Religion and Happiness

Candace Vogler, at the debate with Jennifer A. Frey and Fr. Thomas Joseph White  on the topic “Happiness without Religion?” at the Catholic Center of NYU in September 2016.

This week we post the three arguments presented at the debate “Happiness Without Religion”, hosted by First Things and the Thomistic Institute at the Catholic Center of NYU. Today is part 3 of 3 featuring Candace Vogler. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.


I am doubly disadvantaged in a debate about happiness and religion and what, if anything, the two have to do with one another. First off, the term religion may cover a lot of very different forms of organized human activity, and I don’t know much about most of them. I know something about some forms of Christianity. I know a little about Judaism. I know a little about Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian syncretic religious practices, a tiny bit about a handful of Native American religious practices, and a very little bit about very small areas of Islam. I don’t know how to give a properly philosophical characterization of the nature of religion that seems applicable to all of these. And so, largely from ignorance, in discussing religion I will have in mind socially organized spiritual practice that tends to be monotheistic, whether or not it operates with a shared body of doctrine and whether or not its practitioners produce theology or philosophy in connection with their religious practices. The second place that I have a hitch is around questions about happiness.


Our topic is whether a (presumably mature) human being (presumably with her wits about her) needs religion in order to be happy—at least, happy in her embodied mortal life.


Now, happiness, as Philippa Foot once put it, “is a protean concept, appearing now in one way and now in another.”[1] So, having first restricted our constituency to mature and sane human beings, and having restricted my attention to the span between early adulthood and such time at the end of life as might be happy, it helps to try to wrestle happiness into a more definite sort of shape.


These days it is common among Anglophone philosophers to distinguish accounts of happiness that treat happiness as a psychological concept—perhaps having to do with positively charged emotional states, or with an overall sense of satisfaction with one’s life, or with a tendency to enjoy things, or with some favored combination of these—from accounts of happiness that stress human flourishing or thriving, which may or may not be associated with contentment or satisfaction, and need not involve any particularly sunny affective or emotional tone. Although thinkers far greater than I have held that people in general pursue happiness, it is not clear what sorts of things might be involved in pursuing happiness understood in any of the usual psychological senses (one worries that the quickest line of pursuit will be pharmacological). Neither is it clear that flourishing accounts are picking out a single sort of target to home in on. Suppose that I think that no one should be satisfied when much of her community is torn by violence and sunk in poverty. Flourishing, I think, will require engaging with my community in ways that are likely to be uncomfortable, unsatisfying, and possibly perilous as well. It could be objected that I have it all wrong about flourishing, but it is hard to deny that mine could be a good human life in the end—a life well-spent; a life well worth living. If so, then people can flourish without having a whole lot of feel-good.


In the more distant past, European philosophers have varied wildly in their accounts what happiness might be, on the understanding that happiness is supposed to serve as a name for what makes life good. Health, wealth, honor, sybaritic delight, ethically permissible satisfaction of all and only those of my desires that I welcome, internally peaceful and socially harmonious participation in pursuit of common good, faring well to exactly the extent to which I am acting well—all of these and more have been offered up as the kind of happiness that makes an adult human being’s life good.


Some will argue (with Aquinas and Augustine, and Fr. Thomas Joseph White) that health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight cannot possibly be the stuff of the kind of happiness that makes human life good. It has been common to insist that going for these things is a matter of failing to side with reason and become exactly like nonhuman animals. I think it’s a mistake to equate human sensuality with nonhuman animal experience. We should be so lucky! Our sensual lives are not easily separated from our lot as intellectual animals. Be that as it may, we are in the same boat with other animals in at least this sense: the goods of this world are transitory and contingent. According to authoritative sources that I respect, in seeking happiness, we humans seek something stable and lasting that cannot be taken from us.


As far as I know, when one is inclined to make this argument one discounts both a venerable Spartan sort of thought about it being a fine thing to go out in a blaze of glory on the battlefield, thereby securing one’s memory for all time, and also the less venerable idea that there’s a lot to be said for living fast and dying young. I am willing to bite those bullets.


Sticking to a different, venerable kind of thought, one might ask: What does it profit a man if he wins major athletic competitions (without doping), gains lucrative endorsements, fame, and ample opportunity for pleasure but loses his soul? The answer is supposed to be that it profits him not at all. But it is surely understandable that gaining what counts for someone as “the world” through sustained and persistent effort against significant odds will not look like nothing. And health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight have been human pursuits for a very long time.


Worse, if your way of making sense of why it is that people go for anything in a serious way is that they think that they are going for what will bring happiness—a Jeremy Bentham sort of thought that has been re-packaged by some contemporary neo-Aristotelians—then the fact of serious pursuit on the part of many people at least suggests that worldly goods have been the substance of a lot of actual pursuit of happiness. Worse yet, the witnesses to these supposedly vain efforts have not exactly turned away from such things in disgust upon seeing what happens when people get them. Yes—trying to be as shiny and pretty and well-liked as possible for as long as possible is hard work and the passage of time is never your best friend, but that all by itself shouldn’t suggest that people who are pretty and shiny and adored are going for the wrong thing. Serious scholarship, science, and work for social justice also take a lot of time and effort and never feel complete or lasting. That hasn’t made people turn up their noses at these pursuits, even though everyone in these areas knows that they are spending their lives going for stuff has a shelf life and seeking goals that they cannot achieve under their own steam.


Now, viewed through the lenses of even the kind of potted histories that I know, any tie that has connected health, wealth, honor, and sensual delight—or science, scholarship, and social justice, for that matter—to religious practice seems at best coincidental. It isn’t impossible that these things might line up. Take bliss, for instance. I could have ecstatic mystic experience that healed my body and brought wealth and honor and knowledge my way and put me in an excellent position to inspire collective work for common good in whichever field of human activity you favor. But I will be dancing in a fool’s paradise if I expect these things to come of my graceful, whirling acts of worship.


Let us leave ordinary health, sensuality, intellectual or social pursuits, and the stuff of worldly success to one side (noticing that, in doing so, we rule out things that many people have regarded as crucial for happiness in this life). Allow that, not only does it feel like there has to be more than finding a place for myself in a complex world, more than finding productive and rewarding outlets for my talents, more than any health or wealth or recognition that I might enjoy, more than success, more than friends and family—basically, more than the things that my people take to be worth having. Suppose that there really is more than this. And suppose that I want whatever that more is.


Is there a way to the elusive more through religious practice?


Obviously, the answer will depend upon the variety of religious practice in question and the character of the elusive more. Take Christianity, for instance. By the lights of the varieties of Christian religious practice familiar to me, it would be a strange thing to turn to Christianity for temporal happiness. In the revealed literature, followers are frequently told to expect to be reviled for their faith. All are charged with obedience to commandments that are hard to obey. All are charged with loving neighbors who are inconvenient and needy. All are expected to fail in doing what they are supposed to do, individually and collectively. And none are supposed to be content with failure. Religious practice is supposed to help nourish and build the faith that anyone will need if she decides to go in for Christianity in a serious way, and, in the early days, at least, there was not an obvious casual way offered for ordinary people who were understandably concerned about the more strenuous side of what was just called the way.


Now, I of course agree with Fr. Thomas Joseph that there is a crucial link between this kind of religion and happiness, and that if you accept the points of the linkage, you ought to conclude that it is, in fact, crucial for happiness. I am going to lay out the points a bit differently.


  • Human beings are intellectual, social animals and creatures in the first instance.
  • As intellectual, social animals they are, for whatever reason, disordered—what they seek they seek because it appears as a kind of thing it will be good to go for (as something that is good for a human being), their urges and feelings and appetites want to be reasonable, but rarely are; they want their lives, individually and socially, to make a kind of sense that lives rarely do; they cannot live long or well without significant social cooperation; they often find themselves at odds with their fellows; even when they agree that a way of addressing social tensions is desirable, they need not share a vision about how to order their social lives and pursuits to make things better.
  • As creatures, they have deep need not only to make sense of themselves, their lives, and each other, not only to find ways of discerning and pursuing genuine human good and avoiding what is genuinely bad—that is, to be right with themselves and right with each other on however large or small a scale you care to mention—but also to be right with the divine source of their lives and world.
  • Religious practice aims at providing established channels for helping people be right with themselves, with each other, and with divinity. Sound religious practice provides channels through which to pursue harmony in all of these relations but, insofar as religious practices are human institutions carried, held, transmitted, and engaged by human beings, they are not free of the kinds of disorder that marks human life generally.
  • For all that, religion is what we have to pursue the kind of harmony with each other and divinity that is a core human need, and seeking happiness in some way that cuts divinity out of the picture is going to be seeking one or another kind of fulfillment that will leave the spiritual need unsatisfied.


Basically, if you do not think that there is a core need to be right with divinity built into human life, and you notice that religious practice can be very hard and can make you unpopular, it is hard to see the link between religion and happiness, at least in terms of the varieties of religious practice I have encountered.


So you’ll notice that I am with Fr. Thomas Joseph and Aquinas, but with a couple of caveats for folks who are turned away from seeing any role for an essential tie to the sacred or divine in human life.


[1] Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 97.

 Listen to a recording of this event’s arguments and critiques on the Thomistic Institute’s SoundCloud.

Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and Director and Principal Investigator for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.