Friday, January 8, 2010

Are Atheists Happier?

Once again, the thought that has occupied my mind over the past, well 12 hours at least, started with Oprah. Denise had watched it during the day yesterday and when I got home she was going on and on about the episode.

The story was about how other people live in other countries. Oprah had selected about five cities around the world and followed typical residents. I only watched the segments on Denmark and Dubai.

While Denise was taken by the lifestyles of the Danes, especially their minimalism, I was struck by one particular part of a conversation between Oprah and her Danish guests ( actually she was their guest as the interview took place in Copenhagen). The point was this. In survey after survey, the Danes consider themselves as the happiest people on earth. In other surveys, they represent one of most "areligious" (even atheistic) societies on earth. Oprah (as did myself) seemed very perplexed about that.

In my old evangelical days, I would quickly have dismissed this as another facet of the great conspiracy against Christianity, and certainly would consider it to be untrue. After all, we have been convinced that atheists are miserable and that everyone who comes to Jesus is happy.

Now, when I hear information that flies in the face of my previous beliefs, I don't dismiss them out of hand any more. My fist step is to try and find out if it is true.

I've tried to read the studies that support the Danes=Happiness conclusion as well as the surveys that suggest that they are one of the most atheistic countries. In summary, the happiness factor is more subjective as it is self-reported by the Danes. However, the non-religious nature of the Danish society is indisputable.

So, if I intended to simply say this is not true, and to say that the Danes are lying, I would be saying that they really are miserable and won't confess up to that. Surely they can't be happy without Christ . . . can they?

Another approach the old evangelical Mike could take would be, the following reasoning. The Danes only have a fake happiness brought on by sinning freely. For example, many Danes either postpone marriage, or have no desire for marriage. So, they feel happy because they are always meeting new people, falling in love, having passionate romances, then moving on. You could say the same for many other vices.

It reminds me of something that the Christian psychologist Larry Crab said (I think) in his book, Inside Out. He told the story of a man that came to him for counselling and said, "I'm so unhappy. I just want to be happy again as soon as possible."

Larry Crab thought for a moment and then said, "Well, I think we need to get a case of tequila, two beautiful hookers and take off to a beach cottage in the Bahamas."

To this the man responded, "I thought you were a Christian psychologist?"

Larry said, "I am. But if all you want is to be happy fast, that is the best way of doing it."

But I think that line of reasoning about the Danes (being happy because they freely indulge in sin) is too superficial of an answer. But I could hear that coming from a radio preacher somewhere. But I think, like all things, it is more complex than that.

Let's assume that the studies are correct. That the Danes are more happy as atheists than Americans (who scored low in the happy surveys) who are far more religious. What does this mean?

I've thought about this a lot since I heard it and I have a few suspicious thoughts.

First of all, the Danes, as is true with virtually all atheists, cannot live consistently with what they say that they believe. So while organized religion is no longer on their radar, and they confess to be atheists, it is very difficult to live consistent with that presupposition. So, while they say that they are atheists, they, in many ways, live Christianly with a "remembrance" of their Christian heritage. For example, in the interviews on Oprah, the Danes spoke of having very high values. They don't steal. They value human life very highly (for example making sure everyone is cared for). I won't even attempt to talk about the anthropologists counter point here, where this caring is really just an evolutionary phenomenon.

But now to the so-called Evangelical nation, the US. Why would Evangelicals be less happy? This is the crux of my thinking since Oprah last night. I do think there is a reason. Maybe I should save that for the next post as this is getting long. But I will propose that Evangelicals are indeed less happy than their non-religious counterparts. They put on a facade of "joy," to be consistent with what they say they believe. You know, the ole, Keep smiling while your private world is crap, mentality.

So I will come back and next time pick up on that thought.


Anonymous said...

Interesting...I think faking it is part of it but also trying to live up to others impossible standards. I just left a messed up church who judged everything I did and found me wanting. I decided to keep my belief in God and throw everything else out and did so with a great sense of relief, and yes, joy.

I was raised with the idea that we can not plan our lives because God will do that, we can't look to the future because there might not be one (anyway this is a sinful world we are all waiting to leave) and danger is around every corner. I am a lot happier believing I have some say in my life, that I can make 5-10 year plans and have hopes and dreams. I don't see evil lurking everywhere and wait anxiously for God to come strike me dead for my sin. I think I am happier, although not athiest!!

MJ said...

I wanted to thank you for your comments. You raise real issues that I want to ponder as I prepare to do my next posting asking if Christians really are happier.

Hope T. said...

I was just talking with my mother about Denmark over the holidays.
We had been talking about socialism and I had mentioned that I would not want to see our country continue on the path toward socialism because I thought that freedom was was an essential ingredient in enduring human happiness and growth. I saw socialism and freedom in conflict.

That was when she brought up Denmark. She had read about Denmark ranking high on the happiness scale and yet their government is very socialistic. She had seen interviews with Danes who claimed that they had so much freedom precisely because of the socialism that promised they would be taken care of. They said they felt sorry for Americans who only thought they were free.

After that conversation, I wanted to find out more about Denmark and what the lives of its citizens are like. Your post gives me more to ponder about the subject and even more motivation to research this a bit.