Last Sunday evening we took time to consider eternity. We thought of the great verse of Ecclesiastes“He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (3:11)”.
Taking time out to consider how little you are in the presence of something great is one of the comforts of religion advocated by the atheist Alain de Botton. Unlike Richard Dawkins, he wishes to gain the benefits of religion without compromising his disbelief in its claims. He argues that religion has some strong undeniable utilitarian benefits and should be accessed by all people including atheists. Like Augustus Comte, the 19th century father of sociology, de Botton wants to have a religious temple and ceremonies without the theistic beliefs. Here are some of his beliefs:
· “Religion is full of useful, interesting, consoling ideas that could be of appeal even to someone who has absolutely no interest in being a believer.”
· Religion “builds community and unity by reminding people there are things greater and bigger than ourselves.”
· “What most religions do is they take people and they put them in a place, and they say, “You are very small in the larger perspective – in the cosmos, in the eyes of God,” whatever it is. Religion relativizes us; makes us small.”
· “Being made to feel small by something amazing – religious people would call that God, but you could call that the universe or nature or the ocean – it has a really calming effect on us, and we don't do it enough. We tend to live in cities, where the achievements of other humans dominate, and where we slowly lose our minds to envy and anxiety until something can just pull us out and reintroduce a wider timeframe and a wider sense of space.”
But he was not the only advocate of religious utility to be publicised or published in this last week. The Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed also wrote of the need for religion and family. “Western society has had little success in recreating institutions and forms of solidarity to replace those that declined in importance in the past 100 years, such as the family or the church.” He continued: “For all our freedom and wealth, one of the key difficulties of life in the modern West – where tradition, religion and community have been so horribly stripped bare – is making sense of our lives when there are so few rules about how to live.”
And it is not just the atheist and the psychiatrist who see the problem. The economist Ross Gittins wrote of the quest of clerics and philosophers, which is now troubling economists and psychologists – the meaning of life. As happiness has been the assumed goal of an atheistic society, scholars are asking the utilitarian question of what best produces it. Their answers are slowly developing as they firstly recognize that “happiness’’ as a goal, or word describing the goal, is not very satisfactory. The preferred word is the much wider concept of ‘wellbeing’. Secondly, the psychologists have moved from the therapeutic model of seeing their discipline as helping the disabled, to a ‘positive’ model of helping everybody’s wellbeing. Thirdly, they have been working to describe, identify and index this wellbeing as well as studying what produces it. Referring to the work of Professor Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, Ross Gittins lists the elements of wellbeing as:
- positive emotions
- positive relationships.
Mr Gittins agrees with the importance of positive relationships but rightly has a problem with seeing them as a way to produce wellbeing. He concludes his article: “Seligman says ''other people are the best antidote to the downs of life and the single most reliable up''. No doubt, but that sounds a bit self-centered. For relationships to be ''positive'' they have to be two-way; you have to give as well as get. Whatever you call it – happiness, wellbeing, flourishing – it won't work if it doesn't have relationships at its core. That's what we keep forgetting.”
Quite right! For a relationship to be genuinely beneficial, it must be genuine and not just for the benefits.
It is a similar problem with Prof. Seligman’s earlier observations about optimism and pessimism. He saw and documented that optimists do better than pessimists on every index of life, except their grasp of reality. It is a sad observation and quite worrying if you ponder it at any length. But the consequence for utilitarians is that if they want the benefits of optimism they must lose their rationality. Apparently there is no rational basis for optimism.
But do church people have better wellbeing outcomes? This week CNN reported a Gallup survey of 676,000 people, which demonstrated “a strong positive relationship between religiosity and wellbeing”. And “those who identified as not religious, atheist or agnostic finished at the bottom of the scale”.
And so we come back to the importance of church and family. These bring benefits of wellbeing that even the atheists can see. According to the Gallup survey, the benefits flow irrespective of the religious faith being followed, but not to the unbelievers.
Wellbeing is the bi-product of a lifestyle not its purpose. Indeed these benefits are not available for those who seek to manufacture them – pretending to be friends to gain friendship, pretending to be optimists to succeed, pretending to worship something you do not believe in.
How sad it is to see clever people struggling to understand the obvious. How apt is Ecclesiastes in its description of the human condition. God has placed eternity in our hearts but not so that we can fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end. For as the New Testament says: “in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:21). For it is the “fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10).