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Truth Trumps Happiness
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PZ Meyers has a response to the Jonathan Haidt essay I blogged about a few days ago, and it nicely sums up a lot of my thoughts.

Here's the argument: Haidt says that "surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people," and then makes the case that we ought not to dismiss religion—it might well have something useful to tell us.

I've heard that same story often, and it does not convince. Note that the US is currently suffering the social and international consequences of its recent domination by the religious right, and that atheists are, if not an actively oppressed minority, a minority that is urged to be silent. I would be absolutely gobsmacked if surveys showed that we were happier than Christians about this state of affairs.

We also tend to be more isolated — how often have you heard the phrase, "I thought I was the only atheist around here!" — and we know that community is important to human health. There is no reason to assume that religion itself enhances health, or that atheism itself is a detriment: the difference lies in the minority status of one versus the other.

I think that's overly simplistic. I don't think the difference is explainable solely in terms of majority/minority status, though I'd agree that's part of the equation. I think there is a very real positive net psychological effect of believing in an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful entity that has your best interest at heart and who promises that you will really never die.

This is where Meyers' answer really works best:

I attended graduate school in Oregon at the time the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh had his commune in the state. On the news, we'd often see video of the smiling hairy guru going for his morning drive in one of his fleet of Rolls-Royces, and his acolytes would line the road, waving joyfully as he went by. They were ecstatic. If we are to judge the value and virtue of a "moral system" by the happiness of its followers, then the Rajneeshis were contesting for the pinnacle of radiant glee; interviews would always have them gushing over the Baghwan, and I'm sure that any survey would have shown them far exceeding the happiness quotient of us sullen, gloomy, miserable atheists.

Shall we assess the merits of any social institution by the professions of happiness of its followers? Is that what we want?

By my side right now, I have a small plush animal. If it were conclusively shown that beliefs in a god or religion were definitely beneficial in and of themselves, that humans needed this little kernel of worship in order to thrive a little better, and I said that my toy octopus was a god, lord and savior of us all, and if only you believed in him, you would gain an empirically demonstrable extra year of life and a quantifiable increase in your happiness, what would you do? Would you abandon one little piece of rationality and bow down before the toy? Would you even be capable of that level of credulity?

This is what I was trying to get at in my post about charity, and in also in my post about the problem with happiness as the ultimate moral yardstick.

Anyway, lots of good stuff in Meyers' comments, and Sam Harris' just above his. Have a look.

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