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December 22, 2005

Religion and Happiness

"I have the very greatest fear that my life may hereafter be ruined by my having lost the support of religion" -- Bertrand Russell writing, in code, in a diary at the age of 15.

Religion provides meaning, purpose and consolation, not to mention some hope of evading death. Does this mean it provides happiness? Are the meaning, purpose, consolation and promise of an afterlife sufficently clear and convincing?

Russell, though he had a tumultuous emotional life, seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope. Do we find our pious friends to be cheerier than the skeptics?

I'm having trouble thinking this out. Faith. Trust. Truth. Wishful thinking. Where to begin? What to read?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at December 22, 2005 9:51 PM


(Russell ... seemed no less happy than, say, your average pope.

LOL! That line just struck me as very funny. Good start Prof Stephens.

In hopes that it helps your stated cause, my familial Catholicism did nothing to alleviate the confusion, misery and fear with which I was raised. It can far more accurately be said to have been a cause of the insanity and ineptitude that were responsible for a resounding majority of the problems experienced by me and each of siblings. I'll spare you (and your readers) my whole auto-bio, adding only that my particular religious background instilled such a profound amound of shame and guilt in my psyche that I am still trying to overcome these self-defeating (in their extremem manifestation) emotions and beliefs.

What to read?

It was folk like Bertrand Russell whose ideas assured me there is hope for humans regardless of their beliefs. If I believe anything of such an over-arching nature, it is this: regardless of gods or their lack, I will continue to evolve emotionally, intellectually and socially. Happiness is neither beyond my reach nor dependant upon any supernatural resource.

That being said, I do think religion always has and will for a long-long time provide hope and happiness to many people.

I am simply not one of them.

Posted by: Michael Bains at December 23, 2005 9:03 AM

i think there have been a lot of studies on this. like with most of these issues, you can't just correlate reliousness and happiness if you're looking to find a causal relationship -- people may be more or less prone to religion, based on their happiness. i'm pretty sure people who have tried to control for this have found that religion does, all else equal, increase happiness ... though i'm sure different religions are differently suited for the purpose. were it the calvinists who thought that the great majority of people were condemned to eternal hell, and there's nothing they can do about it? that doesn't seem like a good idea. but i'm sure some simple everything happens for a reason/heaven stuff is usually helpful.
this study was written about in the times: belief in religion is helpful for economic growth. but time spent in church is harmful.


Posted by: seth at December 23, 2005 10:48 AM

Are you going to pepper your book with arch phrases such as "our pious friends?" I thought this book was going to be a history of atheism, but that phrase makes me wonder. I would imagine a key component of your audience would be faith leaders, laiety, unchurched people of faith, agnostics, fence-sitters, and many others who may not be atheists. Lauren Hillenbrand can make me interested in a horse race; your job is to make me interested in your book about atheism, yes? If you are agree, then don't write off people of faith with smug little toss-aways.

That's not even getting into your central question, which again I find is a divagation from your proposed subject. Though you are of course free to push this book where it needs to go, I would think the question is really about atheism and happiness.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at December 23, 2005 1:21 PM

Gee, actually I was being less arch than usual when talking of "our pious friends." I do have buddies who are beleivers. I was thinking, not at all unkindly, of them. But I can see why the phrase might be misinterpreted. I do want this site to be fairminded. Getting the tone right, however, might not be easy -- especially given a tendency toward archness.

And I'm not sure the question of religion and happiness isn't the same as atheism and happiness. As I wrote, I'm on unsteady ground here. I wanted to open, early, a question that for me remains very much open.

Posted by: mitch at December 23, 2005 3:50 PM

Some of your best friends are believers... o.k., that's funny!

I like that you're pushing back on the issue of religion/happiness vs. atheism/happiness. That could be very fertile ground to explore. My guess is atheists are a lot happier these days for being able to exercise their, ah, beliefs. I do wonder if it takes you far afield from your central thesis, but you're just getting started, so you may need a fair amount of throat-clearing. Just don't let blogging become the distraction from your writing. (I'm not really qualified to give you all this advice, but let that not stop me.)

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at December 23, 2005 10:21 PM

Many years ago, I was watching a TV talk show when someone said something that ever since has resonated with me. The show did a segment on fringe religions, and most of the guest were loony snake handlers and what not. One of the guests was an atheist, which in hindsight is kind of insulting, lumping him in with all those fruitcakes. At one point, two of the loonies get into an argument, and the atheist commented wryly: "The two voices of revelation."

Anyway, here's what struck me. The host asked the atheist if he ever missed the feeling of certainty believers had. The atheist answered that he sometimes felt like a man walking along a dark country road at night. He walks past a cosy little house, and sees someone sitting inside by a fireplace. He feels a momentary pang of envy for this person who is warm and comfortable. But then he looks up at the stars...

It's a powerful image, and it has stayed with me ever since. Religion can be warm and cosy, but also confining, and it can blind you to the true beauties of this world. Atheism by itself can't make you happy, but seeing the world as it really is, and accepting it instead of retreating into fantasy, is a better foundation for mature happiness than the "ignorance is bliss" offerings of religion.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at December 23, 2005 11:27 PM

I think you ought to begin where it all started: the mythology of Pandora and her Box. From there, Saul Bellow's "poison of hope" makes perfect sense. If one wants to understand the origins of at least a western conception of truth, trust, faith, hope, etc. one has to consider that lady--you can start with Hesiod, but consider also Byron, Longfellow, and Wordsworth!

Posted by: Greg at December 23, 2005 11:55 PM

I really like the "cosy little house" image. Although I might add that such scenes -- to which I am certainly vulnerable -- are rarely, in reality, as warm and comfortable as they appear to strangers walking by on a cool evening. Any critique of religion would have to consider the possibility that it never quite works.

Posted by: mitch at December 24, 2005 12:33 AM

K.G., it's pretty much impossible to discuss any aspect of atheism without including its opposite. Otherwise, discussion takes place in a vacuum.

And, being in the throes of writing a book myself, I consider throat-clearing a necessary part of the the process. Who knows when you'll cough up something of unexpected value (to over-extend the metaphor a bit) ?

Posted by: Catana at December 24, 2005 9:35 AM

K.G. Schneider

My guess is atheists are a lot happier these days for being able to exercise their, ah, beliefs.

Right. Because the Evil Atheist Conspiracy is somehow preventing the religious from exercising their beliefs. Why, just this weekend, I saw the police clearing a church and rounding up the attendees for participating in a Midnight Mass. The flames of the burning house of worship, reflected in the eyes of weeping children -- it was truly beautiful.

Please: don't talk nonsense, and drop the victim charade.

Posted by: Dayv at December 26, 2005 10:31 AM

Dayv, my comment was intended to underscore how hard it was to be an atheist in Olden Tymes. A lot of people with faith lives respect the beliefs of their atheist friends. It's just that in writing that post I was reminded that, contradictorily, atheism is a belief, and that's amusing (to me, anyway, in the same way that "jumbo shrimp" are funny).

I'm intrigued that religion is presented as absolute certainty, the cozy little well-lit house. That's true for some people, bu there's a strong thread of skepticism and doubt in modern religious belief, and a book on atheism would probably need to address that, assuming that people are not binary either/or on faith but are more often on a fluid continuum. I suspect that most people "practiced" faith in the old days, without living it or believing it. Today, without compulsory religion, people are freer to be non-believers (unless they want to run for President, which seems to require a constant show of piety).

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at December 26, 2005 2:27 PM

Obviously, the torments suffered by nonbelievers -- more in olden times but not exclusively in olden times -- will be a major theme of this book. (We should discuss, at some point, the case of Dr. Younus Shaikh in Pakistan in recent years.)
The question of the element of uncertainty that seems to survive at the heart of at least some belief might not be a major theme, but it certainly will come up in discussion of a number of major themes. Why, for example, have believers so often gone to such lengths to shut nonbelievers up.

Posted by: mitch at December 26, 2005 3:39 PM

I really think that you should write this book in a way that emphasizes the choice to be an atheist. In our world, the default is religion, and your semantics should reflect that.

Posted by: NoahSD at December 26, 2005 11:20 PM

I've never think there were so many people who acually think like me. I believe that religion or the bible or any kind of other sacred book religious people used are 50 percent. there is no way anyone can prove those things. I think if someone want to believe that these stuffs are true or they are "the light" i's fine. but, however, why should believers tend to look at us nonbelievers like crazy people, or even more ignorant? I think every body should just remain in their corner and not trying to force anyone else becoming part of their clan.

Posted by: lizie at September 28, 2006 6:38 PM

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