Worldly Transcendence

Monday December 24, 2007


Next term, I am following up my ten week course on consciousness with a course on happiness, and I’m looking forward to the experience. As a result, I’ve been reading a fair amount on the subject of happiness, the most recent book being Richard Layard’s . Layard is an economist who takes happiness more seriously than wealth – or who takes wealth seriously only insofar as it supports happiness – and that makes him a somewhat rare beast (see his articles here), and his book is an easy read, but an insightful one.

One thing that struck me about the book is that Layard refers several times to belief in God as a contributing to happiness. If this is supported by a sufficient weight of empirical research, then this is an intriguing result for a more or less cheerful materialist such as myself.

Before looking at this claim more deeply, there are, however, three things that we should immediately be aware of. The first is the we cannot justifiably move from saying “belief in God is a factor that can contribute to happiness” to saying “belief in God is true.” The second is that, even if there is a correlation between belief in God and happiness, this does not mean that belief in God is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for happiness. And the third is that there may be goods other than personal happiness. It is conceivable that there could exist extremely happy zealots who are committed to making the lives of non-believers a misery; and if we say, “Well, they can’t be truly happy, then,” we have to also acknowledge that we need to look more closely at the idea of happiness behind these research findings.

There may, however, be something in Layard’s claim. Although I do not see that there is evidence for belief in God as either a necessary or a sufficient condition for happiness, some philosophers – reeling in the wake of Nietzsche’s supposed death of God – have proclaimed that what is left to us in a Godless universe is unmitigated grimness. In my last post, I mentioned Bertrand Russell’s claims that we lived in a universe of “unyielding despair”. Here, for the record, is the full quote:

That Man is the product of causes which had no preview of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the souls’s habitation henceforth be safely built

Need we choose between God and unyielding despair? I think not. We need to ask what particular role belief in God may perform within any particular life, and how this role may contribute to happiness. And here Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman’s book is useful. Drawing upon a much wider range of sources than that used by Layard, Peterson and Seligman lay out a set of “character strengths” that contribute to virtue and happiness. The list they give is as follows:

  • Wisdom and Knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

It is the last of these that I am interested in here because – although perhaps not a virtue (Owen Flanagan points this out, claiming that transcendence does not provoke any particular kind of action which would make it a virtue, whilst humanity, courage etc. do) – transcendence does seem to me to be, in some sense, necessary to ethics, well-being and happiness. But transcendence is not necessarily an otherworldly business of God, gods and strange, ethereal powers. We can have a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of transcendence. Seligman and Peterson give the following aspects of transcendence, which they understand as strengths that connect us to meaning and to a sense of the larger universe:

  • Appreciation of beauty and excellence (awe, wonder etc.)
  • Gratitude
  • Hope
  • Humour
  • Spirituality (sense of purpose, faith)

Appreciation of beauty, awe, gratitude, hope, a sense of purpose, humour… The list is a good one. These are things that are well worth having, and seem to me to be essential components of a happy life. But they are not things that need to be founded upon a belief in God or gods. Some of them may indeed be nurtured by some forms of religious belief and practice, but other forms of religious belief and practice may erode them. There are certain religious circles, for example, where humour is not exactly the order of the day.

If we understand transcendence in this broad sense, then perhaps it is not only a factor that contributes to happiness, but also a necessary condition of happiness. These are the roots that we need to nurture if we value happiness at all. We would do well to resist the gloomy atheism of Bertrand Russell, on the grounds that it lacks sufficient understanding of the psychological bases of a happy and flourishing existence. But that does not mean that God needs to be brought back into the picture. A worldly transcendence is transcendence enough.

# · Erin

Spirituality doesn’t even include God nessarily either. I left my non-denominational Christian church about 6 years ago and I have learned more about spirituality in those 6 years than in the 15 years of my membership in the church.

# · Will

Sorry, Erin, your comment was swallowed by an over-enthusiastic spam filter. I’ve now restored it.
Best wishes,

# · Paul Sunstone

Fortunately, human happiness does not depend on the existence of deity. It’s hard to imagine Russell’s “despair” as anything other than rhetoric.

# · J B Bell

The evidence that belief in God correlates with happiness does not appear to be well-supported. Richard Dawkins’s splended <i>The God Delusion</i> puts the wrecking ball to this idea, along with many other theist tropes. It’s also quite a fun read.

# · Will

You may be right. It seems that there is some dispute on the matter, which is why Dennett’s claim that these things need serious and sustained research is something I agree with. I haven’t read the Dawkins yet, but it’s on my list.
Best wishes,

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