Robert Wright Might Not Get Godlessness/Does Wiseman Get Happiness?
Thursday’s Times included an excellent little piece by author Robert Wright, musing over our need for feeling and purpose. He concludes that simply having a feeling for purpose and meaning, an affinity for it, remains important even if we no longer have a need for a belief in it as some objective universal edict. As I’ve written before, I’m not sure that the concept of an objective “purpose” even makes much sense in any case: all purposes are someone’s purposes, and all the “meaning” you find in the world is inescapably going to be your judgment of what’s meaningful (even if that entails finding meaning in fulfilling the purposes of others, or of your God).
But Wright also, I think, makes a pretty common mistake in characterizing what apologists for atheism believe on this matter:
Which raises the question: If I no longer believe in a personal God, looking down and judging me, why do I still feel guilt over my wrongdoings and shortcomings? Why do I still want some father figure (a God, ideally, though a resurrected version of my dad would do) to pat me on the shoulder and tell me I’ve done O.K. and can now go play golf for a millennium or so? Is godlessness not, in fact, as some born-again atheists seem to promise, a path to happiness? And, anyway, where did this need for forgiveness and affirmation come from? (emphasis added)
I think most of the so-called “New Atheists” (Dawkins/Dennet/Harris) would all agree that if you want happiness, you need to go out and actually seek it in some specific manner, regardless of whether you believe in God or not. That is to say (piling on the double-negatives here): not seeking the particular path of religious belief is not, itself, an actual game-plan for finding happiness. Atheists tend to believe that the religious path is flawed for other reasons, regardless of whether it can make you feel happier and more fulfilled. But that doesn’t mean that they seriously believe that ditching religion is itself the equivalent to doing or achieving something really important and meaningful. Anymore than giving up an expensive hobby is itself a replacement hobby. Nope: that you need to go out and find on your own extra initiative.
Speaking of which, if you’re looking to do your part to increase worldwide happiness, the lovably quirky psychology prof. Richard Wiseman is running a proof-of-concept experiment this coming week that aims to do just that: all by applying a few cognitive exercises (simple behaviors and thought exercises that seem to increase people’s sense of well-being when practiced daily) and the hypothesis that happiness is contagious. Anyone can join in.