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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 2

Are Believers Really Happier Than Atheists?

Who is better off: the religious or atheists? Cultural values determine the answer



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Alain de Botton, a prominent writer and outspoken atheist, has a grand vision to nurture a truly secular society. He foresees awe-inspiring monuments dedicated to nature. Museum and hotel designs would encourage contemplative thought and self-improvement. Psychotherapists would occupy offices in accessible yet glamorous boutiques, providing easy opportunities for supportive interactions with others.

Although such a radical transformation of civic life—religion for atheists, as he calls it—is unlikely to make it beyond the blueprints, de Botton is on to something. Atheists miss out on a lot of great perks that come automatically with belonging to a faith. As a religious person, you gain a community of like-minded individuals, many of whom are eager to welcome you into their social circle. During tough times, this network softens your fall. When it comes to happiness, “there appears to be something special about having friends at church,” says sociologist Chaeyoon Lim of the University of Wisconsin.

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