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One of the real pleasures of being neck-deep in the freethought movement at the moment is how quickly the conversation is growing up. Not that it isn’t still fun and worthwhile to throw tomatoes at bad religion. But we’re also talking a lot more about building our own community, including — psst, here’s the grown-up part — learning from what religion has done well.

If religion did nothing but scare people into giving money or doing as they’re told, or comfort them with fables, or validate innate hatreds, I wouldn’t bother looking for anything to borrow. But we’re getting beyond these half-answers to recognize benefits that might actually be worth a good think.

One such benefit came out in a Harvard/Wisconsin study in the December 2010 issue of American Sociological Review. Other studies had suggested that churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers by several life-satisfaction indicators, but this one actually dug in to ask why that might be.

Turns out there’s another essential variable: Churchgoers are happier than non-churchgoers only if they have significant friendships in the congregation. As the number and significance of the friendships increase, so does life satisfaction. And those who attend church regularly but have no strong connections to others in the congregation show less life satisfaction than non-churchgoers.

Now there’s something worth noticing. Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers, put it this way:

[Life satisfaction] is almost entirely about the social aspect of religion, rather than the theological or spiritual aspect,” said UW Madison’s Chaeyoon Lim, one of the lead researchers. “People are more satisfied with their lives when they go to church because they build a social network within their congregation….We think it has to do with the fact that you meet a group of close friends on a regular basis and participate in certain activities that are meaningful to the group. At the same time, they share a certain social identity…The sense of belonging seems to be the key to the relationship between church attendance and life satisfaction.

Brings to mind a poll cited by Amanda Metskas in Raising Freethinkers:

[T]heology is less important to most churchgoers than a number of other benefits. In many cases, they attend despite the theology. It is telling that only 27 percent of churchgoing US respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll even mentioned God when asked for the main reason they attend church. Most people go for personal growth, for guidance in their lives, to be encouraged, to be inspired—or for the community and fellowship of other members. These, not worship, are the primary needs fulfilled by churches. (p. 206)

God is the frame in which many people hang their most deeply felt human needs. One of the best things we can do as a movement is think about how best to reframe that legitimate human picture.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.