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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
[twitter-follow screen_name='JRavitzCNN']

(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 • Technology

soundoff (1,317 Responses)
  1. happier than atheists

    It's true, accept it.

    July 10, 2013 at 2:04 am |
    • Me

      Ignorance is bliss.

      August 4, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  2. kamarasune

    I imagine it is miserable when you are intolerant and want to play thought police.

    July 10, 2013 at 12:25 am |
  3. Mi

    No we are frustrated because they keep trying to push their agenda down our throats and run the government with it and they cherry pick the bible we have read it.

    July 9, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
  4. Randy

    Those who believe in Santa Claus & the Tooth Fairy are happier than those that do not.

    July 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  5. truthbringsfreedom

    "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.'"
    What's the difference between a self-illusion and a self-delusion? Being happier because you don't perceive reality is perhaps why we don't make more social progress...too many religionists have deluded themselves into thinking everything is fine and are thus resistant to change. Atheists, without delusion, see that things must change, but are depressed at the complacency of the masses. Ignorance is bliss.

    July 9, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • sean

      What you just posted.. Was absolutely beautiful and eloquently written.. Kudos.. I know I could have not said that any better myself.. Shut up and take my money.. lol..

      August 4, 2013 at 7:23 am |
  6. Ryan

    The based their research on who follows who on Twitter, first off, that's just a ridiculous method of research, second, that tells you nothing about who posted what. Christians follow atheists on Twitter and Atheists follow Christians so they can argue and post their 140 character drivel. There is nothing to be gleaned from twitter posts, except generally how ignorant and self important some seem to be. So, a Christian follows Dawkins to rant at him, says negative things, and this will be reflected as a negative Atheist? How do they discount these types of tweets? He says at the end that we should assume "they aren't incompetent" I prefer you prove you aren't with better research.

    July 9, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  7. Flip

    Of course the christans are happier, ignorance is bliss

    July 9, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  8. Mona Octavri

    A smart man keep his opinion to himself while a foolish man blurt out folly (Proverbs 12:23)

    July 9, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      says the foolish man regurgitating the bible.

      July 11, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  9. tony

    Happiness (and faith) can come from being read, or reading, the bible selectively. Atheism is often caused by reading the bible completely.

    Which is why quoting the bible to anyone who actually listens and thinks is a definite plus for inducing atheism.

    July 9, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • sean

      I so wish there was a "LIKE" button on this CNN blog.. lol..

      August 4, 2013 at 7:26 am |
  10. Religion = Mythology

    Hmm... very nice study. But how about we try to find out why people still hold on to mythological delusions?

    July 9, 2013 at 4:53 am |
  11. Stan

    Some cliches are as old as the hills.

    July 8, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  12. Stan

    'Most statistical studies are flawed in some way."

    Do you have the statistics to back this up?

    July 8, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Observer

      Yes. 73.86% of all statistics are just made up, unless we agree with them.

      July 8, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Claire

      http://store.doverpublications.com/0486435989.html

      There's all sorts of things that can go wrong with statistics. Everything from post hoc ergo propter hoc to data omission. Having worked in finance most of my life I"ve seen great numbers at the end of the month sometimes from people doing a worse job or being absent all together from their duties. The managers overlook that stuff because "it looks good on a report".

      July 8, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  13. Valentine Bird

    You know what would be even more entertaining than finding out if Atheists or Christians are happier, is to see an article about Christian/Atheist couples because as much as you guys on this blog don't want to admit it. It happens. Face it you guys all fight like old married couples already anyway. 😀

    July 8, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • mamanomz

      Charles & Emma Darwin loved each other deeply but argued profusely about religious(or lack of) beliefs. She was a Christian.

      July 9, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • coconut

      An older guy at work was a hard core atheist and he said he regretted not getting married and having kids. He could have done both, money, looks, it would not have been a problem. But he stayed single thinking it was pointless to marry or have kids due to his atheism, then regretted it later. I'm not saying all atheists think the way he did, but that is how he thought before he looked back and reconsidered. He thought he was happy, but wasn't.

      July 10, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
    • stardust

      how did his lack of belief in a god prevent him from getting married and having children? that makes no sense. atheists get married and have children all the time.

      July 11, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  14. happier than atheists

    Is not just a slogan, it is the reality of God.

    July 8, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Ken

      How do you know that atheists aren't at least as happy as you are?

      July 9, 2013 at 1:13 am |
    • happier than atheists

      Because atheists are missing the ultimate happiness of realizing it's God talking in the bible! That's him! And he sent Jesus to die for our sins and raise up again the third day. That's life! If you don't know that, you lose the best there is.

      July 9, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      This is far from a scientific study. Also, there is no reality of god.
      There is no evidence that there are any of the thousands of gods men have created.

      July 9, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • tallulah13

      I find this survey to be insulting to christians. It seems to accuse them of not thinking, reasoning or questioning.

      July 9, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  15. One one

    The great thing about Jesus is that he agrees with everything I believe.

    July 8, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • Athy

      Frosty the snowman agrees with everything I believe. So there.

      July 9, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  16. Roger

    Look! Half naked Asian chicks! I'm joining the Raelians!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra%C3%ABlians

    July 8, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
  17. Maize

    The data has a problem. They're assuming that words like "love" reflect just one's inner emotional state. But these are public figures. So they're not necessarily writing just what's on the top if their head: they're writing what they feel their public needs to see. And words like "love", "family", "good", etc., are not just neutral in regards to religion; they're part of the religious grammar. "Our good God loves the family of man", for example, isn't a statement of inner joy. Appearing happy, loving, good, and all of that is part of the necessary public image for a religious leader, but not for a scientist. We should EXPECT that a religious leader would use words like this. The bigger question is how positive the personal wording on more private, intimate conversations in religious vs. non-religious populations. And studies such as this one: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0064417 often show that areas with higher concentrations of religious peoples (e.g., the American South's "Bible Belt") are sadder.

    July 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • All of it

      Most statistical studies are flawed in some way.

      July 8, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
  18. tony

    Shouldn't reading the bible (without making just selections) produce major happiness for all readers? Or does it require belief to re-interpret the more violent and negative passages happily?

    July 8, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
    • All of it

      Best review of any religion IMHO..pick out what makes you happy and leave the rest.

      July 8, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
  19. Harley Quinn

    Of course they are. Ignorance is bliss!

    July 8, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • Mike

      Everybody keeps saying that. "Ignorance is bliss" I got excited because I thought somebody might have read a few of my messages from yesterday. And were making fun of me, and so heard what I said. And maybe someone had an opinion. IBut now I think it's just the only phrase you godless unhappy (not from the study . . . from MY unscientific eyeballing of 900 messages from angry atheists!)

      You guys forget Big Bird so soon
      ? That's gonna be your legacy! I mean I didn't vote for Romney either, but man, "Big Bird" how do you come up with such amazing rhetorical comebacks that answer ever question! You smart no-religous folk must do nuthing but book reading huh? When's Chelsea Handler coming out with her next book of your Gospel?

      July 8, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • tony

      " Ignorance is bliss!" does happen to be established folklore that is probably as old as the language it's spoken in. If it wasn't substantially true, it wouldn't still be hanging around in the language today.

      July 8, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • OTOH

      tony,
      "If it wasn't substantially true, it wouldn't still be hanging around in the language today."

      There might be a grain of truth to some of the old proverbs, maxims and adages, but many have contradictory sayings that are just as popular, eg:

      - Absence makes the heart grow fonder
      -or-
      - Out of sight, out of mind
      -----------------------
      - Nothing ventured, nothing gained
      -or-
      - Look before you leap
      -----------------------–
      - Home is where the heart is
      -or-
      - Familiarity breeds contempt

      July 8, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  20. Dan

    I'm an atheist and the findings do not surprise me. Many who are "new" to atheism seem to be much quicker to be the angry atheist and lash out against religion or social issues. I say to such atheists, quit being so bu++ hurt.

    July 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • duranie4ever15

      Hi Dan, it's not about being but-hurt, but more like, no tolerance for stupidity/ I, for one have no tolerance for religious people, can't help it. They all sound dumb and quote funny scriptures that sounds more like a quote from a dumb movie than a book that's supposed to be all true.

      July 8, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      It's not that Christians are any happier, they are just less annoyed by repetltive stupidity.

      July 8, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.