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Dr. Luke Galen, Grand Valley State University – Religious Belief and Happiness

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Luke Galen of Grand Valley State University examines the connection between social wellbeing and various degrees of religious belief.

Luke Galen is an associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University where he conducts research on the psychology of religion. His previous research projects have focused on religious text recall, the influence of fundamentalism on attitudes toward animal rights and evolution, the formation of interpersonal impressions based on religiosity, and the Just World Hypothesis. He also studies the non-religious and the process of apostasy. He holds a Ph.D. from Wayne State University.

About Dr. Galen

Dr. Luke Galen – Religious Belief and Happiness

Previous research has suggested that religious belief is beneficial for mental health and well-being. Those who devoutly attend religious services tend to report greater happiness and life satisfaction than the unaffiliated or those who never attend. Although this has been interpreted as being due to religious content, such as belief in God or having a sense of certainty and control, these effects are intertwined or confounded with nonreligious factors. These include group membership and sharing social support with others with similar convictions. Previous studies have also compared highly religious people with those defined as “low religious” or “unaffiliated” or infrequent church attenders. However, these people are not a homogeneous group. Atheists and agnostics differ in many ways from the religious-but-unaffiliated.  

My studies were designed to properly compare church members with secular group members; most of the latter being completely nonreligious. I examined social contacts, life satisfaction and personality variables such as emotional stability.  I found that mental well-being shows a curved relationship with religiosity. The confidently religious as well as confidently nonreligious group members, showed equal mental health. It was the religiously unsure who had the lowest mental well-being.  The few other studies that have used such a design have found similar results.

Many things thought to stem from religious beliefs, such as well-being or prosocial behavior are often due to purely secular factors. The benefits assumed to be synonymous with religious groups - social integration, opportunities to volunteer or donate to charities - these can also be derived from secular settings. For those without religious beliefs, it may be beneficial to join a group of like-minded people and share the benefits of a supportive group environment.

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