Secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. Discuss [40]

Many secularists claim that Christianity is a source of unhappiness, both to individuals and to societies.  For examples, Freud claimed that religion is an “individual obsessional neurosis” which has the potential to cause great unhappiness, causing people to repress their feelings and urges in an unhealthy way.  Dawkins and Hitchens claimed that religion is at what Dawkins called “the root of all evil” in the world, causing conflict between individuals, groups and even whole countries, leading to death and destruction.  Nevertheless, Christian apologists and social scientists have defended religion, claiming that – on balance – it is a source of happiness and not unhappiness.  Feuerbach pointed out how religion makes people and societies happier, being a form of wish-fulfillment.  History has shown that irreligious societies are even more subject to social unrest and conflict than religious ones; take communist Russia and China as examples of that.  Further, Pascal and James argued that faith provides hope and benefits in this life sufficient to make it worth being religious without evidence of the object of faith.  Recent social surveys agree, suggesting that faith adds years to healthy life-expectancy, while also lowering one’s chances of divorce and other misery-inducing experiences.  It follows that it is fair to say that secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Firstly, Freud did argue that religion is an “individual obsessional neurosis” which has the potential to cause great unhappiness, causing people to repress their feelings and urges – and particularly their sexuality – in an unhealthy way.  Yet even Freud acknowledged that religion can be positive for individuals, helping to develop their conscience so that they can function in society, and for societies as a whole in ensuring that people work together and observe rules which can’t be enforced.   In The Future of an Illusion (1927) Freud referred to religion as “perhaps the most important item in the psychical inventory of a civilization”, arguing that Religion provides a defence against “the crushingly superior force of nature”  Later, in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) Freud develops Feuerbach’s argument, suggesting that religion could be explained by the subconscious fulfilling the human desire for “a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded…” which stems from a childish fear of the unknown and things ending. This shows that even for Freud, a secularist, religions like Christianity perform a valuable function for individuals and societies in helping people to cope with the human condition.  While Freud concludes The Future of an Illusion by stating that all religious beliefs are “illusions and insusceptible of proof…”  he examines the issue of whether, without religion, people will feel “exempt from all obligation to obey the precepts of civilization”. He notes that “civilization has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers” in whom secular motives for morality replace religious ones; but he acknowledges the existence of “the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed” who must be “held down most severely” unless “the relationship between civilization and religion” undergoes “a fundamental revision”.  This suggests that religions like Christianity also increase social happiness in avoiding the need for punitive law-enforcement and subjugation of the working classes.  As Marx had suggested, “Religion is the opium of the masses” but for Freud, drugging the masses and using their addiction to religion as something that makes them happy (albeit temporarily and at a price) to manipulate them may well be kinder than the alternative!  It seems that Freud did argue that Religion causes some individuals great unhappiness, but acknowledged that on balance most individuals and societies benefit from it.  Further, Freud’s methodology has been widely rejected as pseudo-scientific, meaning that his claims and theories carry little weight today in any case.  Therefore, secularists who rely on Freud in saying that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Secondly, Dawkins did claim that religion is at “the root of all evil” in the world, causing conflict between individuals, groups and even whole countries, leading to death and destruction.  He also claimed that it is religion’s tendency to encourage people to accept authority and ignore reason which makes it dangerous.  The fact that it is “anti-intellectual leads young people to grow up with an “impoverished world-view” and “false-hope” while also making them susceptible to being radicalised and manipulated by unscrupulous leaders. Nevertheless, Dawkins is guilty of building up a “straw man” in his presentation of Christianity, in order to make his task in attacking it easier.  Few Christians are, as Dawkins suggests, Biblical Literalists, Young Earth Creationists or deniers of evolution… most embrace reason and deny Dawkins claims about their world-view being in any way impoverished.  For John Polkinghorne, it is Dawkins’ world-view that is impoverished, given that he closes his mind to all aspects of reality that can’t be measured through the empirical senses.  As Terry Eagleton pointed out in 2006 “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”  He continued, criticising Dawkins for relying on “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince” and claiming that “Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is… Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.”  Eagleton points out that Dawkins makes a series of unevidenced assumptions, such as: “Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly.” Also, as Alister McGrath pointed out in “The Dawkins Delusion” (2008) “either half my colleagues are enormously stupid, or else the science of Darwinism is fully compatible with conventional religious beliefs.”  It seems that Dawkins’ claims and theories about religion are no more credible than those of Freud, so those who rely on his arguments in saying that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong. 

Of course there are more credible arguments to support the claim that religions like Christianity are a source of unhappiness.  For example, the Secularization Hypothesis, which suggested that the less religious a society becomes, the more socially liberal and economically developed it becomes, was supported by a wide range of sociologists and their research through the 20th century.  In 1994 Jose Casanova wrote ‘The secularization theory may be the only theory which was able to attain a truly paradigmatic status within the modern social sciences… ‘ which goes some way to explain why countries such as Turkey embraced Programmatic Secularism as a means of developing their economies and so increasing social happiness.  Nevertheless, more recent studies suggest that societies lose-out when they abandon religion.  Charles Taylor in “A Secular Age” (2007) points out that secular belief effectively closes off whole areas of human experience so that “The door is barred against further discovery…” (p. 769) agreeing with John Polkinghorne that the spirit of scientific enquiry should lead people to be open to all sources of information, not only the five empirical senses.  Taylor also argued that “our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief” because “The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured.” (p. 727) Against the freedom from “unreasoning fears” there is a feeling of malaise, of something lost. Heroism is lost in the leveling down of aspiration through the adoption of shallow utilitarianism and there is no room for death.  In 2010 Jurgen Habermas agreed, in his essay “An Awareness of what is Missing”.  Habermas also described the effects of secularism as “a world flattened out by empiricism and rendered normatively mute” (p134) For Habermas, people in secular societies endure a particular form of anxiety, an “awareness of what is missing” which has a significant effect on their individual and social happiness. This anxiety manifests itself in being unable to deal with death; our lack of belief in an afterlife makes us easy to manipulate.  We act in the short-term and for immediate gain, feeling that what we do and are doesn’t really matter. We struggle with loyalty and commitment and to be unable to feel in solidarity with other human beings outside our immediate group. This makes acting together for the common good, such as to promote human rights or tackle climate change, increasingly difficult.  The arguments of Taylor and Habermas show that religions like Christianity are more a source of happiness than unhappiness. 

In conclusion, secularists who say that Christianity is a source of unhappiness are wrong.  Neither the old arguments of Freud nor the newer arguments of Dawkins stand up to scrutiny and even the secularization hypothesis, which once suggested that societies would be made happier – at least in narrow economic terms – by the decline of religion, is beginning to crumble.  A Taylor and Habermas observe, religions like Christianity are crucial components in both individual and social happiness, so that if they decline we quickly gain “an awareness of what is missing.”

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