So The Atlantic posted a health column today with the following title:
It’s a writeup of a recent study published in Psychological Science about the quest for meaning around the globe. The grabby tag:
“Research indicates that lack of religion is a key reason why people in wealthy countries don’t feel a sense of purpose.”
As you might guess, the article is a mild celebration of religion as a source for meaning and purpose among those who don’t have much materially. And it comes with a not-so-subtle assertion that those who wish to be psychologically healthy may need to get themselves some religion.
Journalist Julie Beck begins an analysis of the Psychological Science study with a nod to the cliche (yet truthy) notion that money can’t buy happiness. This is obviously the case, because the countries in which people had the most meaning (a version of happiness) were definitively not the wealthiest:
“Toward the top [for meaning] were Sierra Leone, Togo, Laos, and Senegal, all of which were in the bottom 50 countries in the world for gross domestic product per capita in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund.”
But as Beck notes, the study demonstrates that meaning requires more than just rethinking money as a source of fulfillment. Wealthier countries are also less religious than poorer countries — and according to the study, secularity sets wealthy countries back in the meaning department.
The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.
What we wind up with here is the assertion that having a sense of meaning ultimately requires a religious frame of reference. At first glance, this looks like a win for religious evangelists: evidence of the necessity of religion. After all, “it appears,” the author writes,
“there’s something to be said for being given answers to the big questions, whether they are true perhaps less [sic] important than just having them, sparing yourself the agony of looking.”
But such a statement baldly sets up religion as an opiate (not a win for evangelists after all), while the article as a whole — particularly given its categorization under “Health” — identifies religion as our only viable source of meaning. In other words, we may be better off if we lie to ourselves. Beck tells us that the Psychological Science study actually wraps up by quoting Roy F. Baumeister’s book Meanings of Life,saying,
“creating the meaning of your own life sounds very nice as an ideal, but in reality it may be impossible.”
The takeaway? You can’t make adequate meaning on your own. You need religion. But don’t fear: the religion doesn’t have to be true! You simply need to buy in so that you never have to view your circumstances without the assistance of an inherited (or enforced) frame of (mythical) reference.
The article doesn’t claim to be offering religious or psychological advice, but it nevertheless functions as an excuse to settle — in the name of health — for what appears to be kind of working. It also reduces faith to a desperate self-protection method — a reduction which rings true to atheists, but would likely offend those who claim their faith sustains them.
Where I believe Beck ultimately falls short in reporting on this study is her failure to frame the study within a global system of oppression, repression, and assertions of power. Granted, she likely didn’t set out to do so. But without critical and overarching frames of reference, studies like this help us minimize the material oppression, suffering, and/or disadvantages of those in less wealthy economies by celebrating their ability to “find meaning.” For example, the study notes that poorer countries do have much lower rates of “satisfaction” (which “has to do with ‘objective living conditions.'”) But satisfaction and meaning aren’t the same things, and at least in this study, meaning takes precedence over satisfaction. Better to be poor and have meaning than to have nice living conditions, but wind up merely “satisfied.”
Unfortunately, this conclusion is implied by those conducting the study — who may be representative of economically-privileged populations. (Is it clear that those who claim to have great meaning wouldn’t also like to have better living conditions?)
A simplistic approach to the study’s findings also encourages a creeping condescension that says, “Sure, I may have more amenities, but those people have more meaning. That’s so good for them! I’m glad they have their faith.” This removes any sense of urgency with regard to questioning the global structures and systems that reinforce privilege and disadvantage. After all, disadvantage has been so deftly handled via religion and its accompanying meaning.
Meaning and purpose are obviously common human quests, and studies of how, when, and where they are found are not only legitimate but necessary. However, when simplistically described and represented, studies like this one become a means by which the wealthy can dismiss their advantage by feigning envy of those with whom few of them would actually be willing to trade places.
Ultimately, rather than questioning the economic, political, and possibly religious reasons for a gross disparity in “living conditions” and satisfaction, this article leads readers — for a moment, anyway — to see income advantages as disadvantages. Yet even then, we aren’t encouraged to alter our privileged circumstances, or to move to a place in which we have less access to material amenities. (Not that such choices would “work.”) And we certainly aren’t urged to consider our roles in perpetuating global systems that channel wealth to places in which it already abounds. (A choice which could be truly positive.) Instead, readers are urged only to consider adding religion to the mix.
That’s all we need, after all. Some answers to the big questions.