On Happiness, or, Positive Atheist Philosophy #4,626

So what does it mean to be happy?

There’s been an interesting discussion over at Daylight Atheism. A thought- experiment, posing the question: If you could hook yourself up to a happiness machine, would you do it?

On the surface, if there’s no God to please and all we have is this life, it seems like there should be no reason not to. If there’s no ultimate exterior meaning, and we create our own meaning for our own lives, then why shouldn’t that meaning be “hooking myself up to a happiness machine until I die”?

And yet most people in the conversation wanted nothing to do with that hypothetical machine. (Or, at most, they could see using it only rarely, or only under extreme circumstances such as debilitating terminal illness.)

I was going to comment; but my comment kept going and going, and got too long for a comment on somebody else’s blog, and eventually morphed into… well, into this piece.

So. On the topic of a happiness machine.

I want to talk about my experiences with heroin.

I’ve never been a heroin addict, or anything even close to a heroin addict. But I have taken it, more than once. In my early twenties, I took heroin about six or eight times, over the course of about three years.

And the experience was about as close to a pleasure machine as I can imagine. It was more than just the complete absence of pain and unpleasantness… although it certainly was that. It was more than just a total sense of relaxation and peace… although it certainly was that. It was more than just the dissolving into a misty darkness of all problems and worries… although it certainly was that. It felt like everything was okay, like everything was right with my life and the world. There was one point during one of my experiences when I got nauseated and threw up… and throwing up was perfectly okay. Sure, on the whole I would have preferred to be doing something other than throwing up… but throwing up was okay, too. Everything was okay. Everything was more than okay. Everything was right.

It seems like it should have felt fake or plastic — it was a drug, after all — but it didn’t. At the time, at least, it felt richly, deeply satisfying. It felt like I was melting into the universe, like I was profoundly connected with the very essence of goodness. It felt like the way you feel after you’ve had unbelievably amazing sex for hours. Filled with pleasure in every pore of your body, and without any need or desire for anything more. It felt like this was how life should be, for everyone, all the time.

It was as close to a pleasure machine as I can imagine.

And I was extremely wary of it.

I was careful not to take the drug very often. Not just “never twice in the same week,” but “never twice in the same month,” and never more than two or three times a year. I was careful not to seek it out, but only to take it when the opportunity fell into my lap by chance.

And even so, it scared me. I loved it, but it scared the crap out of me. I knew it was a pleasure I had to treat with extreme caution; that if I let it become even remotely a regular part of my life, I could be in big trouble.

I had one particular experience, in which I’d felt amazing the day that I took the drug… and really, really shitty the day after. Not physically shitty — I wasn’t going through withdrawal or anything — but emotionally shitty. I was going through a difficult time in my life, and the loss of that “everything is right and okay” feeling felt unbearable. Heroin felt right; not being on heroin felt wrong. And thank Loki in Valhalla, that spooked the hell out of me. I was able to recognize that as The Obviously Wrong Way To Look At Things. I never took the drug again after that.

I had access to a pleasure machine. And I didn’t want it. I wanted it at most maybe two or three times a year; and ultimately, I didn’t want it at all.

So this, I think, is my point:

Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.

I can’t remember now where I read this, but I’ve seen studies showing that, while people often think that what makes us happy is lying on a beach with a drink in our hand doing absolutely nothing (or something along those lines), that isn’t in fact what makes us happy. That’s nice for a little while, but it gets boring fast. What actually makes us most happy is working on something that engages us. An activity that’s difficult and challenging, but within our capabilities. An activity that we care about, and that we can lose ourselves in. What makes us happiest is engaging in an activity that shuts up our chattering, nattering, critical inner voice, and lets us just do, and just be.

It doesn’t have to be a work activity necessarily. It can be, of course — I get it sometimes with writing, when it’s going really well, when I lose all track of time, when the pipeline between the dark pond of my brain and the bright world of words on a screen is flowing like blood through a healthy artery — but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dancing. Reading. Sex. Good conversation. Playing music. Listening to music: not passively and in the background, but really listening. Rock climbing (or so I’ve heard). Whatever. If we care about it and find it totally engaging of our consciousness, then that’s what makes us happy.

I think about the peak experiences I’ve had in my life: the non- heroin ones, the moments of blissful, ecstatic atheist transcendence and peace. And while, on a purely visceral level, heroin may have been more pleasurable, the other experiences were far more satisfying. I felt replenished afterwards, not drained. I felt strengthened for the difficult and tedious tasks ahead of me, not saddened and burdened by them. I felt like something had been added to me, like I had become larger and richer and more complex; not like something had passed through me and then disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a memory and a longing for more.

Heroin gave me pleasure. These other experiences made me happy. And I’d rather be happy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against pleasure. Pleasure is important, too. Pleasure can also connect us with our deeper selves and the world around us. (And for the record, I’m not anti-drug, either. While I do think drugs should be approached with caution and good information — and while I think heroin in particular is a serious minefield — I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking the occasional vacation from your usual state of consciousness.)

And I’m not saying that I’ve found the secret key to happiness, which I’m revealing in this 1,417- word blog post. I haven’t.

I’m saying this: I think that a happiness machine, pretty much by definition, wouldn’t make us happy. Not for long. Not unless it magically replicated the experience of engaging with a meaningful and challenging activity in the world around us. The experience would begin to pall. The human brain being what it is, we’d either become addicted to it — which isn’t any fun — or the experience would lose its charm. Happiness isn’t about capturing a frozen moment of perfect time. Happiness, by definition, is about moving forward through time, and through the world.

And more to the point, I’m saying this:

One of the most common critiques of atheism is that, if there’s no God and no external meaning to our lives, then we have no reason to do anything other than selfishly pursue our own happiness. So I’m saying this: The pursuit of happiness is not selfish. Happiness is not about sucking up as much pleasure as you can. Happiness is about engaging with the world, and being intimately connected with it. The things that make us genuinely happy — work, hobbies, family and friends — are, on the whole, the things that make us good. They are the things that make life richer and better: not just for ourselves, but for the world that we’re connected with.

On Happiness, or, Positive Atheist Philosophy #4,626

And Now, A Brief Pledge Break

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And Now, A Brief Pledge Break

Atheism and the Argument from Comfort

“But religion offers people comfort. It makes people’s lives easier. Why is it so important to you to convince people that it’s wrong? Why are you trying to take that comfort away?”

Today — inspired by a comment from Kim — I want to take on what I call “the argument from comfort.” Or what Ingrid, who at times is a bit more of a hard-ass than me, tends to refer to as “the argument from wishful thinking.”

It’s an argument that tends to drive atheists batty… since it’s not, in fact, an argument. It’s an emotional defense for hanging onto an argument that’s already been lost.

But more on that in a moment.

Woman submit
My first response to the argument from comfort would be: Religion doesn’t universally offer comfort. In fact, it very often doesn’t offer comfort. How much comfort does religion give to abused wives who are instructed by their religious leaders that it’s their duty to stay in their abusive marriage? To girls who’ve had their clitorises cut off because their religion requires it? To twelve year old rape victims being stoned to death for adultery? To people with AIDS in Africa who were denied access to condoms because the churches think condoms are sinful? To people being driven out of their villages, and even killed, because some preacher decided they were a witch? (No, I don’t mean in the 17th century — I mean today.)

You don’t even have to go to those extremes. How much comfort does religion offer to young children who are raised in terror of being burned and tortured in Hell? To older children who are taught that their schoolmates will burn in Hell because they belong to the wrong religion? To teenagers who hate themselves because they’re gay, and they’ve been taught that God despises them for it? To troubled married couples being counseled by priests and ministers and rabbis… who have no training in counseling or therapy, and who base their advice on religious dogma? To sick people being taught that God will heal them if they pray hard enough and have enough faith… and thus, by implication, that if they don’t get better, it’s their fault? To old people near death, who live in terror that their children and grandchildren are going to burn in Hell because they left the faith? To anybody at all, of any age or situation, who’s asking hard questions about their faith and gets told by their religious leaders simply to stop asking?

But maybe I’m being too hard-assed. If someone is defending their religion by saying how much comfort they get from it, blasting its horrors is certainly fair… but it may not be the most effective rhetorical gambit in the world. It’s likely to just put the believer on the defensive, and entrench them even further in their beliefs.

So that brings me to Argument #2: Atheism has its own comforts to offer.

Read some stories of deconversion. Many atheists do go through a dark night of the soul (or rather, a dark night of the soul-less) when they’re giving up their religion. I certainly did. But they generally come through on the other side. And they generally come through happier, feeling like a burden has been lifted.

Atheism offers us the comfort of knowing that we can shape our own lives, and don’t have to rest our fate in the hands of a god whose ways can at best be describes as “mysterious.” It offers the comfort of not having to wonder what we did wrong, or why we’re being punished/ tested, every time something bad happens. It offers the comfort of experiencing the world as shaped by a stable and potentially comprehensible set of physical laws, rather than by the capricious whim of a creator who’s theoretically loving but in practice is moody, short- tempered, and wildly unpredictable. It offers the comfort of being intimately connected with the rest of the universe, rather than somehow set apart from it. It offers the comfort of being able to make our own moral judgments, based on our own instincts and experiences, rather than trying to reconcile the outdated and self- contradictory teachings of a centuries- old religious text… or trying to second- guess the wishes of an invisible and imprecise deity.

And it offers the comfort of being able to see the world as it is, to the best of our abilities, without having to ignore or rationalize every experience that contradicts our faith.

Speaking from personal experience: The comfort I once got from my belief in an afterlife always felt a little shaky… since there was always a part of me that knew I was basing my belief on wishful thinking. Letting go of that self- deception has been a tremendous comfort. In the face of hardship and death, the comfort I get from my humanist philosophy isn’t as easy or simple as the comfort I once got from my belief in a world-soul and an afterlife… but it’s a whole lot more solid.

And I will also point, as I have so many times in this blog, to the example of Europe. Many countries in Europe — France, England, Holland, the Scandinavian countries — have very high rates of atheism and agnosticism… and they’re not all walking around in the depths of despair. They’re doing pretty well, actually (or as well as anybody is doing in the current lousy economy). They seem to have found a way to find comfort in the world, even in the face of death and other hardships, without needing to believe in God or an afterlife.

Now, as Ingrid points out: Death is something of a special case. The case for hard-nosed realism over comforting self-deception generally relies on the assumption that it’s better to know the truth, because then you can act more effectively to solve the problem at hand. Death, however, is a problem that can’t be solved. Death is not a problem that can be fixed or alleviated if we just have the courage to deal with its challenges head-on. Death is a problem that simply has to be faced, and accepted.

But even so, I would still argue for hard-nosed realism over comforting self-deception.

I would argue it because the way you face the unsolvable problem of death makes a difference in how you live your life. If you live according to the assumption that the single most important thing you can do in this life is to please God so you can go to Heaven when you die… you’re going to live your life differently than if you think this life is the only life we have, and we therefore have to make the most of our opportunities and create as much joy as we can for ourselves and one another while we’re here.

And if atheists are right, and there is no God and no afterlife, then all the time spent trying to appease a non-existent God and reach a non-existent blissful afterlife is just wasted time. Unless it’s time spent doing something that you’d find moral and valuable anyway, even if you didn’t believe in God… then the comfort found in religion doesn’t come free. It has a cost: the cost of wasted lives, bad decisions based on a false premise.

And if a believer is making the argument from comfort… then they are essentially admitting that the premise they’re basing their comfort on is false.

Which brings me to Number Three. Or rather, it brings me back around to where I started.

And that’s this:

The argument from comfort is not an argument.

It is a sign of desperation.

It is a last- ditch effort to hang on to an argument that the believer knows in their heart — and that they even know in their head — has already been lost.

I mean, if your big argument for religion is, “Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but wouldn’t it be nice if it were true? Doesn’t it make our lives easier to believe that it’s true?”… then you have essentially conceded the argument. It’s not an argument for why religion is correct. It’s not even trying to be an argument for why religion is correct. It’s an argument for why it’s okay to believe something that you know is almost certainly not true, but that you can’t imagine living without.

So, from a rhetorical point of view: If someone is making the argument from comfort? IMO, that’s the time to stop making arguments for why atheism is more plausible than religion. They already know that. They’ve admitted as much.

Safety net
That’s the time, instead, to start softening the landing. That’s the time to start pointing out the comforts that atheism does have to offer (like the ones I talked about in #2 above). That’s the time to start pointing out positive atheist and humanist philosophies. That’s the time to start pointing out all the atheists, in history and living today, who have led happy, productive, meaningful lives. That’s the time to start talking about the different ways that atheists find meaning and joy and peace in their lives, without a belief in God or an afterlife. That’s the time to start talking, not about why religion is incorrect, but about why it’s unnecessary.

That’s the time to stop making arguments, and to start offering comfort.

Other pieces you may want to read:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises
The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions
Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason
“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes
The Sameness of Imagination, The Astonishingness of Reality: Thoughts on Science and Religion
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Atheism and Hope
The Human Animal: An Atheist’s View of People and Nature
A Safe Place to Land: Making Atheism Friendly for The Deconverting

Atheism and the Argument from Comfort