Why Are American Atheists Less Happy and Cooperative?

Outstanding stuff from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in Slate:

In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.


The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens … find them immoral and unpatriotic.

America becomes no worse as it becomes more secular. And American atheists would be both happier and more cooperative if we were less marginalized by our culture.  

Also, the fact that non-religious Americans (who don’t lie about it) are basically disqualified from high public office ensures that many of the most rational and intellectually accomplished people in our society cannot participate in electoral politics. For all I know, this is good. It may keep many of our best and brightest focused on productive endeavors, instead of squandering their abilities in wasteful games of political conflict. But it might also lead to a selection effect where political power is left to those with exceptional powers of self-deception, or to those who are willing to simply lie about things that are profoundly important to the people they are supposed to represent. That might not be good. 

I made an argument similar to Bloom’s, here.  


Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center