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Christians happier than atheists – on Twitter
In 140 characters or less, Christians seem to be spreading love and joy more than atheists.
June 28th, 2013
08:02 AM ET

Christians happier than atheists – on Twitter

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN

(CNN) – Christians tweet from the heart, atheists from the head, according to a new study.

The study conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign tapped Twitter as a research tool and compared the messages of Christians and atheists.

The conclusion: When they are limited to 140 characters or less, these researchers say, believers are happier than their counterparts.

Two doctoral students in social psychology and an adviser analyzed the casual language of nearly 2 million tweets from more than 16,000 active users to come up with their findings, which were published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The team identified subjects by finding Twitter users who followed the feeds of five prominent public figures. In the case of Christians, those select five were Pope Benedict XVI, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and Joyce Meyer, an evangelical author and speaker.

In the case of atheists, the five followed feeds included Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Monica Salcedo and Michael Shermer - the latter two respectively being a self-described “fiercely outspoken atheist” blogger, and a science writer who founded The Skeptics Society.

With the help of a text analysis program, the researchers found that Christians tweet with higher frequency words reflecting positive emotions, social relationships and an intuitive style of thinking – the sort that’s gut-driven.

This isn’t to say that atheists don’t use these words, too, but they out-tweet Christians when it comes to analytic words and words associated with negative emotions.

Christians, they found, are more likely to use words like “love,” “happy” and “great”; “family,” “friend” and “team.”

Atheists win when it comes to using words like “bad,” “wrong,” and “awful” or “think,” “reason” and “question,” said Ryan Ritter, one of the students behind the study.

While not perfect – for example, this sort of word examination can’t account for sarcasm – word choices, Ritter and his colleagues argue, reflect something about a person’s mindset.

An analytical thinker (atheist) is more likely to be skeptical or critical, for example, whereas an intuitive thinker (Christian) is guided by emotion and certainty.

Based on previous studies cited by these researchers, analytical thinking may "diminish the capacity for optimism and positive self-illusions that typify good mental health."

Likewise, mentions of social connections, which they say are often provided in a “tight-knit moral community,” suggest stronger relationships among Christian tweeters and are, they add, often an indicator of happiness.

The takeaway, Ritter wrote in an e-mail, is “not that religion is associated with more happiness, per se, but why?”

“If we can understand the factors that facilitate happiness (e.g., increased social support), ideally we can use these insights to increase well-being for believers and nonbelievers alike,” Ritter said.

But the Twitter study doesn’t fly with everyone.

After reading an article about the study on Pacific Standard magazine’s website, Richard Wade, an advice columnist for the blog Friendly Atheist, called it “useless and misleading” and based on “sloppy research.”

He wrote, “The take away for most lay people is ‘Atheists are unhappy people.’ … How do you quantify ‘happiness’? How do you quantify ‘analytical thinking’?”

“Even in their acknowledgments about the possible biases in their study, the authors still use absurd and meaningless terms like ‘militant atheist,’” he added. “This study suffers from the same negative stereotypes about atheists that most of society has, and it has simply reinforced that prejudice with more muddled thinking.”

Ritter, who happens to describe himself as a happy atheist, said in hindsight he wishes they hadn’t used the word “militant” and that no ill will was intended. They simply wanted to describe those who have “extremely negative attitudes” when it comes to religion.

“I am a friend of the atheists! My response to Richard would be that he should apply the ‘principle of charity’ when interpreting other’s research (i.e., that it’s possible we’re NOT incompetent,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“This is not an assumption; this is the pattern we observed in the data.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Atheism • Christianity • Faith Now • Technology

soundoff (1,317 Responses)
  1. Benny

    Is it "happiness", of just blissful ignorance?

    July 7, 2013 at 12:37 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Don't worry, if the results were switched around, our side would be saying the same thing.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:00 am |
    • Athy

      Not true. Studies have shown atheists have higher intelligence levels than believers. Higher IQs don't necessarily correlate to happiness.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:16 am |
  2. sebastian

    my neighbor's mom makes $66/hour on the internet. She has been unemployed for 9 months but last month her pay check was $19227 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read more on this site http://www.jazz77.com

    July 7, 2013 at 12:20 am |
    • Observer

      Don't fall for scams.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • Benny

      I guess he's counting on lots of gullible people being on a "Faith" blog, go figure?

      July 7, 2013 at 12:39 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      That there are more Atheist posting here than Faithful, maybe you are right :)

      July 7, 2013 at 1:02 am |
  3. tony

    I don't think there is a connection between happiness and goodness or righteousness. Many common expressions contradict.

    Laughing all the way to the (vatican) bank.
    Singing in the rain
    Died laughing
    Happy go Lucky.
    Enjoy my job – torturers, scam artists, etc.

    July 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • A simple answer

      I've been happier since I've been trying to do good for others, mainly because it takes my mind off of my own nonsense, but doing good is not religion they are two separate things and I don't think those phrases are relevant to anything.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Peter

      I'm happier since I've given up trying to make sense of Christianity.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  4. bostontola

    In most social strata children are happier than adults. Happiness is one important element of a satisfying life, not the only thing. This study doesn't really prove happiness, but even if it did, it wouldn't mean that a life happier in delusional bliss is better.

    July 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  5. tony

    I think the Banks are happier that just about anybody, except their major shareholders.

    July 6, 2013 at 11:47 am |
    • Benny

      Make that, the banks that hold Benny Hinn's funds. Now they must be happy. Not as happy as Benny, of course, but still pretty happy.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:42 am |
  6. tony

    A major study just showed that the happiest people don't use twitter or facebook, because they don't need or want to.

    July 6, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      My thoughts exactly. I have better things to do than post continual 140 character updates on my state of mind.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • tallulah13

      No kidding. Though I confess I got a twitter account for the sole purpose of responding to a smarmy comment made by one of the editors of this blog. I'll never use it again.

      July 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  7. Utau Kudasai

    Like they say, ignorance is bliss.

    July 6, 2013 at 1:14 am |
  8. Answer

    Religious freaks want to think they're happier.

    July 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  9. sciencelady

    Christians are better at believing, and role playing, in a make believe world.
    Atheists, not so much. They draw attention to the elephant in the room.

    July 5, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Saraswati

      Regardless of the religions or beliefs of the day there will always be a minority that live with their eyes open so that the majority can live in a happier ignorance. The only thing that changes is how much the wide-eyed have to lie about what they see.

      July 5, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
    • Sue Anne

      Saraswati
      It appears that this age is perhaps the safest one so far for people to tell it like it is, without having to lie for fear of being put to death for blasphemy.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:59 am |
  10. Absolutely miserable

    Well I'm miserable and I don't care who knows it. Life is flawed, death inevitable, and there is no evidence to support that anything better will ever happen. If I could convince myself that the abominable snow man would whisk me away one day I'd do it. I just can't.

    July 4, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      You can enjoy the good times when they come.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
  11. Annie

    WAIT A SECOND. You mean that members of a privileged class that seldom have to fight for equal treatment in a predominantly Christian society are somehow HAPPIER than their marginalized peers?!?!? SHUT THE FRONT DOOR.

    July 4, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
    • Mike

      I think you got that backward Annie? Turn on the TV, got Starbucks, go to work . . . get back to me when you see a Christian.

      July 8, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • In Santa we trust

      Mike, The majority in the USA claim to be christians. Are you saying they're not? Not "true" christians?

      July 8, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  12. Theseus

    Well, it's as they say, "ignorance is bliss".

    July 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  13. Reed

    Will the next study show that atheists die sooner and are sicker more than the Christians? That study would be more objective than this piece of junk.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  14. Charles Darwin

    I guess one could say that Atheists live in a realistic world while the
    religious folk live with fantasy island playing in their heads.

    I wonder how many tax payer dollars were spent on this study?

    July 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm |
    • counter

      That is a point of view. It is not realistic that all this complexity we have and human biological units came from nothing. It had to be created from an intelligence.

      July 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Our existence is consistent with some form of intelligent designer, but our existence is not evidence of any particular type. Certainly it's pure pride and immature thinking to assume that such a possible designer would care about human affairs at all or have any relevance to any of the gods produced by the myths of our animal brains.

      July 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Wendy

      What's so intelligent about human design? Walking upright gives us back problems. We're outclassed by some other creature in everything except measurable intelligence, and our freakishly big brains often make surviving childbirth difficult. We have far too many physical flaws for us to be the product of any intelligent designer.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:07 am |
  15. morningcoffeecation

    What a ridiculously stupid article

    July 4, 2013 at 10:16 am |
    • I'm sorry Dave, I can't let you do that

      It's not that stupid. We do tend to be cynical, pessimistis b.astards.

      July 4, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • Theseus

      Interesting that "think", "question" and "reason" were among the words used to classify the non-religious as negative. I'm much more inclined to THINK those are positive qualities in any individual, qualities far too absent from religion. This article defines "negative" by it's own altered words making skepticism seem like some kind of downfall, and faith as a positive expression. This study is utter nonsense.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  16. Reality

    Some one-liners for your next Tweets:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    July 4, 2013 at 7:26 am |
    • Theseus

      Well, Christians adopted Easter from a Pagan celebration marking the beginning of spring and the "resurrection" of the land and animals blooming into life. It has nothing to do with Jesus, so while it's not true that Easter isn't "real", it is true that you won't find it in the Bible, the pillar of Christianity.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  17. pwmcgill

    One can also argue that this research only reinforces what has been know all along that – ignorance is bliss indeed! To the real point, this study is absurd and an egregious waste of time! Don't Universities have significant research to do, like how to make college more affordable??

    July 4, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • jl

      Ignorance is bliss, and what's more, that bliss is caused by a form of cognitive chemical pathway adjustment in the neuroplastic human brain that also makes it addictive. It's why we become addicted to group beliefs and ideologies: the strength of numbers and mutual belief gives us an addictive sense of comfort that, when facing conflicting information, throws up cognitive dissonance and makes the believer aggressive towards the challenge.

      We get hooked on group behavior over time, and the more we trust the person or people who brought us into that group, the more we'll associate it with our own sense of security.

      One of the reasons that conservatives generally poll 10 points lower on average IQ than liberals is because conservatism, as a belief system, is very appealing to the ignorant, those who fear change based on a lack of relevant supporting information. That's also a subset that, while often including the successful based on family belief patterns, is common to the working poor. It's why fear motivates the poorest voting sectors; they're more inclined to trust the good ol' neighbor who tells them something than "facts" and "book smarts."

      The human brain is designed to get us to fear change if we're "comfortable" in terms of our sense of survival. If we grow up believing that Liberals are evil and conservatives good (or vice versa; neither is true, neither is always wrong) because our parents and other "trust" figures tell us it is, the fact that our parents might not be experts, or knowledgeable, or even rational, doesn't usually come into it. Our emotions overwhelm our ability to rationalize.

      Interestingly, we're seeing more signs than the relatively recent addition of instant global communication is changing social understanding and belief patterns by allowing people to challenge asserts almost instantly with a vastly increased level of authority (i.e. checking online sources, other opinions instantly). In parallel, we're seeing a more rapid decline in the orthodox forms of faiths (those unchecked by moderation via modern information and science).

      It's quite complicated. The lure of orthodox belief's sense of comfort and surrender is hard to overcome; it involves, in part, the use of social (political) and religious ceremony as well as conscious and subconscious cues that prompt the oldest parts of our individual brains (the amygdala and the posterior parietal cortext) to become less active and more susceptible to emotion and belief than to fact.

      It's probably there from when humanity was a primitive species and we needed a non-rational mechanism (as the brain had a paucity of information to process) to prompt us to group together. Infants would learn trust cues from parents' facial expressions and their mothers' immediate protection and allow family units to stick together. There's anthropological evidence that prior to about 10,000 years ago, it was quite common for humans, having yet to form strong familyl and clan bonds, to eat each other. Given that modern surveys demonstrate our level of empathy is tied to our sense of group belonging, this makes sense as well.

      We humans are basically big machines, and the brain is our processor. Deluding it so that we think we see or hear "god" can actually be replicated now by science using the drug synthetic DMT. When neuroscience compares the impact of DMT on the brain with the impact of extreme religious ceremony on the brain, it finds the same areas are impacted heavily.

      Read up on some "neurotheology" and this stuff actually starts to make sense.

      July 4, 2013 at 2:25 am |
    • Wendy

      Jl. Hearing that our level of empathy is tied to our sense of group belonging is fascinating actually and it makes sense though I'm sure it has a few outliers. I have my doubts on the accuracy of I.Q. tests in general not that they don't have their place but they leave out s.q., e.q. and creativity. I found a few good answers in looking at the temporal lobe and in researching intuitive vs logical reasoning.

      July 4, 2013 at 7:09 am |
    • happier than atheists

      What do you see when you look at a temporal lobe?

      July 4, 2013 at 8:37 am |
  18. ChampionChains

    First, it seems like the study found that Athiests posted more negative tweets than Christians. Negative keywords and unhappiness are in no way linked.

    Athiests could possibly be tweeting about injustices and negative things they see in the world which they believe should have a light shined on them to bring about social change. Whereas Christians may not tweet about injustices and cruelties in the world due to everything negative "happening for a reason" and "being part of Gods plan".

    July 4, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  19. Charles

    How ironic that atheists want to dictate what's "bad" and "wrong". That's usually characterized as the purview of Christians.

    July 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Everyone has their standards of what's good, and what's bad. Where did you come up with the notion that this attribute has anything to do with whether or not someone has been convinced of the existence of a deity?

      They're completely unrelated.

      July 3, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  20. Tony

    Perhaps the findings of this study would be better worded as, "Atheists express more negativity online than Christians." One merely needs to look at this comment section as an example.

    July 2, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Most of the atheist comments on this board are negating the nonsense that believers post so in that sense I suppose the comments could be viewed as negative. I'm guessing you don't consider the believers' declarations of "you're going to hell" and similar as negative.

      July 2, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Tony

      I suppose you think your name "In Santa we trust" isn't negative or mocking in nature?

      July 2, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • MikeF

      Tony
      Why, is it similar to some belief you hold sacred? Lots of people trust Santa ... and then they usually grow out of it when they mature.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:11 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.