Ryan Cragun’s “What You Don’t Know About Religion”


User takingstock challenged me to review Ryan Cragun’s podcast with John Dehlin about his book: What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should).

Now, I’ve been trained as an economist, and part of that were statistic classes. Part of that was reviewing “happiness” studies. I’m going to give a set of predictions before listening that will include a list of things that are going to make this “junk science,” and then I will listen and write out my thought processes. At the end, I’ll give a summary for anyone who wants to have a “fast version” and doesn’t care how I think, but just wants to see if I was right.


  • He’s going to rely heavily on survey data, asking people if they are happy in their religion.

Why this is bad: If you ask people in China if they are happy, they are going to tell you, “Yes,” whether or not they really are, because you might be a government spy. Similarly, if religious people believe that God can see their every move, they are very unlikely to say “Religion makes me miserable.”

Another way to see this is that an alcoholic will tell you he/she needs another drink to make him/her happy, even if it is killing him.

  • He is going to count every charitable dollar as a dollar well spent.

Why this is bad: Religions like the Mormon church take billions of dollars and don’t actually use but .7% (by the apologist, “everything including the kitchen sink” calculation) to actually help people. This kind of thinking is faulty. You might as well count all of Walmart’s profits as making people happy, or perhaps the investments of Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner combined. It’s a meaningless number because it isn’t actually charity.

  • He is going to group “all religion” together.

Why this is bad: Let’s take, for example, every person who ever watched a cartoon, as a group.  Can you see how they would be an amazingly diverse group that really didn’t have anything in common? Sure, you could tease out some correlations that if a person watched more cartoons, they were likely to grow up in developed nations, or that they, as a group, tended to like to eat and breathe, but it’s really an amazingly diverse group that won’t tell anyone much of anything by analyzing it.

Buddhists, Daoists and such shouldn’t be classified together with Christians. Hell, anyone that the Christians would have tortured and killed in the Middle Ages should not be in the same grouping. Protestants and Catholics once wanted to kill each other; they should be in separate groupings as well. The LDS hate to be grouped with “all religions that believe in polygamy,” so why not split them out on that…

Not that you need to split out groups who hate each other, but you should at LEAST do that. You see, this appears, from the outside, that the author began with trying to show which religion made people the MOST happy, but when the data didn’t go the way he wanted, he expanded the data set until the dot fit. Throw in everyone but atheists (and perhaps agnostics), and maybe it”ll match my thesis.

I mean, at that point, why not throw in the much smaller groups of non-religions and just say, “Being human makes people happy.”

  • He’ll try to mask all of this by showing that degrees of religious belief are correlated to his thesis.

Why this is bad: I can hear someone in the back say, “Correlation is not causation,” and that’s true and a good point, but more so, if you throw enough variables into a soup, you can often show all kinds of crazy things with regression analysis. For example, you show that religious people give more, but you don’t explain why (they believe they will go to hell if they don’t, or some other punishment such as denial of temple attendance), and that “why” might actually remove what you are looking at from the definition of “charity.”

Or you show that religious people have more children, and then graft in a study that claims, “Having children makes people happy,” and conclude that religion makes people happy. The problem is that having someone control one’s sex life is negatively correlated with happiness, and ergo, “having children on command” is not necessarily the same thing as “having children”– confusing the actual “what makes people happy” with “what religion does” even though the trends are in the data.

Actually listening to the podcast

Enough predictions… let’s see what he has to say.

His divisions of religion

(Page 183) There’s not a lot of detail on it, but I like the divisions off hand. I’m not sure why the religion even matters. It seems like you can divide people into “Moderate, Liberal, Conservative, Neutral” without religion being included. I think he’s confounding religion with just how people are, but it might be the reverse that religion defines people to be liberal or conservative… so this isn’t terribly invalid.

Religion make you happier or not:  Mike Nelson- right to a degree. A lot of nuance, he says, and I like that. I find it interesting that only the U.S. shows a correlation between religion and happiness. See my cartoon example above to explain this.

Why might the non-religious be unhappy? He explains it might be prejudice. I can see this, and I like it, but I’ll give my own idea why the non-religious might be unhappy in the conclusion.

Most people don’t choose their religion

Booh-yah. Well said. Love this bit. He’s spot on. The numbers he quotes, what he’s stating, and so forth… excellent.

Denmark – Happy with no religion

“Religion can facilitate, but is not required.” Again, he’s removing lurking variables and splitting out details that most researchers skip over. Well said, and well done.

Progress of humanity includes religion/religion is part of evolution/non-religion is a luxury

Okay, if you blink you might have missed that he said, “I think.” This whole section doesn’t have data, but he gives some great anecdotal evidence that I think applies to show that religion probably held mankind back (although he doesn’t say that) rather that pushed it forward. I like his method of approaching it, and he does say, “I think,” or, “I like,” throughout. Well done on his part.

Old killings/evils are not useful to discuss with religion

I disagree a bit with this, but I like how he approaches it. He finds that liberals have killed as many as fundamentalists and non-religious. I have to wonder about his methods, but I’m impressed with the rest of his approaches so he may be on to something.

As John Dehlin says, “Religion is the cart that people are carried off to war in,” with need for resources being the horse. I like the metaphor, but I think something is wrong that finds that religion is not more or less likely to drive people to war. We can see that religion’s drum beat motivates people to action, and that action often is used by military/political powers. I’m not sure what drum beat would work the same on atheism.

I think he’s probably pretty good on this, but my research brain is screaming that there is a thesis-worthy PhD paper here that would show that religion drives more people and eases their consciousness to kill more than non-religion. The use of the chaplains by Bush in the Iraq War would probably have plenty of data and be a great starting place.

Religion and Education

He tears apart the Albrecht study in a very pleasant way. I think his point about blue collar workers not being bishops is fascinating and well stated. Also, the people’s approach to the social scientists in wards… great anecdotal story.


Okay, I’ll admit it, I was wrong. My predictions match up very well with what John Dehlin believed and put forward, but not terribly well with Ryan Cragun’s. He actually nailed his correction of several of my complaints, and did a great job of separating his own thoughts and anecdotal data from the actual research.

I am impressed.

Okay, my final shot… he says a bit about, “Why would non-religions be less happy,” and I think that someone needs to do a study of people who invested with Bernie Madoff and other 401k investors. I think you’ll find that they are slightly less happy, those who invested with Madoff. In fact, I think we could look at all people who pulled out of 401k’s early, compared to all 401k investors, and see a similar “happiness” score with religious and non-religious.

People who did not get what was promised, or realized that they were going to be cheated in future promises, may be less happy, but I think you’ll find that they prefer their choices and would make the choice again, even though it made them “less happy.”

That’s, at least, the experience I’ve seen from the people I deal with.

RECOMMENDATION: In short, I think this book is definitely worth getting, both for the religious and the non-religious. I’m convinced it is real science and that it puts forth some serious thoughts. No, it isn’t perfect, but it gets one’s brain working, and to me that is far more important.

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Last edited by EmmaHS on May 24, 2013 at 9:29 pm

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