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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. Torey

    When is twitter going to get some funding so it can drop the stupid 140 character space limit?

    July 14, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • skytag

      Not until it can be demonstrated that people with a Twitter account have enough of an attention span to warrant it.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:43 am |
  2. First world problems

    First world problems= someone else's invisible friend

    July 14, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
  3. How happy can you be with Geico Insurance?

    Happier than a group of deluded Christians banning your civil rights to exist, hold down a job or get married if you're gay.

    July 14, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  4. People who believe in Santa Claus are happy, too

    That doesn't mean they're correct.

    July 14, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • skytag

      Santa Claus is real. I've read about him in a book, seen paintings of him, and as a child I got presents with his name on them. The only reason we don't see him now is that too few homes have chimneys, and he's very upset about that. We should pass a law requiring all homes to have chimneys and then Santa would make his existence known to us again.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:46 am |
  5. NEGATIVE WORDS? “think,” “reason” and “question,”

    Yes, to a religious dolt, "THINK" "REASON and "QUESTION" are bad, awful, terrible words.

    And you wonder why we call you people retarded.

    July 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • jstars

      This is the internet and you can say what you want...but you're acting out a stereotype of atheists that makes people reluctant to claim it (way more people claim "not religious/no affiliation" than claim "atheist".) Very few people will want to identify with a movement if its advocates are consistently rude and insincere. There are eloquent and cultured atheists out there, maybe you should try to be more like them.

      July 14, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
  6. jstars

    Having been on both sides of the fence, I will say that I'm happier as a theist.

    July 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • ooo

      That's a good reason to believe something without evidence!

      July 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • jstars

      Thanks for backing up this study's findings. I think you'll agree that faith, by definition, means believing something without empirical evidence. I'm okay with that, you're not. Good thing we live in a pluralist world.

      July 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm |
  7. Blessing of awesome

    well I'm an atheist and I do remember being a bit happier when I was an ignorant fool theist. So this study makes sense to me. Who doesnt want to live again after you die? But realizing the truth I couldn't be happy anymore faking it. I am happy following my heart now, but not as happy as when I thought there was a god. I think the results of this study would be hard for anyone to take and there will be backlash, but one of the two results are right.. either atheists or theists(christians in this study) are happier and this study kind of shows theists. Thats okay. Ignorance is bliss.

    July 14, 2013 at 10:27 am |
  8. Nero

    I can't believe that this article doesn't mention that in Colosseum (an archaic form of social media) the pagan Romans were obviously happier than any Christians there.

    July 14, 2013 at 4:58 am |
    • Observer

      Firstly CNN left out pagans once again and focused only on Christians and Atheists to the chagrin or possibly relief of everyone else. Second that was a couple thousand years ago so I'm not sure how you'd rate it or why it's relevant.

      July 14, 2013 at 8:10 am |
    • Nero

      I rate it by the fact that the pagan Romans were entertained, while the Christians shared the arena with the lions.

      If there's anything relevant: surely the oppressed minority will be less happier.

      And it's a sarcasm.

      July 14, 2013 at 9:30 am |
    • Blessing of awesome

      how in the hell could the study comment on pagans use of twitter? The study was in no way put together to deal with any other peoples than a couple groups WHO USE TWITTER.

      July 14, 2013 at 10:30 am |
    • Nero

      Colosseum was the social media of the time.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • lively and courteous discussion

      Back before AD radio, tin cans and strings everywhere.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Nero

      True.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:51 am |
  9. Adam

    This is kind of one of those 'duh' studies. When all you do is sit around and hate, of course it will be reflected in your social media.

    July 14, 2013 at 1:50 am |
    • Naamah

      I am really curious how the words think, question, and reason reflect hate.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  10. Just Call Me Lucifer

    The reason christians are happier is because they're all on opiates. Duh.

    July 14, 2013 at 12:17 am |
  11. bullmastiffdog

    Ignorance is bliss! OOps. Did I say that outloud?

    July 13, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
  12. Jake

    studies show that retarded people are much happier than intelligent people. also sheep are happier than critical thinking adults.

    July 13, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • happier than atheists

      It is a rich rewarding experience to learn more about God and understand him.

      July 14, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  13. EMC

    Ok so 16,000 out of how many Tweeters? Does not even sound like a decent number of people in a country of over 300 million and a world pushing 7 Billion. Like most studies on here I'm going to call Shenanigans. The Study is to small with no where near enough variety.

    July 13, 2013 at 8:48 pm |
    • happier than atheists

      You won't be happy, Shenanigans is located near Da Nile. Call might be be long distance with a bad connection.

      July 14, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  14. On rights and such

    I don't know why this is so hard for atheists to figure out. The fact that there is no proof of God is exactly what makes me want to worship God to begin with.

    July 13, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • Harry

      That makes absolutely no sense at all. Does the fact that unicorn-atheists make you want to believe in unicorns?

      Really, you are an idiot.

      July 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
    • On rights and such

      If you want to bow down and kiss the posterior of man, be my guest. I'd rather worship my invisible buddies. Real live human beings are much too rude offensive thoughtless and selfish as you well pointed out with your idiot comment..good timing by the way.

      July 13, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
    • On rights and such

      Let me put it to you this way Henry, if you had to choose between someone who disliked you threating you with an imaginary hell or a real court case which would you prefer?

      July 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
      • skytag

        That makes no sense at all.

        July 15, 2013 at 5:50 am |
    • Reasonable Approximation

      This is difficult to understand because it makes no sense. Say something logical and maybe people would understand. Living in an imaginary world inside your mind is what children and psychopaths do. It's not something I can ever fathom I would choose to do. For me to believe in a god, I would actually have to believe he existed based on at least my personal experiences corroborated by reason and logic.

      "If you want to bow down and kiss the posterior of man, be my guest. I'd rather worship my invisible buddies."

      This is another example of the muddled thinking of someone who hasn't put much mental effort into their faith. This might blow your mind, but some people don't "worship" anything! Not even "man" (that antiquated term that believers have picked up from the Bible when most normal folks would simply say "people" or "humankind"). I know you feel compelled to grovel at the feet of your deity, but many of us have no such urge. We do not replace worship of God with worship of people. We are as critical of our fellow humans as you are.

      July 14, 2013 at 3:34 am |
    • Observer

      Man is a perfectly acceptable term to use in philosophy. The poster was on another thread talking about ideology as it pertains to politics. In ideology someone has to be the giver of rights to all people either people, nature, or a diety it's human nature to answer to something.

      July 14, 2013 at 8:05 am |
    • skytag

      Do you want to worship Santa Claus, leprechauns, and vampires too, for the exact same reason?

      July 15, 2013 at 5:49 am |
    • skytag

      More evidence religion makes people stupid.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:51 am |
  15. Cait

    I wouldn't say the findings are meaningless. If you've ever taken a human growth and development class, you'll learn that on average people who have faith in some religious capacity tend to live longer than those who have claimed to be agnostic/atheist. Of course this means ANY religion, not just christianity, but it still proves a point. There's less stress in a religious person's life because they can put life's burdens into their faith, making it easier to cope and see postive perspectives in situations. Whether this is a psychosomatic "placebo" effect, it does present a very compelling view on the whole religious conversation.

    July 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ideology

      There is nothing more stressful than comming to terms with your own finality..however you decide to do it.

      July 13, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
    • faith

      see what jimmy carter said?

      July 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • faith

      see what jimmy carter said? no?

      July 13, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • faith

      see what jimmy carter said? no? yes?

      July 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • faith

      not true

      July 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • Observer

      faith,

      There's no point in answering your questions when you won't answer other people's questions.

      July 13, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • faith

      "Of course this means ANY religion"

      way off.

      July 13, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • faith

      carter left the southern baptists

      July 13, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • faith

      carter left the southern baptists

      anyone can attend the sunday school class he teaches each week

      July 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • skytag

      It's the placebo effect. That's why it works no matter what you believe about God.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:53 am |
  16. sarahfalin

    Of course they are happy, they are delusional.

    July 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • e-man

      LOVE your response... and your name.. LOL.. gotta love it! sarahfalin. So true about that half term half wit.

      July 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • faith

      “Hosck xu a lity was well known in the ancient world, well before Christ was born and Jesus never said a word about hseckhs ulit. In all of his teachings about multiple things -– he never said that gay people should be condemned. I personally think it is very fine for a y people to be married in civil ceremonies.

      I draw the line, maybe arbitrarily, in requiring by law that churches must marry people. I’m a Baptist, and I believe that each congregation is autonomous and can govern its own affairs. So if a local Baptist church wants to accept j a y members on an equal basis, which my church does by the way, then that is fine. If a church decides not to, then government laws shouldn’t require them to.”

      July 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  17. PowerOfBelief

    jhoffer, I respectfully disagree. I think the responses to this research show us the value of the research, even if the research itself contains flaws. One thing it suggests is that non-believers will respond to the question of god with a logical statement and believers will respond with an emotional statement. This is what possibly what makes the discussion about god futile, but we only learn that from having the discussion.

    July 13, 2013 at 11:37 am |
  18. Perpetua

    The argument thta organized religions have caused human misery and suffering is also getting old and stale. Blah, Blah Blah.

    July 13, 2013 at 11:23 am |
    • skytag

      Organized religion has been responsible for much good and a fair amount of bad. Both are historical realities.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:54 am |
  19. PowerOfBelief

    If you polled non-believers on what they do believe (because they are not the same as nihilists) and did the analysis on those responses, you'd find they have a strong emotional tie to life and happiness. When you ask them what they think about religion, you'll find the normal response of a repressed community toward the privileged majority–one that involves negative analytical terms, especially from the cherry-picked outspoken activists listed in the research (see similar negative analyses of majority culture from Black Panthers, Act UP, NOW).

    As humans, we all have available to us the incredible power of believing in order to create answers, purpose, meaning, drive, connection, wonder, and something larger than ourselves. For some, that belief includes a faith in the unproven/unprovable. For non-believers, miracles or not necessary because the marvels of nature are enough. Contrary to what the religious establishment powers preach, systems of belief that are built purely on empirical evidence are just as powerful as religious or supernatural belief systems. They may involve more work so as to absorb new discoveries, but that is part of the beauty of the system for some: that it is malleable and adaptable, not rigid and defensive. There is no mystical experience that is not available to a nonbeliever when they allow themselves to go beyond analysis and into the emotional state of connection to a bigger picture. That bigger picture does not have to be a higher power. What people get confused about is that non-believers rely on thought processes (not just emotional ones) to construct their belief system, AND they rely on thought processes to defend themselves against the religious majority. There is nothing inherently wrong with using thought, analysis, and research in your quest for meaning; however, there is an inherent flaw in the research on belief vs. non-belief because of the confounding variables brought on by oppression and because "non-belief" is a misnomer. We all have the power of belief–just not always in a god.

    July 13, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  20. jhoffer

    Blah, Blah Blah. This argument has gone on for centuries. Also for centuries organized religions have caused human misery and suffering. Maybe that is why they are so "happy". The Twitter study cited is meaningless as is arguing about the existence of god.

    July 13, 2013 at 11:08 am |
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