Will Wilkinson has an interesting post responding to Arthur Brooks' interesting work on religion and happiness in the United States, in which he (Will, that is) points out that the religion-happiness correlation seems to be America-specific, and that the advance of secularization in Western Europe has coincided with an increase in levels of reported happiness on the continent. Here's Will's take on the America-Europe discrepancy:
Brooks rightly points out that in the U.S. a great number of community organizations are anchored in religion. And sociality and community are key to happiness. So, sure, non-religiosity in the U.S. is likely to be a socially alienating and stigmatized kind of non-conformism ... It seems to me that Brooks has simply found that America has a religious culture, and therefore it’s less trouble to be religious in the U.S., not that religiosity has some kind of deep connection to happiness.
No doubt there's some truth to this (though I would venture that non-religiosity is somewhat less socially alienating than it used to be). But my suspicion is that the difference has something to do with the role of the welfare state as well - that the benefits of belonging to a religious community are greater in the U.S. than in Europe in part because our welfare state is smaller, and religious participation provides both tangible and intangible forms of security that are more valuable in a society where the free market is more freewheeling and the welfare state weaker. If you're a Christian who prefers the American model, you might say that the Europeans use government as a substitute for God; if you prefer Europe's path to modernity, you'd probably say something about Americans clinging to churchgoing because it's the only protection available against the harsh brutality of our jungle capitalism. Either way, I suspect that this symbiosis between high levels of religiosity and economic individualism is at the heart of American exceptionalism - which is another way of saying that libertarians root for secularization at their peril. (Though perhaps Will has some data in his infinite file cabinet of happiness research that blows my hypothesis out of the water.)
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