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.

You also don’t get saddled with the many negative attributes associated with atheists. Nonbelievers are considered immoral, untrustworthy and, in the U.S., among the least likely to be elected president. A handful of states’ constitutions even ban atheists from holding public office. Worst of all, a large body of research suggests that, as compared with religious individuals, people who lack a creed are less likely to be healthy and happy—surely the two most important earthly concerns—and tend to lose out on at least seven years of life, some estimates suggest. Several large-scale population studies have reinforced a single premise: the more you engage with religious activities, the better off you are.

Yet many people are less certain about their beliefs than ever before. Nonbelievers number between 500 million and 750 million worldwide, according to one analysis. In the past two decades the percentage of the U.S. population that proclaims its religious affiliation as “none” has more than doubled, to about 15 percent. Most of these individuals do not identify as atheists; even so, many of them conduct their life outside the religious establishment. Although research on this population is only now emerging, a 2011 study by Daniel Mochon, Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely found that people who were less committed to their religious creed were actually less happy than avowed atheists.

If the shifting beliefs of a growing number of people portend lower health and a less contented outlook, knowing exactly how religion benefits its followers becomes a matter of public concern. Once we know what atheists are lacking, the de Bottons of the world can start dreaming up ways of providing it. “Religion is not going to affect happiness supernaturally. It has to happen through psychological, sociological and biological mechanisms,” says psychiatrist Harold Koenig of Duke University. Gallup, the polling organization, even held a symposium in February, attended by government officials, to discuss what policy implications the religion-and-health connection might have.

Several recent studies have sought to answer facets of this question by examining it with greater resolution. For the first time, researchers affiliated with Gallup have collected a representative sample of the world that measures religiosity and happiness. They found that the positive effects of religion depend enormously on where you live. Religious people may be happier than their godless counterparts, but only if the society they belong to values religion highly, which not all societies do. For atheists and the growing ranks of unaffiliated individuals, these findings bode well. Although many questions remain about how nonbelievers can acquire the health benefits of religion, scientists are now finding that secular communities of like-minded people can offer similar social support.

Religion’s Earthly Rewards
The idea that religion imbues people with contentment has a long history, especially in the popular imagination. For just a taste of it, consider a public service announcement from the late 1950s or early 1960s, in which an American teen idol known as Fabian counseled: “Teenagers would feel a lot happier inside if they visited the inside of a church more often.” In the following decades sociologists and psychologists confirmed what the pompadour-sporting pop star and many others had intuited—that identifying as religious correlates with improved health and higher ratings on various measures of contentment. A National Opinion Research Center survey of Americans conducted between 1972 and 2008, for example, found that the percentage of people reporting that they were “very happy” ranged from 26 percent among those never attending religious services to 48 percent for those who go more than weekly.

To figure out how religion affects people, social scientists rely mainly on population surveys, which are an imperfect way to study a phenomenon with subtle influences. No one experiment can properly assess whether religious behavior causes certain life outcomes over decades, and no group of people is untouched by religion, making it impossible to fully separate out the variables. As a result, researchers end up hunting for faint signals hidden in the cacophonous data on many thousands of people’s lives.

Nevertheless, such surveys have their uses. In one paper published in 2010, for example, Lim and Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University analyzed a poll on the beliefs of about 3,000 Americans to gain insight into why religion makes people happy. The respondents were asked many questions about religious behavior, such as how often they “feel God’s love,” pray or read scripture.

The data showed that happiness is not a matter of how often people say they think about God, talk about God or feel God’s presence. Instead people reported being more satisfied with their life simply when they attend religious services more frequently. Controlling for all other variables, Lim and Putnam found that 28.2 percent of people who checked in with their congregation weekly reported being “extremely satisfied” as compared with 19.6 percent for those who never attend services. The researchers equated that nine-point gap with the difference in happiness for a person who reports being in “good” rather than “very good” health or the difference between a lower-class and upper-middle-class family income.

The advantages of a religion cannot simply be boiled down to the social network it provides, however. Comparing participants with a similar number of close friends but different degrees of religiosity, they found that the happiest people are those who belong to religious groups, have more close friends in their congregations, and believe that religion is very important to their sense of self. Without a strong religious identity, congregational friendship mattered less. Even more telling, people who attended regularly but had no friends in their place of worship were worse off than those who did not go to services at all. “Maybe there’s something we can learn about this secret ingredient in church friendship,” Lim says. “We can begin to look for a similar ingredient in a secular setting.”

Though statistically strong, this study and many others on the topic were conducted in the U.S., where being religious is the cultural norm. It could be that attending services offers a unique opportunity for psychological one-stop shopping. “The churches in the U.S. may be singular in that they ... handle social relations, charity opportunities, coherent worldviews and like-minded social support,” notes psychologist Luke Galen of Grand Valley State University. Many of religion’s elements can, after all, be derived from other sources. Data from around the world can sharpen the focus.

Borders of Belief
To examine how the U.S. compares with the rest of the world, psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and his colleagues conducted a global survey, including a state-by-state sample in the U.S. They reached more than 350,000 people living in the U.S. during 2009. They gathered data on how well their respondents’ basic needs were met, such as whether they had sufficient money for food and shelter. They probed their sense of personal safety with questions about how they feel walking alone at night. Income, education levels and other variables determined which respondents were living in “difficult circumstances.” Participants were also asked whether religion was important to them. To assess the respondents’ subjective well-being—an umbrella term for life evaluations and feelings—they were asked whether they had experienced a variety of emotions the preceding day.

In line with earlier findings, two thirds of those surveyed regarded religion as important to their life. The states, however, varied by a factor of two: in Vermont, 44 percent rated religion as important, compared with 88 percent in Mississippi. In the states where religion was very important, people were much more likely to be living in difficult circumstances. They also had lower subjective well-being than people living in less religious parts of the country. Did religion make them happier, as previous studies had shown? Absolutely, according to the data—but they still were worse off than the contented residents of more affluent states, where religion mattered less.

Gallup’s operatives also surveyed people in 154 countries, with an average of almost 3,000 people per country. Respondents were asked the same types of questions as in the U.S. Overall, three out of four reported that religion was important in their life.

Again, the devil was in the details. The countries in the sample varied in religiosity by a factor of six, ranging from 16 percent of respondents in Sweden agreeing with the statement that religion was an important part of their life to 99 percent affirmation in Bangladesh, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Somaliland. In this global poll, a tough environment also tended to coincide with greater national religiosity. If you live in a nation where daily existence is difficult, your life satisfaction is generally lower. In those countries, being more religious appears to grant you a premium on happiness that your less religious neighbors do not enjoy. If the living is easy, however, both nonreligious and religious people have similar, relatively high subjective well-being. This effect held true for all religions represented in the sample—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

More important, whether a person was struggling or thriving was nowhere near as predictive of religiosity as a society’s conditions and norms. “Do you have individual choice about what you believe? Yes, but there are strong influences in society—whether everyone around you is religious,” Diener says. “That’s the eye-opener for me, that societal forces led to religiosity rather than individual forces.”

For nonbelievers, these are heartening data. They bolster the idea that believers will accrue more psychological benefits only in places that value religiosity more, and vice versa. It means atheists are not permanently shut off from some fountain of happiness—although they may want to find a like-minded community to live in. As Roy Baumeister, now at Florida State University, and Mark Leary, now at Duke, wrote in 1995, “belongingness can be almost as compelling as food.”

Further support for the conjecture that religiosity gains its power by being culturally valued came earlier this year from psychologist Jochen E. Gebauer of Humboldt University in Berlin and his colleagues. They mined a data set consisting of almost 190,000 records of individuals from 11 European countries who had set up profiles on an online dating site. These people had all rated how important religion was to them and how well a variety of positive adjectives—such as calm, healthy and resilient—described them. The researchers combined their answers into a single term, “psychological adjustment.”

The researchers found that the link between high religiosity and psychological adjustment was stronger in more religious countries and disappeared almost entirely in countries that did not tend to value religiosity. As the authors put it, “religiosity, albeit a potent force, confers benefits by riding on cultural values.”[For more on happiness and cultural fit, see “The Many Faces of Happiness,” by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski; Scientific American Mind, September/October 2011.]

The Happiest Atheists
In the least religious nations—which include Estonia, the Scandinavian countries, Hong Kong and Japan—the role of faith in public life can still be surprisingly complex, however. Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, spent 14 months interviewing people in Denmark, one of these hallowed lands where religious belief is low, yet people’s spirits are high. Just 19 percent of the population considered religion important, according to Diener’s survey.

To illustrate the difference between Denmark and the U.S., Zuckerman shares an anecdote from an American playground. His daughter, then six years old, was playing on a swing set with a friend when her companion asked her if she believed in God. The little girl replied, “No.” Her friend immediately got off the swing, damned Zuckerman’s daughter to hell and walked away.

In Scandinavia, the situation between the two girls would be reversed, he argues in his book, Society without God. As Sarah, a 20-year-old grocery clerk from a village in Jutland, told him: “Young people think that religion is kind of taboo. As a young person, you don’t say, ‘I’m a Christian, and I’m proud of it.’ If you do that, you often get picked on.”

Denmark and Sweden buck conventions in more ways than one. They have the lowest church attendance in the world. Ask them if they believe the basic tenets of Christian doctrine, and by and large they say they do not. “Even the vast majority of the clergy don’t believe in God,” Zuckerman says. Yet most Danes and Swedes baptize their babies, get married in churches and pay a tax that supports the church.

How the presence of the church contributes to Scandinavians’ well-being is an open question. The institution likely represents a sense of community, a shared moral foundation and a national heritage. Yet as one Danish bishop told Zuckerman, “Danes don’t need to go to church to feel community. They live in Denmark.” The country has been described as a modern tribe; with a language spoken by only about six million people and few immigrants, Denmark’s homogeneity serves as social glue. The country also has egalitarian workplaces, with minimal social distance separating bosses and employees.

That is all well and good for the Danes, but for the rest of us some lessons can emerge. Belief in God or gods is not a prerequisite for a pleasurable existence, although it can make life easier. Socializing with like-minded people on a regular basis, and living and working in a supportive community, can offer many of the same benefits. As Diener puts it, “Religion can certainly help people to be happier, but other things can help you do the same thing. A peaceful, cooperative society, even in the absence of religion, seems to have the same effect.”

Studying religion, it seems, is not so different from placing anything else under the microscope. View your arm from a comfortable distance, and it appears to be smooth. With greater resolution, you see that your skin is teeming with microorganisms. Look further still, and the surface is not even a solid expanse but molecules in constant motion, bumping up against one another and jostling around.

Life on the macroscale also possesses some of these shape-shifting features. Beating a path to happiness requires knowing what peculiar cocktail of social forces affects our lives and how we can manipulate them.

This article was published in print "Healthy Skepticism."