Theists Vs. Atheists: Who's Better Off?

Like any religious conflict, this debate can only be settled with a point system.

Atheists typically fancy themselves to be an intelligent bunch, so it'll hearten them to know that a recent review of decades of research over 63 studies has found that atheists are on average more intelligent than believers.

As is the case with any theological zero-sum game between atheists and theists, the study has sparked a torrent of evangelical atheist boasting on news comment sections across numerous online publications. Intelligence is also highly correlated with a successful career and satisfying marital life, so do atheists really have it better than the flock of the faithful?

Rather than position ourselves above the fray, we're going to dive right into it -- with science -- to see what recent studies have had to say about both sides. And like any good religious conflict, we'll be assigning points to each side along the way.

Atheists: 1.

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Belief in a deity can lower stress and reduce anxiety, according to a University of Toronto study.

By measuring levels of brain activity of believers and nonbelievers, researchers found that those who had faith showed less activity than nonbelievers in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), "a portion of the brain that helps modify behavior by signaling when attention and control are needed, usually as a result of some anxiety-producing event like making a mistake." The more the subject believed in a God, the less often their ACC reacted to their own errors, and the fewer mistakes they made.

Point: Theists.

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Belief in God correlates not only to reports of improved mental health among the faithful, but also better physical health compared to nonbelievers. Furthermore, University of Missouri researchers have found that religious spiritual support improves outcomes for people suffering from face chronic health conditions, according to a study published in 2011 the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health.

This sort of support included care from congregations, religious counseling and assistance from pastors and hospital chaplains. The study had examined the role of gender in coping with chronic diseases or conditions, and found improved outcomes for both religious men and women.

A separate study by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that regularly attending religious services can cut the risk of death up to 20 percent. By examining the religious practices of 92,395 post-menopausal women participating in the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the researchers found that "religious affiliation, religious service attendance, and strength and comfort derived from religion with subsequent cardiovascular events and overall rates of mortality."

Point: Theists

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Although theists may report better health outcomes, a separate study found that religious young adults were more likely to be obese than their nonreligious (including believers and atheists) counterparts.

A study of nearly 2,500 people over 18 years determined that young adults between 20 to 32 years old with a high frequency of religious participation were 50 percent more likely to go from a health weight to obesity by middle age. The researchers also adjusted for differences in age, race, sex, education, income and baseline body mass index. In other words, organized religion can make you fat.

Minus one point: Theists.

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Although charity is a tenet of any of the world's major religions, atheists and agnostics were more likely driven to be generous out of compassion than the faithful, according to a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2012.

Researchers made this determination through a combination of analysis of national survey data, as well as two experiments wherein participants' generosity toward strangers or the less fortunate was tested.

As University of California - Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer summarized the study's results: "Overall, we find that for less religious people, the strength of their emotional connection to another person is critical to whether they will help that person or not. ... The more religious, on the other hand, may ground their generosity less in emotion, and more in other factors such as doctrine, a communal identity, or reputational concerns."

Point: Atheists.

Though the bias may be entirely unfounded, atheists in the United States rank among the most distrusted and disliked groups in survey results, as reported by Scientific American in 2012.

Although you might think the faithful were the ones giving atheists such low rankings, in fact both highly religious participants and those without any affiliation at all distrust atheists "because of the belief that people behave better when they think that God is watching over them."

Point: Theists.

While atheists are generally distrusted among the American public, the number of citizens claiming any kind of religious affiliation has been dwindled to its lowest point since the metric was first tracked in the 1930s, according to a survey published earlier this year.

This doesn't mean that all of those people previously affiliated with organized religion became atheists overnight, however. Most didn't become atheists, but rather believe but choose not to identify with a church.

Point: No one.

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Believers in God are also more likely to believe in divorce, or at least that would seem to be the case given that they break off their marriages in greater numbers than atheists, based on survey data. In fact, based on a survey conducted by an evangelical Christian organization called the Barna Research Group, atheists divorced at the lowest rates of any religious affiliation surveyed at 21 percent, with Baptists scoring the highest with 23 percent.

Point: Atheists.

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As with any theological discourse that attempts to elevate one side over another, with no additional evidence to present or points to be scored, this debate ends in a stalemate. But if you're still seeking reinforcement for whichever camp you happen to fall into, check out out of these stories:

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