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What happens when millions of people in a given society stop going to church and lose their faith in God? Does that society descend into despondency and despair?

         Not according to the latest World Happiness Report, released this past week. 

Based on an analysis of a host of sociological, economic, and psychological factors, the nation that is currently the happiest on earth – for the fifth year in a row – is Finland. Following Finland, in the top ten, are Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand. 

And it just so happens that all of them are among the most secular/least religious nations on Earth. Aside from outlier Israel – which is growing more religious as it grows more brutal and undemocratic – all of these top-10 happiest nations have experienced dramatic degrees of secularization over the last century.

For instance, Norway has not only seen its church membership plummet to unprecedented levels, but for the first time ever, more Norwegians today don’t believe in God than do. In neighboring Sweden, church attendance is also at an all-time low, and nearly 65% do not believe in God, another all-time low. In Denmark, nearly half the population does not believe in God – also an all-time low. In New Zealand, back in 2001, about 30% claimed to have no religion, but today that is up to a record high of nearly 50%; in the Netherlands, almost 40% of the population attended church regularly back in the 1970s, but today it is down to only 15%, and for the first time in Dutch history, a majority of people claim to have no religion. In Iceland today, a whopping 0.0%  of people under 25 believe that the world was created by God. And as for the leader of the happy pack, Finland, back in 1900, 0% of Finns claimed no religious affiliation, but today, 30% are religiously unaffiliated, and only about one third believe “there is a God” – another all-time low.

Aside from outlier Israel—which is growing more religious as it grows more brutal and undemocratic— all of these top-10 happiest of nations have experienced dramatic degrees of secularization over the last century.

To many observers, such dramatically low levels of religious involvement and faith should spell emotional dourness at best, existential disaster at worst. But neither outcome is the reality. Rather, high degrees of happiness reign.

Of course, happiness is a doggedly subjective concept. Personally, having lived in Scandinavia for over two years, I would not describe Nordic folks as “happy,” per se. Aside from our dear friends and relatives there who are warm and loving, I’d describe the average Scandinavian you pass on the street as fairly taciturn, earnest, private, and a tad aloof. But happy? Uh…no. Certainly not compared to all the extremely jolly folks that work at my local Trader Joe’s.

But given the variables included in the study – such as subjective measures of well-being, calmness, and feeling at peace – the rankings make sense, if by “happy” we don’t mean ecstatically joyful, but rather, experiencing a general sense of contentment. On that front, the strongly secular nations that are in the top-ten certainly deserve to be there: with their extensive systems of welfare-capitalism, they experience the highest degrees of freedom in the world, while also the lowest levels of inequality. They enjoy free or highly subsidized health care, childcare, elder care, education, and so forth. Their societies are extremely safe and humane. No wonder their citizens are the most content and happy in the world.

But what, exactly, is the relationship between these nations’ happiness and their secularity?

To assert that they are happy because they are secular is not statistically warranted; it would be a bald case of apparent correlation but not proven causation. That said, for those who persistently claim that religion is a necessary component of a healthy, happy society – insisting that if religious faith and involvement fade, the results will be deleterious – well, that position is demonstrably untenable; the data presented in this latest World Happiness Report, with highly secular nations consistently holding the top positions, render the argument that society needs religion in order for its citizens to thrive, as simply not true.

There are certainly many reasons that these nations experience such high degrees of happiness and well-being. In addition to their strong social welfare systems mentioned above, they enjoy economic prosperity, healthy democratic institutions, equal rights for women, highly educated populations, clean streets, well-manicured parks, thriving arts, low murder rates, and – at least in the Nordic world – copious amounts of herring. But whatever the various reasons are that produce such happy societies, they don’t seem to be religious or spiritual in nature. Bible study, church attendance, prayer, faith – clearly such things can decrease and diminish, without causing widespread anguish or depression. Indeed, it seems that just the opposite can be the surprising result.

Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...