Here we have to look at a broader literature and make some inferences, but a pattern does seem to emerge. First, agnostics and atheists tend to score higher than believers on tests of intellectual ability such as standard IQ tests. Religious skeptics score more highly than believers on both the verbal and the quantitative sections of the SAT.

Add to this pattern Ellison’s finding that existential certainty among the religious compensates to some degree for lower levels of education and intelligence in support of higher life-satisfaction scores. Suddenly, we have available a hypothesis about the role of religious belief in the quality of life that is very different from the one that religionists want to promote.

That alternative hypothesis is that the direct effects of religious belief on happiness and life-satisfaction are explainable as the consequence of a strong commitment to a system for organizing one’s life experiences into a meaningful, coherent whole. Major religious systems offer answers to Big Questions about the origin of life and the universe, and do so in a way that offers a framework for organizing life’s goals and explaining personal tragedies as well as good fortune.

Most such systems are hierarchical, with clear lines of authority that reduce or eliminate ambiguity about how one should act in all the spheres of one’s life. They offer, in other words, a pre-packaged blueprint for living, anchored in social structures that have evolved over centuries. Such systems operate successfully, however, only to the degree that one makes a strong commitment to them—hence the relationship between degree of religiosity and the good life.

To round out the story, we only need to recognize the greater intellectual challenge associated with taking responsibility for formulating one’s own sense of life’s purpose and finding a reasonable path to one’s chosen goals—hence the relationship between an anti-religious worldview and a high level of cognitive functioning. The anti-religious also have recourse to a historical body of philosophical work, as well as modern science, to aid in their journey. But in a world where being anti-religious requires swimming against the current of mainstream culture, it is almost certain that there must be a high degree of commitment to the nonreligious worldview, borne of personal intellectual struggle and the need to defend one’s beliefs in the face of both implicit and explicit criticism.

This strength of conviction easily comes to equal that of the most devout among the religious and provides the same psychological benefits. It carries the added benefit that it doesn’t require becoming a permanently dissociative personality within whom life in the real world must compete always for attention with the pull of the mystical world, where reason and evidence are banned.So we come back to our original contrast between Enlightenment and religionist worldviews and discover that popular and academic claims for the benefits of religious adherence need to be heavily qualified.

Many such effects are social-psychological in origin, not spiritual, and the more direct psychological effects appear to be strongest either for people with relatively limited cognitive coping skills or for those who have experienced greater than normal levels of trauma in life. Furthermore, being anti-religious is associated with the same physical and psychological benefits as being very religious, and is healthier than being only moderately so.