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Religious People Have Higher Self-Esteem But Only In Some Countries, Study Shows

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A woman prays during a Mass in honor of the late Pope Juan Pablo II where a reliquary of his blood is on display at the Cathedral in Bogota, Colombia, Friday Jan. 20, 2012. The silver reliquary of blood taken from John Paul II during his last hospitalization before his death in 2005, arrived in Bogota on Thursday night on a flight from Rome, where it will return on Monday. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)
A woman prays during a Mass in honor of the late Pope Juan Pablo II where a reliquary of his blood is on display at the Cathedral in Bogota, Colombia, Friday Jan. 20, 2012. The silver reliquary of blood taken from John Paul II during his last hospitalization before his death in 2005, arrived in Bogota on Thursday night on a flight from Rome, where it will return on Monday. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

Are religious people happier? Studies have shown that God-fearing folks tend to have higher self-esteem than nonbelievers, but new research published in the January issue of Psychological Science adds some nuance. It shows that religious belief is linked to high self-esteem only in countries that emphasize religious belief.

Researchers at three European universities looked at the religious beliefs and self-esteem of users of an online dating service across 11 countries, from the devoutly Catholic Poland to the world's least religious country, Sweden.

The analysis showed that in religious countries, self-esteem was higher among believers than nonbelievers. That was consistent with previous research. But in countries where religion is not central to the culture, the self-esteem of religious people was lower than that of nonbelievers.

The researchers offered a possible explanation for their finding: Religious people feel better about themselves in religious countries not because they're religious, but simply because they fit in with the crowd.

"We think you only pat yourself on the back for being religious if you live in a social system that values religiosity," Jochen Gebauer, Research Associate at Humboldt University of Berlin, said in a written statement. "The same might be true when you compare different states in the U.S. or different cities. Probably you could mimic the same result in Germany, if you compare Bavaria where many people are religious and Berlin where very few people are religious."

It's not the only recent study to question the apparent psychological benefit of religion. A similar study showed that religious students at religious universities had higher self-esteem than religious students at non-religious universities.

What's the bottom line about religion and self-esteem? It's simplistic to believe that religion brings happiness on its own.