Religion and Happiness

I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.

Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.

Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.

These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.

In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.

Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.

As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.

Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.