To be happier, pray at the altar of progress and put your faith in technology

Emoji gods can grant good luck.
Emoji gods can grant good luck.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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Faith in progress has overtaken religiosity as the answer to the question of how to be happier in secular societies.

It used to be traditional religious belief best bolstered well being, providing the faithful a sense of control in a wild world. Now, however, progress is the religion that makes its believers feel best. Science satisfies the secular deeply, say social psychologists from the University of Cologne, Germany. In fact, praying at the altar of technology provides more powerful benefits to devotees of progress than the traditional gods give the faithful.

The researchers surveyed 1,500 people in the Netherlands about their values, religiosity, personality traits, beliefs about progress (rating the resonance of statements like “science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable”), sense of personal control, and life satisfaction. Based on the survey responses, the researchers concluded that both belief in scientific-technological progress and religiosity were associated with higher life satisfaction. Yet trust in progress made people feel significantly better than religion did, providing a far stronger sense of personal control.

After analyzing these results, the researchers also compared across cultures using data from the World Values Survey, which asks about satisfaction, religion, and belief in progress in 72 countries. (Religious belief was evaluated generally without distinguishing between the faiths.) They found a “correlation between a belief in scientific–technological progress and life satisfaction was positive and significant in 69 of the 72 countries.” Only in 28 countries did religiosity correlate positively with satisfaction at all.

Belief in progress and belief in god aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, however; some subjects reported faith in both. But it was faith in science that gave them a greater sense of control and assuredness about the future, providing them with more satisfaction than their religions did.

The psychologists suggested that a reason science satisfies more is that it offers solutions to real and visible problems as opposed to the abstraction that is god. Or, as Albert Einstein said, the great merit of science is that “it has overcome man’s insecurity before himself and before nature.”

Religion and science do have to be reconciled for many Americans, however, 90% of whom still “believe in God or a universal power” according to a 2015 Pew Research report.

Some scientists are trying to do just that. For example, Ting Wu, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, is collaborating with Baltimore churches on how to educate the population about genetic testing in a way that doesn’t alienate the religious. Wu told STAT news that she’s opening up discussion on what limits, if any, should be imposed on progress in genetic editing and if messing with genomes generally is too much like playing god.

Many people worldwide would be inclined to say that without religion, it is impossible to tackle questions like these. In 2014, Pew Research surveyed beliefs about religion and morality in 39 countries and found that in 22 of them, clear majorities say it is necessary to believe in God to be moral and have good values.

As for what will make you the happiest? Make your own decisions about traditional faith, but don’t let it keep you from believing in progress, because that seems to offer the best return on investment. Whether or not it’s true that the future is bright, faith that technology will make it so is proving highly satisfying.