Religion improves well-being — even in atheistic China

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A woman holding incense sticks offers prayers on the first day of the new year at Yonghe Temple, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Even in largely atheistic China, people who are religious report higher levels of life satisfaction compared to people with no religious beliefs — an association that has the biggest effect among disadvantaged groups, according to new research.

Religious involvement and its effects on health outcomes and subjective well-being have been studied in sociological literature since before the 1900s. The present study, published May 18 in Social Forces, has moved discourse forward, finding that Chinese-religion and organized-religion adherents have higher levels of subjective well-being compared to people with no religious beliefs in modern-day China — a striking discovery, considering the country's largely atheist population. 

China is a compelling context to study the impact of religion on subjective well-being, given that "contemporary Chinese society is known to be largely nonreligious," according to the researchers. Apart from the government's secularized stance, four surveys, as part of the Chinese General Social Survey, showed that, on average, 87% of China mainland adults consider themselves to be nonreligious. Buddhists account for the largest portion of religiosity in the country. 

Up until recently, the researchers said, the impact of religion on subjective well-being has largely been contained to the Western religions, but Eastern religions are now being given more attention.

For the Social Forces study, the researchers used China Family Panel Studies data from 2012, 2014 and 2016, a nationally representative longitudinal dataset that allowed the researchers to control for factors they otherwise couldn't, including personality traits that might make people inclined to be happier or more religious in one way or another. 

The researchers indicated that this means their study provides a key piece of evidence that the relationship between religion and subjective well-being may be causal in nature, at least within the Chinese context. 

The longitudinal sample was classified into four groups: pure nonreligious; nonreligious with some spirituality; Chinese-religion adherent, including Buddhism and Taoism; and organized-religion adherent, including Christianity and Islam.

Respondents were asked to report feelings of satisfaction with their lives, indicating subjective well-being on a scale from 1, meaning "very unsatisfied," to 5, meaning "very satisfied." Respondents were also asked to report other related details, such as frequency of attendance at religious activities and events, which gauged religious involvement. 

The fixed-effect models show that entering into the two categories of religiosity from the pure nonreligious category increased levels of satisfaction. Compared to pure nonreligious individuals, Chinese-religion adherents had an increased average level of life satisfaction of .142 points on the scale from 1 to 5.

Likewise, organized-religion adherents, compared with nonreligious individuals, saw an increase in the average level of life satisfaction of .101 scale points. In contrast, the nonreligious with some spiritually did not have increased levels of subjective well-being over the pure nonreligious. 

"The result does point very strongly that religion clearly matters in China in a way that we were quite surprised by the size of the effect that we're finding," said Feinian Chen, a co-author of the paper and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. 

Chen and Weixiang Luo, the other co-author of the paper and an associate professor at the Institute of Population Research at Fudan University, drew on previous research to explain their findings and found that their research strengthens previous sociological research on the relationship between religion and subjective well-being.

Chen told The Academic Times that the benefits of religion work through two primary mechanisms: the public/social and the private/intrinsic aspects of religion. 

Organized religions, particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam, bring people together: "Specifically, religious institutions, services, and related activities tend to bring together persons with similar values and interests, thereby promoting social interaction, communication, and friendships," according to the study. This social-integration theory spans back to the work of Émile Durkheim, a founding father of sociology, who died in 1917, and social integration seems to benefit humans. 

Religion also has a private and intrinsic dimension to it, which can emphasize values such as love, forgiveness, purpose in life, belonging and meaning. While these aspects can be found to some extent in Western religions, they are largely found in Eastern religions and philosophies, such as Buddhism and Taoism, which "tend to engage in more self-reflection, mindfulness and the pursuit of inner peace and satisfaction, and advocate principles such as 'Enough is as good as a feast,'" according to the study. 

Chinese religious activities also involve sitting meditation, which likely reduces stress, anxiety and depression; previous literature has shown the general benefits of spirituality, mindfulness and meditation. 

Along with the general finding that religion boosted life satisfaction, the researchers noticed that the positive effect of religion was particularly potent for disadvantaged groups of people — rural residents and individuals in the lowest income quartile — such that religion benefited them the most. 

For these folks, this effect could be attributed to the "healing power of religion," the researchers wrote, which serves to reduce and buffer the negative effect of stress in life. 

The findings of this research reinforce the association between religion and subjective well-being, and they provide a key piece of evidence that the relationship between the two may be causal. 

Whether religion positively impacts life satisfaction through its public or private aspects, whether through increased social support or the mindfulness, meditation and reflection aspects of certain philosophical doctrines, "The main takeaway is that religion matters," Chen said.

The study "The salience of religion under an atheist state: Implications for subjective well-being in contemporary China," published May 18 in Social Forces, was co-authored by Weixiang Luo, Fudan University; and Feinian Chen, University of Maryland.

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