled “Belief in a Just God (and a Just Society): A System Justification Perspective on Religious Ideology.” This correlational study looked at levels of religious belief in relation to several “system justifying” notions, such as the belief that the world is a just place (i.e., people generally get what they deserve), belief in the Protestant work ethic (hard work will be rewarded), belief that the current free market economic system is fair, and belief that inequality is necessary and just.

The results—as is often the case—were complicated and somewhat mixed, but in general, Jost and his colleagues found that greater religious belief was correlated with greater endorsement of the status quo. Religiosity was also positively correlated with right-wing authoritarianism and political conservatism.

In one part of the study, Jost et al. used relatively large samples of atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist participants to examine these system-justifying views. Atheists, agnostics, and, in some cases, Jews showed significantly lower levels of endorsement of these system-justifying views. For example, atheists, agnostics, and Jews rated the item “Justice always prevails over injustice” significantly lower that Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists. On other questions, Jews and Buddhists fell between atheists and agnostics on one end and Catholics and Protestants on the other.

In another part of the study, Jost and colleagues looked at the relationship of religiosity to four kinds of system justifying (i.e., status quo supporting) beliefs in three groups: rural Midwestern adults, online respondents, and NYU psychology students. In general, religiosity was positively correlated with system justifying views. Of all the possible correlations, only the rural adult sample failed to show a relationship between degree of religiousness and economic system justification, the belief that the current economic system was fair.

Citing this research and other studies, Jost and his coauthors suggested that both the status quo supporting beliefs they studied and religiosity have comforting effects. For example, previous research has shown that those who support current levels of inequality are happier. Similarly, religiousness has been found to be correlated with well-being.

There are some interesting nuances to these relationships. For example, one might assume that the comforting effects of religious belief would have particular value for lower-income individuals, but a previous study showed that religiosity was related to happiness for lower-income European Americans but not for lower-income African Americans.

By necessity, all of these investigations are correlational, and the cause and effect relationships that underlie them are undoubtedly complicated. But this research points to at least two reasonable observations. First, it is easy to see why both religious belief and support for the status quo are so popular. Both concepts appear to provide a refreshing salve for some of life’s stickiest problems. Second, these studies highlight an important challenge faced by those who would like to promote reason over religion, as well as by those who would like to motivate others in the interest of social change.

If religious and status quo supporting beliefs have a causal relationship with well-being, it will be hard to convince people to reject them. Discarding religion and/or endorsement of the current social order, will come at an emotional cost. Logical arguments about the lack of support for religious ideas and need for improvement of the social order will only sway people who value logic and evidence.

Unfortunately, many people value feelings, gut reactions, and intuition over reasoned argument. These religious people and defenders of the status quo will find it very difficult to reject bad ideas that feel so good.

In his argument for reason, Asimov uses examples of potentially damaging forms of behavior, such as drinking, smoking, gambling, and anti-social violence. But in today’s world, religious behavior is viewed in positive terms and it brings comfort to the believer.

The pursuit of happiness is a self-evident right guaranteed in the United States Declaration of Independence, but there are many ways to find it. A recent movement in economics argues that happiness and well-being should replace Gross Domestic Product as measures of the success of a nation. If happiness is the goal for many people, then those of us who support a scientific approach to life should probably turn more of our efforts toward articulating the joys of living with fewer illusions. Many of us are the kinds of people who are moved by a coolly reasoned argument based on logic and data. But this approach alone will not persuade everyone. If we hope to turn “we happy few” into the happy many, we should probably say more about the emotional benefits of a life of reason.


Jost, J. T., Hawkins, C. B., Nosek, B. A., Hennes, E. P., Stern, C., Gosling, S. D., & Graham, J. 2014. Belief in a just God (and a just society): A system justification perspective on religious ideology. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 34(1), 56-81. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0033220

Rankin, L., Jost, J. & Wakslak, C. 2009. System Justification and the Meaning of Life: Are the Existential Benefits of Ideology Distributed Unequally Across Racial Groups? Social Justice Research. Online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11211-009-0100-9

Stuart Vyse

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Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.