It is pretty hard to argue that religion must be good for something to people personally, must have some kind of attraction that has kept many millions of people from walking away from it. As much as religionists like to believe their fairy tales are true and the Bible is chock full of truth and good stuff, the opposite is abundantly clear to anybody who doesn’t happen to have a vested interest in believing what religion is selling. The number of unbelieving clergy and “in the closet atheists” that preach or attend church is testament to the fact that there must be another attraction aside from the obvious.
What then is the draw of religion? Why are people so attracted to it and once in religion, why is it so hard to leave?
A recent study published in the journal American Sociological Review sheds some more light on that question. Researchers Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam identified a link between religion and improved life satisfaction and published their results of their study: Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction.
The results basically show that about a third of religious people who attended services weekly report being “extremely satisfied” lives had 3 to 5 close friends in the congregation. “Extremely satisfied” is defined as a 10 on a scale ranging from 1 to 10.
Only 19 percent of regular service attendees with no close friends in the congregation reported being “extremely satisfied” with their lives. On the other hand, 23 percent of people who only attend a handful of services per year but that have 3 to 5 close friends in the congregation reported being “extremely satisfied”.
“To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there,” Lim said.
So, essentially, it’s your friends at church that makes you happy, not being at church, worshipping or praying.
When I look at myself I think I recognise that as the reason it was mostly painless for me to embrace atheism and feel very little discomfort at walking away from the religion of my parents. I didn’t have any close friends in any congregation and didn’t have any real social ties to stop me from leaving or make me want to go back.
I also think a lot of atheists are like me in that we don’t have or want extended social networks and mostly get on quite well on our own. It’s this that makes organising atheists like ‘herding cats’. The lack of a strong desire to be social made it easy for us to leave religion but hard for us to form a cohesive, working atheist “community”. In quotes because there is a bit a “movement” of atheist bloggers, activists and people who frequent the same forums, sites and groups together with secular campus organisations but nothing on the scale of a major religion.
The atheist “community” or “movement” should learn something from this study. A lot of effort goes into denying that atheism is not a religion, that atheism is a religion like bald is a hair colour. While technically true, atheism is not a religion, the atheist community is more like a religion than most atheists would like to admit; in fact, the atheist movement can be compared to a lot of organisations – “promoting something that you think would better the world, wanting more members, etc. It’s not really a big deal, aside from being a very efficient way to troll people.”
Atheism has causes: maintaining the separation of church and state is one, the teaching of science fact instead of religious fiction in schools is another. Atheism and its causes has much to gain from a united organised community able to advance it’s aims in an organised, united way.
It might sound a bit ridiculous to say that we atheists should start to think of and treat our “community” like a religion but it seems that it might just be a good thing both for us personally as well as for the rest of world at large.