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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. Daniel

    Jesus said, to paraphrase, "the wisdom of God appears as foolishness to non-believers," and, "though they hear they do not understand." Both sediments I have found to be true, especially in those who are hostile to the love, peace and joy he came into this world to offer……and true among with those who pursue the intellect as their “god.”

    If you are an atheist, and if you are honest, you will admit you’re missing something deep in your soul. That emptiness in your heart can only be satisfied with the truth and peace of God, through his son Jesus. I hope you find the truth before it is too late for you. You are loved by your creator with a kind of love that cannot be found in this world apart from God.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • DarrellSF

      In case you hadn't noticed, Daniel, the tenets of most religions have written within them a failsafe to use to convince the doubters and condemn the unbelievers. It basically goes like this: this belief system is the one, true belief system for all of mankind to follow, and if you don't believe in it, you are the one who is deluded. I know this from personal experience. I've spoken with leaders of many religions and sects as I searched out the one I would eventually end up practicing. Even the religion I practice says the same thing, with one caveat. The founder of the religion said there are countless ways to attain enlightenment, but this practice is the most direct path. (This leaves the room wide open to allow every single human being to believe however they wish, and progress through life at their own speed.)

      So, although I'm sure mean well and you believe your statement with all of your heart, it really means nothing to someone who doesn't believe as you do. Only those who already believe in the "wisdom of God" would take your words to heart. You have to show actual proof to people that your religion will work for them. Human beings simply won't invest their time and energy into something that doesn't work for them. And if your religion is as true as you believe, I think it would work for everyone. But it doesn't.

      July 17, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  2. johnfmayer

    "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."   ~ George Bernard Shaw

    July 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  3. Mikel

    Does this mean analytical thinkers are happy? I think it's more likely that religious people are more likely to spout fluff.

    July 16, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Mikel

      *Should read: Does this mean analytical thinkers are NOT happy?

      July 16, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  4. Rebecca

    I'm happy when I'm giving spaghetti to homeless people inside the church.
    You should see the smiles on their faces.

    July 16, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  5. Alan

    Wow. This may be one of the worst pieces of research ever.

    The athiests selected by the researchers actively offer critical analyses of religious beliefs. The Christians selected actively offer faith-promoting propoganda. The particular athiests picked are on record as vocally anti-something, with logical arguments to support, waving academic credentials and dour serious portraits on their book jackets. The Christians selected, well – Osteen, Warren and Meyer have each penned inspirational self-help books and the Pope is CEO for a world religion seeking followers. D'Souza is the only name out of the five who might not be predisposed to happy, friendly, hug-the-world language.

    Really, where on the list of athiests is the athiest equivalent of Joel Osteen with all 64 of his perfectly whitened teeth flashing at you from every book cover? Or the athiest version of the Pope, actively generating an image of grace and world peace in that big friendly hat?

    And yet, somehow the researchers credit the difference between the two groups' twitter followers as a difference due to their religious belief (or lack thereof)? Astounding. Absolutely astounding.

    July 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • biz

      At least now we know people who read self-help books use less analytical language than people who read polemics. Thank you, University of Illinois academic researchers.

      😛

      July 16, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Mikel

      THIS. Thanks so much for pointing that out.

      July 16, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  6. Penny

    Here is the URL to this blog, with the operative word being "religion":

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com

    I win the debate!

    July 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
  7. jen58

    because religious people especially those that are in the position to influence others will tend to use more positive words to sucker more prey in.... it's called 'you get more with honey than you do vinegar' - because atheists tend to see the world as it really is, full of good AND bad and reflect on both, or pointing out the bad in order to address and fix it, they will use more 'unpositive' words. The person that did this little experiment is a freakin' fool because they don't address what is behind the words being used.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  8. Dude

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

    "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Drugs that alter consciousness and perception of reality are bad.

    July 16, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • Penny

      How does an athiest opium smoker reconcile this statement?

      July 16, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      It is sensible for a person to occasionally alter his/her perception of reality by the use of drugs or a differing viewpoint. It is not sensible for a person to live in a state of altered perception through drugs or religious philosophy, though.

      July 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  9. Stephen Jones

    Ignorance is bliss.

    July 16, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • Amy

      Ignorance may be bliss. But I'll take dealing with life in a smart(analytical,) real-time manner any day.

      July 16, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
      • Stephen Jones

        Actually I agree with you Amy.

        July 16, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  10. required

    We can't all be happier than atheists, that is the sad reality for them.

    July 16, 2013 at 3:39 am |
    • Dude

      Some of us are more interested in being right than delusional.

      July 16, 2013 at 5:13 pm |
    • To believe or not to believe

      There are also some of us still who are more interested in being kind than being right.

      July 17, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  11. WeWereOnTheMoon

    Less responsibilities – less stress. From the thinkers to the feelers : you are welcome.

    July 16, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  12. John Cram

    Wow you followed 10 people... fkn dumb. That like saying 805 of people love McDonalds food, we asked 10 people so based on that we found 8 that did so that means 80% of people like it. (we are amazed to see 2 people who didn't like it as we took that poll inside of a McDonalds restaurant).

    July 15, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Jon

      It states in the article that they studied the tweets of 16,000 people. They found those people (identified the "Christians" and "atheists") by pulling them from the list of of followers of the 5 Christian public figures and 5 atheist public figures.

      July 16, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  13. An honest but morbid confession

    Here's a non religious thing that would make me feel 100% better about death...being able to opt for surgical anesthetic followed by euthanasia. Standing over my bed praying would keep me from feeling alone but I don't want to go the hard way when it's my turn.

    July 15, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  14. TheDude

    Two words that would describe why atheists might be less happy than believers: Religious privilege.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
    • howabouthat

      A patient who doesn't know he or she has a terminal illness may be quite happy, while one who does know, though more melancholic at times, possesses the truth.

      July 15, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • howabouthat

      No kidding. I might be happier too if I thought I was on God's special team and he loved me personally, and everything would work out in the end, and I was buoyed by a network of obsequious sheep who offered constant communal support...until I tried to think differently, and for myself...

      July 15, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
      • Jon

        Yeah, you probably would.

        so wai u no choose happy?

        July 16, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • skytag

      Religious privilege – The privilege of living in a fantasy world where there are no unpleasant realities.

      July 15, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
  15. krehator

    What a worthless story. Bottom of the pile.

    July 15, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
  16. skytag

    It's obviously easier to be happy if you can avoid dealing with unpleasant realities by embracing delusions about them. It's easier to make peace with injustice if you believe a supernatural being will enforce justice in a life after death. It's easier to deal with the death of a loved one if you believe he continues to exist in a better place.

    It's easier to deal with your own mortality if you imagine you'll continue to be sentient after death. It's less stressful to deal with droughts and other forces of nature if you imagine you have an all-powerful imaginary friend who will control nature to your benefit. One worries less about his personal safety and the safety of his loved ones if he believes he has an all-powerful imaginary friend watching over them and protecting them.

    None of these beliefs has to have any basis in fact or reality to work, it only matters that people believe them for the benefits to accrue. It has worked this way in all religions, whether they were based on one God or many gods, regardless of the believed nature of those God or gods. All that matters is that people believe.

    July 15, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • lol??

      Pro 4:16 For they sleep not, except they have done mischief; and their sleep is taken away, unless they cause [some] to fall.

      July 15, 2013 at 7:51 am |
    • saiyit

      True. There is even a science set out to study the evolution of religion. Religion may not simply be a matter of the uneducated to explain and control the world around them. It could be something that evolved because it makes people happier and therefore, healthier. But we already know that people who seek fantasy worlds to escape into find solace and happiness in them. It's why fiction, movies, television and so on are popular in the first place. Living in the "real" world can be pretty depressing if your health and emotional life is not optimal.

      July 15, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • saiyit

      I think the important take-away is that it does not matter what you believe, as long as it makes you happy. Once it starts hurting you and others around you, it's time to re-evaluate your beliefs so they can continue to make you happy without hurting others.

      July 15, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
      • skytag

        "I think the important take-away is that it does not matter what you believe, as long as it makes you happy."

        Christianity is ideally suited for the church-shopping crowd. These are the folks who shop around until they find a church that makes them feel good about themselves and tells them what they want to hear. Whatever you want out of a religion there's a brand of Christianity that offers it. You don't even have to belong to a church if you can't find one that suits you.

        July 15, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
        • Jon

          That's pretty true. But that's a problem with people, not with Christianity at its core. You can make that same observation about a great many things in life.

          July 16, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Jon

      Why is it easier to deal with these things because you have a loving God? If you know these things happen and you're still fairly powerless to control them and have no hope because you have no Almighty being helping you, why would you bother worrying about them? Why do you worry about anything? Worry isn't logical. You ought to have the easier time because your worldview is shaped by logic, facts, binary thinking – on and off. But you still have to deal with emotions, and those just aren't logical. Someone who believes in a God has to deal with tragedy and question the nature of their God, if he is really behind large acts of tragedy or really only good. Is "He" in control or do I really have free will. Does God have a nemesis that is involved with the perceived evil? These are the questions I deal have to deal with as a believer in God. I don't see how it's a lot easier.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • Jon

      My point is that the essence of life is not solely contained in facts, but also in belief. Which we all have. Belief in God. Belief in no god. It's just much harder when what you believe is that you're alone, insignificant and helpless – useless stardust. If you go only by reason you are a detriment to your emotional well-being. If you doubt absolutely everything and have no absolute truth, you chase your own tail. Seems to be that way to me, anyway. Independent thinkers also choose belief in God. They're not mutually exclusive things.

      July 16, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  17. Loving GOD

    When you trust with all your heart, soul, spirit and with every fiber of youself in the Lord our God, the peace, strength, Joy, security you feel is unimaginable to mankind. Only those that have true faith and trust in the Lord our God can truly feel the abondance of the Grace of the almightly God of the Universe.

    July 14, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      That's fine for you, but don't think that you or Christianity get to make the laws or have your way whenever you want it. A lot of people disagree with your viewpoint and believe in different gods or none at all, and you need to be seriously chill about that, because it's the right thing to do. Feel free to have your imaginary friend, but just don't pretend it makes you better than everybody; that would be stupid.

      July 14, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
    • skytag

      Religious claptrap. Sure, you can feel anything you like, but that doesn't make what you believe true. It's only necessary for you to believe it's true to evoke those feelings.

      It should be noted that people of all religious persuasions derive good feelings from their beliefs, whether they believe what you believe or not. Logically it stands to reason if religious beliefs only provided those wonderful feelings you describe when they are based on something real only one set of religious beliefs could produce those feelings, yet we know that isn't the case.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:37 am |
    • lol??

      Well, well, well. Skintag, a former Christian, and Capt. Oblivious, a former pastor, giving out advice on the Spirit of the Lord. Does it make you sick?? Not feeling well??

      "Dan 8:27 And I, Daniel, fainted and was sick for days; afterward I arose and went about the king's business. I was astonished by the vision, but no one understood it." NKJV

      July 15, 2013 at 7:48 am |
      • skytag

        "Well, well, well. Skintag, a former Christian, and Capt. Oblivious"

        Does it make you feel more like Jesus to mock people's names like a 12-year old? Look, I'm sorry you can't handle the truth, but it's not my fault. Nor is it my fault you believe a lot of nonsense you can't support with one iota of evidence.

        Where is the evidence God exists? Where is the evidence he answers prayer? Where is the evidence he has influenced the outcome of any event in the history of the world? Where is the evidence that any of the miracles described in the Bible actually happened?

        If there is a God, what evidence do you have that your understanding as a Christian of him is more correct that what people in any other religion believe about God? What evidence do you have that your particular flavor of Christianity understands God and his will better than those who embrace other flavors, such as the Mormons or the Amish?

        Truth is you have nothing, which is why you troll, post gibberish, and mock people's names. Just more evidence that Christianity is a fraud.

        July 15, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  18. Stephen Hawking is an Idiot!!!!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy9nwe9_xzw

    July 14, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
    • tallulah13

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYh1lRR1m6Y

      July 15, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  19. Rockin the eighties

    Atheists were happy once..before twitter, before Dawkins back when they had beer and metal. Those were the days.

    July 14, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • skytag

      I'm at least as happy as an atheist as I was as a Christian. At least now I don't waste time and energy trying to rationalize why the real world doesn't match my religious beliefs.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:41 am |
    • saiyit

      Those were the days! Lately, it seems like "athiest" has come to mean something completely different to the atheists of old who did not care either way and did not allow themselves to get roped into these discussions.

      July 15, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
  20. GOOD NEWS

    We don't need to be delusional to be happy,
    because GOD is absolutely Real.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES

    July 14, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • skytag

      You may not need to be delusional to be happy, but obviously you prefer an approach that involves delusions.

      July 15, 2013 at 5:38 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.