Edge.org has an essay by Jonathan Haidt that provocatively interrogates the "new atheists" of pop science, questioning their methods as being more passionate and emotional than scientific (though by and large they are scientists leading the movement). I could not agree more with that assessment, as I have made the same one myself. Haidt is very rational in his approach, and takes an approach that one would expect out of any scientist in this debate. Though himself an atheist, his dealings with facts and studies allows for a productive engagement by both sides. So productive, in fact, that there are quite a number of responses by other Edge contributors to his essay.
I do not take issue with what he writes, and I only wish to shed some light on one of his assertions. He states that:
"surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too."
I would advance the opinion that if "religious believers," who by definition are believers in a better afterlife or, at the very least, a better existence or non-existence to follow their earthly bodily ones, are surveyed, then they would in all likelihood be happier than their non-believing counterparts. If one has a better circumstance than their present condition to look forward to, this would produce a self-described "happier" state than one who has nothing to look forward to. Likewise, if the achievement of that preferred condition were predicated upon helping others during their time on earth, then those religious believers would naturally be more inclined to do so.
So that would explain two of the four survey findings. As for the healthier and longer-lived statistics, only one is really relevant since health is a driver of longevity; i.e., if a population is healthier than another population, then it would in all probability also be longer-lived than that population, all other factors being equal. And as to the health or non-health of groups of survey respondents, I can only say that each of the two groups had a 50% chance of being healthier than the other, so further research in that area would be required. If, on the other hand, it were observed in survey after survey of various populations that there is in fact a high correlation between health and religious belief or non-belief, it could very likely also be correlated to a relationship between health level and happiness level.
Are these cause and effect relationships, or are they merely consistent with other "symptoms" of whatever it is that predisposes certain people to religious belief, mental/psychological happiness, and physical well being?