Believing what Makes Us Happy

I believe in God because I want to–because it makes me happy. It brings romance into my life. God is my original love interest. To me he is the most beautiful and fascinating person in the universe. He made me–I believe he did. I never want to be ashamed of loving him. We get along. The relationship has been stormy at times, but I feel much more secure now, knowing that he receives me for who I am, with no shadow of condemnation.

The funny thing is that there are atheists and Christians who could easily level the same criticism at my belief in God. Either party could say that my faith amounts to nothing more than making up an imaginary friend that makes me feel good about myself. Atheists might say that it is because I am afraid to face the hard reality of science. Christians might say that it is because I am afraid to face the hard reality of the Bible. Both groups might have a problem with me simply believing what I want to–my faith, they might argue, exists only in a fantasy realm.

Of all the ways that I could spend my time, replying to hypothetical criticism might not be the most productive–although my description of the Christian criticism is based on actual experience. In reality, the imaginary critics of my allegedly imaginary faith are just a foil to help me get at something I am trying to put into words. Yes, I do have intellectual reasons for believing in the God that I believe in, although it might be fair to say that my belief in God came first and shaped the development of my intellect. But what of that? I don’t want to get stuck in the false position of trying to justify myself, or convince anyone else that they are wrong. I do, however, want to say a word in favor of believing what makes us happy.

This is still an awkward place for me. It would certainly be fishy to argue that I should be able to believe whatever I want (because I’m right), while you should not be able to believe whatever you want (because you’re wrong). And I still can’t stomach the idea that we all have our own truth, and it doesn’t really matter. Reality is what enchants me. It is what I thirst for. I believe in theological reality the way I believe in mathematical reality, and possibly for the same reason: because it gives meaning to my experience. Mathematically, I am a Platonist: I believe that mathematical truth exists outside of the games we play with symbols–that, fundamentally, we discover math, not invent it. I believe the same theologically. I believe that Reality, Meaning, is the food of our beings. We live in the search for it; we live by the discovery of it. Contra Lessing, the search is not enough. Yet this is the very reason why we need to have the freedom to believe what makes us happy.

Both Science and the Bible, as two religions, provide only an illusion of objectivity. We all believe what we do in order to meet our own needs. And what is wrong with this? Our needs are legitimate. They are, perhaps, our best clues to reality. I would like to think that we believe the best we can, given the degree to which we have either been nurtured or rejected. If we have suffered any rejection that we have been unable to resolve in a healthy way, then we have our own emotional minefield to navigate, partially by means of our beliefs. We can only hope that, if our beliefs ever function more to put up razor wire than to clear the mines, then someday we will be able to return and revise them.

Therefore, while I want to talk about my beliefs, because they are interesting and exciting to me, I want it to be understood that what I believe about belief–my meta-belief, if you will–is that it both matters desperately what we believe, and that, for this very reason, you must have the freedom to believe differently than me. I believe in a Reality to which I do not have proprietary rights, and which I do not carry around in a Bible case.

If we can come to some broad agreement on what a thriving human life looks like, then it should also be possible to identify the beliefs that support and foster such a life. And I think that there is no reason why such a general agreement should not be possible. It is not particularly controversial, for example, that people are happy when they enjoy strong, close relationships with the people who are important to them, and when their lives are full of meaning and purpose. There may be less general understanding of what beliefs support this kind of life. This is where dogmatism, sacred or secular, may enforce counterproductive beliefs on large groups of people. Perhaps even more commonly, it is where beliefs used as coping mechanisms against emotional pain may do their job of protecting against further harm from some quarters, while causing great, long-term harm to our selfhood. For example, you might erect the belief that people are inherently untrustworthy in response to betrayal by someone who ought to have been trustworthy. While it may protect you from being hurt again in the same way, by keeping everyone at a distance who could ever have that opportunity, it will likely also cause you the great anguish of loneliness and isolation.

Since it is hard to completely avoid erecting some of these growth-stunting protective beliefs (as few of us grow up in thoroughly emotionally intelligent environments), the important question is more whether our beliefs are flexible, and allow for change. In the larger ecosystem of our worldviews, some beliefs function to protect, reinforce, or advance our worldview. Naturally, these beliefs tend to make us resistant to change, but it is also possible to learn meta-beliefs that encourage the growth and refinement of our worldview in response to new information (basically, a growth-mindset for our belief system). Here again, religious obscurantism, or scientific obscurantism (they amount to the same thing) can effectively harden a person’s worldview, making it nearly immune to healthy revision.

For this reason, I would describe the approach that I aspire to as a kind of Christian humanism. It is humanist in that it prioritizes what causes human life to flourish over the authority of a received canon. It is, however, a humanism that equally resists the oppression of an ideologically rigid materialism that reduces human experience to chemical phenomena.

Even if we were to grant the materialist premise, there would be a case for believing what makes you happy. If there is any kind of evolutionary advantage to happiness (as it seems that there is), then, even if what we believe is an illusion, it is a beneficent illusion. (Some might say that it is an illusion perpetrated by our genes to make sure that we reproduce!)

The Christian objection holds more weight: given the leave to believe what we will, are not our beliefs thoroughly colored by self-serving bias? Do we not believe whatever is convenient in order to better enrich ourselves and exploit our neighbors? This is, of course, not what I meant by believing what makes us happy. Self-serving fictions may indeed dominate our lives, but even a semi-reflective glance at happiness is not likely to associate it with ego triumphant. The percentage of people who actually lead their lives in accordance with the best generally available information on what makes for human happiness may be quite low, but this does not mean that good information on happiness is not in the common possession of humanity. There are numerous factors that can keep us from living reflectively, but they do not make total ignorance of our own condition normative.

Of course, this means that believing what makes us happy requires some degree of  philosophical effort from us. We are forced to reflect on what constitutes real happiness for ourselves, and what things help or hinder us in our pursuit of that happiness. That is simply part of the price of freedom from the dogmatism of either religious or secular culture.

At its finest, Christian thought has recognized the power of human desire as a homing instinct that helps us get closer and closer to the truth. Augustine’s Confessions may be a testament to the degree that guilt had warped Christianity long before we made it to the Dark Ages, but, partly because of Augustine’s transparent anguish, it is a profoundly human document. (Actually, The Shepherd of Hermas, written much earlier, in the second century, is evidence that Christianity was mired in schemes for sin management almost from the start.) The (rightly) immortal line from the Confessions, “For you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are not at rest until they come to rest in you,”  seems to articulate this homing of the heart as Augustine reflects on his odyssey through the conquests, from stolen pears to quackish professorships, that never satisfied his insatiable heart.

Desire, of course, is far from infallible–it is a heuristic. But the fear that drives us to search for an infallible method of living is a trap. If we have the courage to put down the illusion of objectivity, or the false refuge of externalizing authority in an inerrant handbook, we may become calm enough to realize that we still have many good, reasonably reliable heuristics to help us on our way. If making a mistake is not the end of the world, or our ticket to hell, then we may actually have a chance to learn a little more quickly from those mistakes, with less self-inflicted anguish.

Yes, I am agreeing with the self-help truism that it is beneficial for us to get in touch with what our hearts really want from life. I remain deeply affected by a severe religious absolutism that rages against any perceived threat to the “biblical” teaching that self is evil, and devalues or dismisses any intelligent and compassionate understanding of ourselves. I still identify with the war against the self. After all, our sense of justice is rightly offended by our own actions. But is the sanest response to hack the self to pieces, or to give it a chance to heal? If we want to put a stop to the harm that we perpetrate on other people, recognizing and being distressed by that harm is surely a first step (in accord with the classical idea of repentance). Our training in classical Christian thought, however, may hinder us from realizing that our behavior toward others inevitably mirrors what we are doing to ourselves, and that the best way to neutralize the violence in our nature is, as quickly as possible, to stop doing violence to ourselves.

Yes, we are going to make mistakes about what we really want, and what will make us happy. This does not mean that happiness is not a rationally intelligible thing that we can move toward. And it does not mean that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” That is simply wrong, no matter who said it. (Remember also that this it is an outdated translation of a phrase completely lifted from its context.) I protest, not against the Bible, but against the persistent attempt to weaponize the Bible in a war against common sense, and emotional health.

It is neither fun nor helpful to get lost in the swamp of indignation, regardless of whether it is against “paganism” or atavistic “Christian” theology. So, positively, what is the rationale for the idea that believing what makes us happy will at least get us closer to what is real? As hinted before, Christian thought at its best does provide us with a way of understanding this. For it envisions that God (and, therefore, Reality) is better than anything we can imagine. Our imaginations then become assets, not liabilities, in our journey toward reality. We are free to imagine the best that we can, knowing that, even if we make a mistake, the reality is even better. Not only that–it recognizes that believing what is good and beautiful can help make us good and beautiful people, and therefore people with clearer insight into what is truly good and beautiful. This virtuous cycle is what I am referring to when I a speak of desire as a heuristic, or, I might say, as a method of approximation–in almost a mathematical sense.

We certainly do need to exercise some caution in making the connection between what we believe and what we become. This is partly because of the venerable human tradition of using what we believe as a primary means of establishing our superiority over other people. This tradition is carried on faithfully in the Church today. In reaction to this, there is a current in contemporary Christian thought (and in the wider contemporary culture) that makes it sound like it doesn’t matter what you believe, only what you do. This, unfortunately, only obscures the intimate connection between believing and doing. What we believe sets the parameters for the world within which we act. It limits or multiplies our menu of thinkable actions. It normalizes or criminalizes everything we do.

Yes, it is a universal human foible to talk with delight about a truth that we see, and then fail miserably to recognize or rise to our occasion to act on it. But it is not so much this that is the catastrophic fault: it is the institutionalization of our hypocrisy, which happens because of our inability to face being wrong. If we can react to our own folly in both a realistic and compassionate manner, there is less chance of creating a permanent schism between our beliefs and our actions. It is also often true that our actions reveal deeper core beliefs that we were hitherto unconscious of, and which stand in the way of our nascent assimilation of healthier ones. For example, instead of being lost in guilt that I just treated my wife or child in a way inconsistent with what I am writing, I could use the opportunity to become aware of the sway that visceral fears, like the fear of life being out of my control, still have over me, and think rationally about what I can do about that.

It is pointless to try to answer all the objections that scientism or biblicism can make against human freedom. All that is really needed here is to paint a realistic picture of the humane alternative–the gradual, fallible, reliable approach to reality through learning what it is that supports our happiness, and how to cooperate with the healing of our selfhood. Yes, this does ask us to “dare something”, as George MacDonald says in his fine sermon on using our imagination to move beyond the narrow confines of biblicism. It asks us to dare to believe that reality is good, unbelievably good. And our fear of disappointment, based on past experience, is a real obstacle to this. But there is also good reason to hope that our desires are what they are because of a corresponding reality outside of ourselves. There are certainly many people who would rather not believe a “beneficent illusion”, who would rather face the worst if there is indeed bad news in answer to our longing for meaning. Yet the very fact that lovely people believe lovely things might give us more confidence that the lovely things are real.

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