One of the pitches made by religious organizations is that religious belief leads to an improved life. Once you discover the truth and get on the right path, they say, you’ll find that things turn around for the better in all sorts of ways.
It’s a lovely idea, but is it true? A pair of recent Gallup surveys suggest it isn’t.
The first survey measures the degree of religious belief in 184 Metropolitan Statistical Areas, dividing people into the categories of “highly religious”, “moderately religious” and “not religious”.
The second survey also uses the Metropolitan Statistical Areas, covering almost all of the areas that were included in the first survey. The second survey isn’t about religious belief, though. It’s a measurement of a variety of qualities, including rate of diabetes, rate of obesity, frequency of eating fruits and vegetables, exercise, insurance coverage, and “overall wellbeing”, as measured by the Well-Being Index. The Well-Being index integrates a range of factors including things such as how often people smile, how many sick days they take off to work, how often they exercise, how satisfied they feel at jobs, and their opinions about the worth of their communities.
The fact that both surveys used identically-defined Metropolitan Statistical Areas means that we can quickly mashup their data to investigate the claims by the highly religious that their path brings people a better life. I put the results of the first survey side by side with three different measures from the second survey: rate of obesity, frequency of eating produce, and overall well being. For each pair, I produced a scatterplot chart, showing the rough relationship between a metropolitan area’s degree of “highly religious” residents and each of the three measurements from the second Gallup survey. This direction of this relationship is shown on each chart in the form of a statistically-calculated best fit line.
Keep in mind that these statistics, though gathered from individuals, are here compared on the level of metropolitan communities. The question isn’t the relationship between individual people’s religious beliefs and the likelihood that they are obese, but rather is a matter of the relationship between a metropolitan area’s rate of highly religious people and that area’s rate of obese people.
The hypothesis suggested by the promoters of religion is that religious belief leads to a broad improvement including many aspects of believers’ lives. If this hypothesis is true, we ought to see that metropolitan areas with higher than average rates of highly religious residents also have lower rates of obesity, higher rates of vegetable and fruit consumption, and higher rates of overall well being.
What the data from these surveys actually show is that metropolitan areas with higher percentages of residents with a high degree of religious belief also tend to have higher rates of obesity.
There is a negative relationship, on the other hand, between the portion of a metropolitan population that is highly religious and the frequency with which that population eats fruits and vegetables.
When people enter the Land of Milk and Honey, it seems, they get a diet low in vegetables, but high in lipids and sugars, and an increased rate of obesity.
More broadly, rate of high religiosity in a metropolitan area is associated with a lower degree of well being.
The hypothesis that becoming highly religious will lead to improved living is not supported by the data from these surveys. Of course, we don’t have enough information to certainly state that there is causal connection between a high rate of intense religiosity in a community and that community’s obesity, poor diet, and low levels of well-being. However, we can clearly see that the opposite causal relationship does not exist. Intense religious devotion seems to be a poor path for self-improvement.