Monday, March 4, 2013

Does Religion Make People Unhappy?

I posted a quote on Facebook a few days ago from a Nashville Tennessean article about the level of happiness reported by citizens in the various American states.

Hawaii, Colorado and Utah were at the top of the list.

West Virginia ranked last.

Tennessee was 47, in the immediate company of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky.

A hundred passionate responses quickly rushed to interpret the article. Some blamed the ‘liberal media’ for attacking religion.

Actually, the article didn’t even mention religion.

People probably assumed religion was under attack because the states at the bottom of the happiness list have a reputation for being passionate about religion. We assume that people in Hawaii, Colorado and Minnesota will be much less religious. Therefore, some concluded, something sinister is at work. 

Other responses to my post pointed out that the states on the bottom of the list tend to be poor. They have a low commitment to education. They don't invest in social infrastructure such as public transit systems and parks. But this is a chicken and egg sort of comment, I think. It doesn't tell us whether these states lack enough concern for the public good to produce adequate social infrastructure or whether their lack of social infrastructure produces people without the sufficient awareness to produce create social infrastructure. And, it certainly does not tell us about whether there is a connection between our region’s religiosity and its reported state of unhappiness.

We were left arguing on my Facebook page about whether religion is a cause or an effect of our region's low educational levels and poverty or whether religion even has anything to do with such issues.

Before jumping to a conclusion, let's dig a little deeper.

I am not sure whether liberal media deliberately influenced this study about happiness. However, I am sure religion is not to blame.

For one thing, Utah was third on the list of states with happy citizens. 

People in Utah are, one might claim, fairly religious.

So the cause of happiness or lack of happiness can’t be religion. Nonetheless, what I think is to blame is closely connected to religion.

Stay with me for a moment.

Draw upon your prejudices and biases and imagine a state filled with the followers of various religions.

For example, a state filled with Presbyterians might be boring.  However, it would not be dumb. And it would probably not be poor.

A state filled with Mormons might seem strange to outsiders but it would not be dumb either. And, it would likely not be poor. 

A state filled with Jews would not be dumb or poor. 

A state filled with Zen Buddhists would not be poor, or dumb, or violent, for that matter. It would likely be peaceful.

Whether any of these states would produce happy people is another issue.  However, poverty and ignorance do not usually lead to happiness, so at least those two causes of human misery would be removed from states filled with people following the religions we have mentioned. So we can assume that these hypothetical states might well have happy citizens. 

My point is that religion does not necessarily hinder social flourishing or personal growth and does not immediately contribute to the unhappiness of our region.

But what does?

In my opinion, it is the use of religion as an excuse for intellectual sloth and a means to control others that erodes happiness. In other words, when a people claim to be religious but do not take the time to actually learn what their religion teaches, they become unhappy. When they continually escape from life into unreflected private spiritual experience, they become unhappy. When they passionately claim to believe in their religion while living everyday lives by quite different values, they become unhappy. When they quote religious words to justify human misery and social stratification around them, they become unhappy.

In other words, it is a culture's dishonesty that makes its people unhappy.  When a community constructs social structures that justify and enforce gaps between what its people say they believe and how they really behave, it creates unhappiness, especially among those who do not profit from those social structures.

When religion is misused to hurt people, or to ignore how one's actions (or lack of action) hurt people, the result is a hollowed-out parody of religion that the powerful use to maintain their status and the poor use to medicate their sense of humiliation. This creates a culture in which religion looks like a camp meeting at the bottom and a country club at the top. 

Using religion to promote things contrary to what that same religion claims to promote creates confusion. It’s rather like the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, which is not a republic, which actively suppresses democracy and in which the people have no voice. Religion can be like that. Remove its theology – which teaches its followers what it actually believes; remove its sacramental structures – which allow its followers to develop a common spiritual life; and remove its followers sense of the common good – which would otherwise make them sensitive to sources of affliction and evil around them;  and you have a religion that Christians in the past would have not even recognized. 

Many of us practice a faith like this, in which intellectual formation and spiritual practice is a minor and much neglected part, or, in some cases, even a rejected part. 

Just think about the many people now who claim that they want spirituality but are not interested in religion.

In fact, the very word religion often evokes a sneer, a shaking of the head, or a sigh. Our ‘common sense’ is now pickled with phrases that nearly everyone, including religious people, accept as fact; “religion has provoked more wars than any other element of culture,” “religion is the enemy of science,” “religion makes people sexually uptight,” and so forth.

We have forgotten that religion serves as a boundary between individual spiritual experience and the rest of life. That boundary paradoxically serves as a connection, (or as an interface, to use computer language) which helps people move among the various spheres of life purposely, with a unity of heart, mind and behavior.  Religions help people do that by teaching their followers to evaluate their personal spiritual experience, to acquire wisdom by studying its sacred texts, to live in a healthy interdependence with others, and to apply the lessons gleamed from their religious commitment to the rest of life.

Religion, in other words, serves spiritual experience in much the same way as a marriage serves sexual experience. It transforms private pleasure into personal growth, community and the possibility of giving birth to future human life. It also gives birth to a culture. 

In The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Hunting claimed that every civilization is, and has always been, the outgrowth of religion. Even modern secular states, he claims, organize culture around the values taught by their founding religion.

In his view, France is still trying to carry out the Sermon on the Mount. Americans may disagree about the means by which France seeks to achieve these aims but that nation’s values, as ours, are the secularized products of its religions beliefs.

Japan is Shinto and Zen Buddhist.

China is Taoist/Confucian.

Utah is Mormon.

You get the picture.

So, we agree that a Jewish state a Mormon state, a Presbyterian state and a Zen Buddhist state are each capable of producing communities that flourish – communities in which science, art, medical care, education and economic life develop to ever more efficient and effective levels. Whatever we may claim about eternal life, it is obvious that all of these religious systems have produced cultures that function at rather high levels. What is common to them all is this: a flourishing people that take the claims of the worldview they have professed seriously. They study it.  They consciously and deliberately apply what they learn to all of life. Practicing their faith makes them happy because, since  it agrees with how they define reality and meaning, it is the way they live. 

This includes a society build on hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure. If a person believes that pleasure is the only value of life, then he will be happy enjoying pleasure. 

If a people are relatively unconcerned with education but are nonetheless happy with their physical environment, they can delight in their day-to-day experience. They can enjoy the warmth, sunshine, and recreational life. In such a culture, even people we call poor may live joyfully; provided they are remain unconcerned about status, philosophy, politics, or blogs.

Likewise, a person can live joyfully in a large urban area provided he has access to the benefits of civilization: healthy social interaction, good food, good art; and, this is crucial, provided he learns how to evaluate and appreciate such things.

Unless we live in an environmental paradise, joyful communal life requires social infrastructure and the training to recognize and appreciate it.  Without such training, we experience neither the joys of simple life nor the joys of a more complex society. We will be caught somewhere in between, in which a relatively few people are able to experience security and delight by removing themselves from the many who do not.

The resulting social stratification would be fine, were it not for our religion, which teaches us to do the opposite. So, even if we are one of the lucky ones in such a stratified community in which some people do well and others do not, we cannot be happy unless we keep some distance between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This includes our places of worship, unfortunately. But underneath our adjustments is a growing sense of inauthenticity that makes us squirm. 

Religion assumes the existence of a transcendent reality, something beyond our everyday experience. It claims that information has come to us from another time and place. It claims that if we learn and apply this information to individual and communal life, there will be a positive affects. The result may be a growth of the wisdom, saintliness, peace or physical health of those who follow it -- the claims differ according to the religion involved -- but  something is supposed to happen when a people actually follow the teaching of religion.

The information offered by the religion then is not there just to be praised. To be effective, it must be learned and put into action.

Now, Evangelical Christians will protest that this is a terribly inadequate description of faith. And they would be right to say that. However, 'inadequate' does not mean 'untrue,' since it merely means ‘not enough.” Our faith also claims to make a difference in the lives of people. Whatever we say about eternity and the supernatural life, Christian faith claims that following Christ will produce goodness and joy; love for one’s neighbor; truthfulness of thought and word; and communities that strive to be just.

However, in our country anyway, the places where people most passionately profess these teachings are the very ones claiming to be the unhappiest. They live in places of relative poverty, lack of education, violence, family dysfunction and the like. There are pockets of affluence and education within these areas to be sure. However, these islands of social health tend to be rather isolated from the misery around them. The churches reflect the societal division, so that poor Christians go to their churches and wealthy Christians go to wealthy churches, the Epistle of James notwithstanding.

What gives?

Is our faith true? If it is, on what basis do thoughtful seekers decide that Christianity is not only comforting, but true? Can we point to the lives of believers, or to the quality of communities where believers predominate, and challenge a seeker to notice the difference? 

The answer to the question about whether religion makes people unhappy seems simple. A loud profession of Christianity that lacks intentional formation in its precepts, which tolerates a growing gap between what it affirms and what it practices, and which focuses its internal life on matters utterly unrelated to its mission, fails to produce flourishing individuals or flourishing communities. Just as we faulted communists for failing to produce societies that reflected the good intentions of their ideology, so do unbelievers have the right to judge us. Even if the ideology sounds great, people cannot be blamed for rejecting it if we can't demonstrate changed lives and transformed communities. And if communities in which believers predominate are less healthy than those where the heathen predominate, we really have a problem.

To sum up my thoughts on this:   

A people who do not profess any religion can be happy.

A people who voluntarily profess religion and seek to learn its lessons and apply these to life, can be happy.

A people who profess a religion that they do not actually believe, do not learn, and do not apply to everyday life, cannot be happy.

And that, I offer is what is at work in our part of the country.

We sometimes use religion to avoid involvement with science. We sometimes use religion to endorse secular political and social theories far removed from what Christians have ever taught or believed. We sometimes use religion to suppress different opinions and to punish those who hold them. And, above all, we sometimes use religion to justify the existing status quo -- whether or not the status quo is compatible with the faith we so passionately professes.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of the powerful book, Thou Shalt Prosper, says that a Christian once explained to him why Jews tend to become wealthy: "it is because God blesses Jews," she said.

“Well, of course God blesses the Jews,” Lapin replied.  “He blessed us with a book, which, if we study and apply its lessons to life as we work our tails off, tends to produce rather good results. But I thought you people had the same book.”

So here we reach that common denominator that makes us think that a society filled with Jews, Presbyterians, or Mormons would probably prosper. These very different communities each believe that one’s faith should be studied and applied to life. They each apply the lessons of covenant in ways that require planning, consistency and discipline. They believe in the extended family and that covenant is a multigenerational matter. They reject spiritual fads. They teach delayed gratification.

Revivalist forms of Christian faith (and I am a Charismatic Christian who believes in the immanent presence and reality of spiritual forces) promotes private experience that does not always translate into the renewal of mind that Holy Scripture claims is a necessary component in human transformation.

The forms of Christianity widely practiced in our region, however sincere, are simply incomplete. They fail the test of being salt and light in a broken world.

But that is not because religion makes us unhappy. When we remove most of the content from our religion, we can hardly blame religion for failing us.

In fact, it would appear that we might be happier without religion if we don't intend to practice it. 

Of course, there is another path we might take: making a decision that ideas, including religious ideas,  have consequences. If the way we understand and practice our religion has not result in "life more abundantly," including our own sense of joy, perhaps we ought to take another look at it. 

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