Monday, May 19, 2008

God-Belief and Happiness

Arthur Brooks' Gross National Happiness advances the thesis that belief in god correlates with personal happiness, and Will Wilkinson goes to some lengths to cast doubts on the conclusion:

Looking at the data, this strikes me as conservative bluster. Almost all the countries that consistently score higher than the U.S. in happiness are much less religious. While conservatives and the religious are indeed more likely to say they are happy in the U.S., it would be a simple error to infer that “gross national happiness” would be damaged were the culture to become less conservative or religious. In fact, cross-national data seem strongly to suggest the opposite.
Maybe it's just my short attention span or another of my personality flaws speaking, but this is an odd question to tackle.

Much turns on the conception of god, and nothing in the presentation narrows it down. Are we to suppose that people who believe in the existence of a strict, vengeful, captious, wrathful, damnation-happy sort of god go through life happily? In particular, does anyone who believes in the inevitability of his own damnation count himself happy? This begs the question, which I consider to be wide open: does anyone believe in the inevitability of his own damnation?

I suspect the belief in question is really more akin to "things will be all right in the end," or in religious terms, "I believe there's a heaven and that I am destined to go there," either of which collapse "I believe in god" and "I am happy" into approximately the same idea. I suspect the correlation that both Wilkinson and Brooks are noticing is between "I am presently and foreseeably safe in the cosmos" and "life is good." This sounds to me like optimism, which can take on a supernatural cast but does not require it. Some people just bounce through life believing things will turn out fine, and that hardships are just temporary setbacks -- depressed people are constantly being hectored that they should become one of those people.

So whether in the relatively non-believing countries or deeply religious ones, I suspect there is a strong correlation between optimism/contentment and, well, optimism/contentment.

In any case, whatever the correlates might be with belief in god -- an optimistic turn of mind, the propensity to say prayers, a tendency to show up at places of worship, the habit of revering old books of fables -- they don't count as proof of god. God's existence may yet be a delusion that produces happy thoughts, much as would the belief that one's back yard conceals a huge pot of gold; at best this is an argument for belief in belief. But notice how no one goes around urging the benefits of believing in backyard gold.


One man said...

What does happiness have to do with anything when it comes to faith or lack thereof? And who gives a care? Apparently, Dale does.

As a Christian, I guess I am a fairly content guy. But I am not happy all the time. I bothers me that people will go to hell, that I might, it bothers me that we can't all get along. So again I ask, what does happiness have to do with these issues? Does the happier team win? Or are you just pissed off because you feel that someone is putting you on the losing team again?

To answer your question, (I assume you want an answer since you asked, but perhaps it was rhetorical) Yes, I believe in the inevitability of damnation. Mine? No. If I interpret God's word correctly, and I claim to have no special ability to do this, I am not numbered with the damned. I could be wrong, but I can live with that.

Being a Christian doesn't make me happy. I don't take joy in the suffering of others, and don't believe God does either. Yet I don't considered myself depressed either. I think of myself as a realist, an ironic twist when discussing my beliefs with an atheist.

If you really want to make the world a better place, stop ragging on believers, get believers to stop ragging on unbelievers, and just start treating other people like human beings.

Otherwise, expect the confrontations to continue. And maybe that is what some people want anyway. Maybe that is where some people find their happiness.

Dale said...

one man, I do care about the correlates of happiness. You don't? Really? I also care about the question of god's existence. You don't? Really? If these things really bore you so terribly, I have a hard time understanding why you bothered reading this post and then going to the trouble of commenting on it. But my "hard time understanding" needn't be your problem, of course. If I take you at your word, I am boring your socks off already; surely my additional comments only threaten more interminable torpor for you.

If you're still awake, you might notice that Arthur Brooks went on at book length about the correlates of happiness and spent a fair amount of time arguing that belief in god is among them. And then -- compounding your boredom, no doubt -- Will Wilkinson jumped in and discussed the matter further on his blog. That's when I came in.

Your "take" on Christianity as I am able to glean it -- a creed that clears the way for you to stand in the loving glow of a sky-father who just wants to love everybody, if only they'll stop blogging about boring topics and get to praying -- strikes me as typical, and it certainly typifies the sort of god-belief I was highlighting in this astonishingly boring blog post. You're sure that god is all about damnation -- for someone, somewhere, sometime -- but certainly not for you. He wuvs woo! Oh, keeping that wuv isn't easy, I'm sure you'll remind me -- there are fees to pay, prayers to repeat, thought-crimes to avoid, etc. But you're well on track, and after this life you'll find yourself "saved." And you'll find all your dead pets and dead relatives up there among the clouds and harps, too, or so I can suppose you believe. But icky others -- people who pray the wrong way, people who don't pray at all, people who think all the wrong thoughts -- won't be there. And good riddance, right? It'll be swell, finally, to be among only The Right People.

And it could, in principle, be true, this creed of yours. I do care whether it's true or not, I'll give you that much. I don't think it is true, and I don't see any reason to do so, but I do care.

one man said...

First of all, where did I say that I didn't care about happiness? I simply said that whether or not you are happy is not a basis for belief or lack thereof, a statement I feel that you would agree with.

Second, I do not recall stating that your post bores me, quite the contrary. I find it interesting reading. And you are right in saying that if I didn't, it would be a waste of time to comment.

Third, your take on my values and beliefs is more of a take on everything you despise about Christianity. Yes, I believe God wuvs me, but I believe he wuvs you too. And my salvation is not earned, it is accepted. No, I don't expect to find my dead pets up there, and neither will I find all of my relatives. If the Bible is correct, most of the people that are there will be "icky" people, for Jesus did not come to save the righteous (those who thought they could earn God's favor by paying fees, reciting prayers, avoiding thought crimes), but to call sinners to repentence.

By the way, great use of the word TORPOR, had to look that one up, you just don't find cause to use the word TORPOR in daily conversation. Kudos. Have a happy day.

Dale said...

one man, I don't know how to make two of the ideas you've shared fit together: a) that Jesus will save the icky sinners by calling them to repentence -- repentence implying forsaking previous deeds and/or thoughts (right?); and b) that your salvation is not earned, but accepted. Doesn't repentence earn it?

It sounds to me as though you believe you've repented well enough to meet with Jesus's approval -- "I am not numbered with the damned," you say. (No doubt you accept this approval also.)

My interpretation on what's going on (and this goes to the original point I was making): I think you're basically at ease with the cosmos as you understand it and exist in it, and you've glossed that ease with religious terms. That's fair enough.

I think people who are at ease in that way -- whether religious or not -- are, by definition, content, optimistic, happy. That's not to say 'overjoyed at all waking hours,' nor is that to say 'happy about every little thing.' It just characterizes, I think, a basic frame in which certain people see the world.

I am disagreeing with the premise over which Wilkinson and Brooks are contending: I think it's not a question of religious or non-religious. It's a question of happy or non-happy, and that happy and non-happy outlooks either do or do not get cast in religious terms based on prevailing social norms, individual preferences, and so on.

one man said...

"I don't know how to make two of the ideas you've shared fit together: a) that Jesus will save the icky sinners by calling them to repentence -- repentence implying forsaking previous deeds and/or thoughts (right?); and b) that your salvation is not earned, but accepted. Doesn't repentence earn it?"

Excellent question, let me try to explain...

First, the mere act of repentance does not earn one salvation. If this were so, the sacrifice of Christ would not have been needed. But it was needed, because there is nothing I can do on my own to merit forgiveness. Forgiveness comes at a price, and that price has been paid. That being said, you would think it is a done deal, everyone gets a free pass. But God does not force salvation on us, it is our choice to accept it. It's like getting a notice in the mail stating that if you come to their dealership within 7 days with proof of ID, said dealership will give you a new car. Is that gift free? No. You have to go and claim it. Does that mean it is not a gift? No. Because the price you pay (getting off your butt and taking your ID to them) is exceeded by the value of the prize. God's gift is similar in that it is not free (as even some Christians would claim), but the value of the gift exceeds the price I have to pay. But what if I want to claim the car after 8 days? The dealer has the right to tell me that I am too late. Likewise, God has made the offer. He states I must accept it. Call it faith if you will. But true faith is not just a statement of belief (again, as come Christians would claim). True faith has consequences. If I believed the mailing were true, yet I chose to wait 8 days anyway, did I really believe? My mouth might say yes, but my actions speak otherwise. That is what repentance is, not an action on my part that merits His grace, but it is my life response to the reality of His grace.

Think back to Y2K. Many people claimed that all the computers would crash, power would go out, etc. Some laughed, others said maybe. Others believed, and "repented" as a consequence of that belief. And by repentance I do mean "forsaking previous deeds and/or thoughts." I doubt that anyone would have stocked up on water, food, etc. had they not believed it would or could happen, so their repentance (their change of direction, plans, way of thinking) was a result of their belief. Similarly, Jesus rejected the righteous religious of the day, because they thought they could merit God's forgiveness on their own. Instead, he called the icky people to repentance, because he knew that those who believed would change their direction, plans, way of thinking (repent). Their repentance did not merit his favor (nor did just being icky qualify them), it was a response to it. Therefore, there is no measure of "repenting well enough to earn Jesus' favor." Either you have repented or you haven't. Perfection not required.