Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Christians Happier than Atheists?

Obviously the first question that is waiting to be begged is should Christians be happier than atheists? The answer is not as obvious as we Evangelicals (or ex) might think. While joy, contentment and yes, happiness, are considered some of the major draws to being a Christian, I don’t think that view has always been unanimous nor is even shared by all today. I’m sure that this topic has been widely debated, papers and books written about it as well as many sermons and lectures.

Of course the Medieval church comes to mind, especially the segments that promoting personal suffering and the mortification of the flesh. I’m sure that they would see happiness as manifestation of the evil flesh, in a Platonic way, and a good Christian is one that suffers much. I wish I had the time to go back and to read Augustine and others and see what their views were on happiness.

In the post-reformation church, I think of the Aristotelian influenced churches of northern Europe. I’ve heard of stories of John Calvin ruling Geneva with an iron fist, stamping out any signs of personal pleasure, however, those may have been over-stated. I also think of the stoic Lutherans of Scandinavia. That’s where my wife’s roots are in. While her family would not deny joy or happiness, they do frown deeply on doing things that are not practical.

In more modern Evangelical circles there are pockets of belief where happiness is not consider a major Christian attribute. Certainly, the mainstream, such as Joel Osteen, have personal happiness as the center of their gospel. I became a Christian through a Jesus people-quasi Navigator group and the guy that led me to the Lord, Tom, said that finding Jesus would be finding happiness. I needed happiness at the time because I was just coming out of my first bout of clinical depression as teenager. I’m sure that my search for happiness is what drew me to Christianity and Tom assured me that my depression was a spiritual issue.

But I also think of one Navigator leader back in the 80s. Nick was the most extreme of the most extreme is my memory of Navigator legalism. I always wonder whatever happened to him. He is the guy, whom I’ve mentioned before, who said that we should never share the gospel with handicap people or even people sitting down, because neither ever accomplish much for the Lord. He was the one who forced himself to run 5 miles a day, every single day. He ran when he had the stomach flu and had to stop every quarter of a mile to vomit. He would run with a broken leg because he had made a vow with God that he would run every day come hell or high water. It was another form of the mortification of the flesh. I never had a conversation once with Nick where he did not beat me up verbally . . . leaving me feeling horrible about my pathetic self. He told a story once about a young college student coming up to him after they had been doing several days of physical labor and said, "I think we deserve a vacation after this." To which he replied, "What you deserve young man it the fires of hell. Everything else is a gift."

He would be one that would have said that “happiness or joy is of the flesh.”

But speaking of the flesh, he is the same Christian leader that vanished for a year and came back with a 20 year old college student wife (and he was in his mid to upper forties). And if I remember right, he left with a 40 something wife but I'm not sure of the details now. It was bizarre as no one was allowed to mention this event outside their own heads. So even he, who was against pleasure, must have found some pleasure seeking in his private world.

But besides a few exceptions, I think that most Christians believe that we are suppose to be happier than atheists.

I wish I had time to go back and do a Biblical study of it right now. I write these things off the cuff and not from a desk of careful research. I do remember that the beatitudes were consider God's guide for happiness. The word, "blessed" suppose to mean "happy." But I would have to look it up in a good Greek NT to know for sure.

The way that I look at it, if God is there, and I think He is, then He is our creator. If He is our creator, he knows how we should function best. So, if we follow His guidelines for functioning, we should be more content and thus happier.

But the problem is, flying in the face of common Evangelical beliefs, there is not a magic line of demarcation between “them” and “us.” It is not like “them” live opposite to what God intended and “we” live exactly like He wants. Like I said in the previous post, I think the Danes are happy, even if they claim to be atheists because they live according to God’s principles of living, including having a high view of human life (and not just pre-natal life, but homeless life, poor life, immigrant life, etc.).

Oh the other hand, I think that Evangelicals can live in opposition to God’s plan for successful living. I don’t just mean getting drunk, having sex outside of marriage and using “swear “words. I’m talking about more complicated issues. For example, if Evangelicals devalue art, human pleasure (relegating it to the “flesh”) and not understanding that our sin is covered by the blood of Christ, then it could lead to a more dis-content life.

I have to think about this more and maybe someone else has some ideas.


pennyyak said...

I've read a book recently that stated polls show Christians (or maybe just religious people) generally report themselves as happier than non-religious, and I've read this sort of thing before. I don't want to go to the trouble of looking it up either.

People of all stripes seem to go through cycles of more contentment, or less. I'm not sure that being deprived of the beauty of the arts and literature would make someone less content, unless they were first exposed to it, and were forbidden by their beliefs to enjoy them, and also had a desire in that direction. There is a parallel in some ethnic expressions of Catholicism, where the impurity of the world is forbidden (if you've read Ann Rice's autobiography, that's a good example). The most extreme example I can think of is the Amish.

I will admit that some balance in these matters escapes and confuses me on occasion, and I've re-evaluated this a good many times.

"To be happy" seems a poor reason to be a Christian, it doesn't seem possible to me, unless I wanted to outright lie a lot. However, I have (in the distant past) sat through invitations where a preacher emphasized happiness as a reason for coming to Christ. Like it's a benefits package.

I am content, in an odd sort of way, to sit through Mass and cry occasionally. Not necessarily because of the beauty and goodness of God overwhelms and comforts me, or because I am repentant (although I have cried for those reasons, too). Sometimes life is awful.

When happiness makes its way around again, I'm all for it. I don't take this anymore as a sign that I'm "right with God", than I would say when I am depressed that I am in "grave sin". I might be in grave sin in either case! It's a practical attitude considering my mental illness.

MJ said...

Growing up in the Bible belt I know that it was always assumed that Christians were happy and non Christians might be enjoying their flesh, but deep inside they were very sad.

Yeah, I guess you are right if you have never experienced something, it is hard to miss it.

pennyyak said...

Yes, I used to assume they were all deeply unhappy too (I'm sure some of them are). Sorry, I just realized how long that first comment was. I'm often not concise.