Religious leaders often point out that religious activity is positively associated with member happiness. This is actually true, at least in the United States – several studies show that Christians are slightly better off psychologically than the rest of the population. For example, this meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that religious people are slightly less likely to go through depression. I once listened to a devout Christian express their interpretation of similar studies like this:
“By their fruits ye shall know them. If a teaching is good, then it will have a positive impact on the lives of those who live it. We know Christianity is good because its members are happier. They are happier because they have the peace of God and he blesses them with his spirit.”
“By their fruits ye shall know them,” is a reference to Matthew 7 towards the end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (which actually contains some priceless wisdom). Pastor Robert Furrow put it this way:
Each of us has a desire to know God and that is the only way to gain fulfillment. If other things are the main pursuit, then we will end up feeling empty. Seeking God is the only way to find true and lasting joy and contentment. [Emphasis added]
As a movement focused on happiness, should we accept these arguments and prescribe religion? The suggestion that we should all be religious because religious people are happier troubles me.
The mental state of a believer does not determine truth.
Certainly most believers don’t claim that being happier makes something true, and I don’t mean to misrepresent them. It’s worth pointing out, though, that we should be most doubtful of those who have no doubt. The moment nothing will change your mind, you have become a poor judge of truth. The idea that you can know truth based on whether it makes you feel good isn’t new, but it’s also not very convincing or rational. A delusional mental patient may be very happy in his delusion, but that says nothing for the truth of his delusions.
George Bernard Shaw put it this way: “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Is religion the only way to achieve happiness? The best way?
Pastor Furrow is not alone in thinking that their religion is the only path to happiness. Some will tell you “to be happy, remember that the only way to real happiness is to live the gospel.” That’s from the official Mormon stance on happiness. I’m not so sure.
There are thousands of religions with incompatible doctrines. The Mormon, Catholic, and Baptist Gods and doctrines differ wildly, and their suggested path for finding happiness varies accordingly. So how can you determine the actual path to happiness when you have thousands of people telling you different things? You could live each one – but you couldn’t live it halfheartedly. You would have to fully live and believe the doctrines of each church, and then objectively compare. Obviously, living in full devotion to a different belief each day is impossible.
Instead, we must apply science to see what about religion was actually making people happy. You could then take that, combine it with everything else science has taught us, and actually work towards making people happier rather than holier. Religion is not designed to make people happy; happiness in this life is not its goal. If happiness is our goal, we should seek it actively rather than by correlation. When the science of happiness contradicts the official church doctrine directly, religion is, at worst, a direct opponent of happiness, and, at best, an incidental ally.
Turning to religion to find happiness is like using a dim, flickering candle to see while ignoring the light switch of science.