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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Human or Superhuman Happiness?

This week I have two seemingly disparate but related articles from Belief Blog. The first is what I found more compelling and could almost subsist on its own as a thought experiment on the survival of religion as a social cohesive: that is, something that enabled society to flourish, indirectly and some more directly connected to the phenomenon of an institution of sacrality. In short, the article expresses a thesis that has probably been around since Emile Durkheim in some form or another. His thesis was, and I paraphrase from rough memory, that religion was a way for people to feel accepted and part of an in-group. Of course, sociologists of religion are different from say, philosophers of religion, but the study is similar in investigating religion from an outsider’s perspective. But sociologists would study religion’s function instead of its substance, which might be more what
philosophers do in studying faith.

The study has two detailed points that show a connection of being religious with being happy. The first is the sense of community and having friends in one’s religion. This of course has a justified connection, but one can present various other examples of this kind of feeling of belonging in any activity that involve a group of people sharing a common interest. Even a group of Dungeons and Dragons players could be said to have that sense of happiness, but it wouldn’t be connected to a religious activity or community (though some would argue it is, but that’s another article). This connection seems only somewhat relevant when one can consider many other examples of communities that make people feel like they belong.

The second point is more concerned with religiosity and the identity it creates. The argument is that the particularly strong sense of distinction that religious beliefs and community give one are what make people happier. The fact that the person feels like they are part of something bigger is the first example that comes to mind, but just the ethical commandments enforced by the religion might suffice in making someone feel like they are part of something with a higher calling or makes a difference in the world. Again, one could suggest that there are equivalents, though not necessarily to the extent that religion colors more of a person’s worldview: political parties come to mind. But anything with an admirable goal behind it can be said to draw people in and create a sense of contentment and fulfillment, albeit there is always the argument that religion promises bigger rewards and brings people together in a more involved sense than simply voting and talking about the big issues of policy. The big danger, of course, with speaking about religious identity is distinguishing between a cult of personality and a cultus of worshipping the divine. The latter is permissible, even with philosophical disagreements being considered. Religious communities can be said to be the best motivation for many to actually act in charitable and compassionate ways. But it also seems disappointing that people need an institution’s approval or support to do things that others have done without any compulsion from outside themselves and their consideration of the other that suffers as they do. This leads in some sense to the other topic of interest that the second article speaks of.

Evangelical author, Philip Yancey, who was in a car wreck three years ago and nearly died because of complications from a neck injury, speaks in his new book about the relevance of belief in God in a world with such abject suffering and trepidation as exists across the globe, from famine to natural disasters to persecution of Christians in hostile countries, such as in the Middle East. The problem he points out is that there is a kind of distance religion seems to create between the believer and God. Christians in China, according to Yancey, pray not for God to take away the suffering, but to help them bear the suffering, since there isn’t as much hope in their minds for any kind of fix to the problems of persecution of Christians that exists in China. In some sense, Chinese Christians might be said to have a deeper relationship with God in affirming their dependence on God in some sense. From what I understand of the Christian faith, this is a pretty important affirmation, but is radical in consideration of what can be said to be radical individualism in Western thought. The idea of complete dependence scares us, so we have to alter our paradigm to allow for the notion of God encouraging independence in some way, even if they also believe in a doublethink way that they must be dependent on God for their salvation. With this in mind, Yancey references Alcoholics Anonymous and their more decisive claim that people have to admit they have failed in some areas of life and need the aid of others.

While I’d strongly disagree that we need God to help us with our problems of addiction and aversion, I can agree that we need to admit our failures and ask for the help of others in facing the troubles we encounter in daily life. In this way, perhaps religion has a benefit in drawing people together to aid their fellow human in their moments of suffering, to comfort them in loss, to rejoice with them in gain and to share some feeling of a similar road they’re all walking on. But one should approach religion with a mind of discernment and not a willingness to take any answer that presents itself as the solution to your problems. The idea of “faith seeking understanding” requires a complementary proverb that “discretion is the better part of valor” Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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