A Framework for Secular Happiness

(L to R) Candace Vogler, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Jennifer A. Frey; debating 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 1 of 3 and features Jennifer A. Frey. The accompanying audio of the debate (below) was recorded by the Thomistic Institute.

Our question is, “Can we have happiness without religion?” It’s not a perennial question, as secularism is a relatively new-fangled way of thinking and living for human beings. But it is a question for us—especially those of us living in North America and Europe, where “none” is the second largest religious affiliation, an affiliation whose numbers continue to grow as more traditional ones decline. It’s also a deeply practical and existential question that affects how we organize our lives and understand ourselves. Obviously I am not going to give a definitive answer this afternoon, but I would like to provide something like a framework for addressing the question, and I’ll tentatively put forward the claim that there is such a thing as non-trivial, relatively stable happiness for secular people of goodwill, and that this sort of happiness will seem to these people to suffice given their other beliefs and commitments about humans and their place in the natural world.


Furthermore, I think it’s relatively easy to see that this secular happiness is genuinely worth pursuing, and we can say of the persons who manage to attain such happiness that they are good and decent people who are living well on the whole. Whether such persons are living the best sort of human life possible is not a question I will attempt to answer, since any true answer will depend on whether God really does exist (not my topic, thankfully). My claim is more limited, but still worth insisting upon: We can say that secular people might be robustly happy without having to say that they are the happier than religious people, or that theirs is the happiest sort of life imaginable.

In order to argue for this position, I first need to get clear about our basic terms. Let’s start with religion, and I what I don’t mean by it.


First, I don’t mean organized religion in the sense that picks out a body of doctrine and practice that is established and enforced by some hierarchical or bureaucratic form of institutional management or control.  Second, I don’t mean religion in the sense that picks out some comprehensive philosophical or theological doctrine that attempts to answer questions lie, “How ought I to live?” or “What should I believe?” or “What is the meaning of life?”   Third, I don’t mean religion as an object of speculative inquiry, as we encounter it in the secular university, especially in departments of religious studies, psychology, or anthropology. And finally, I don’t mean religion to refer to quasi-mystical experiences of the ineffable or the transcendent—the stuff of backpacking trips in the mountains where one feels at peace with the universe or connected to all things.


I have no quarrel with these uses of the term ‘religion’—they are perfectly legitimate and familiar. I just happen to find them useless for addressing our question so I want to set them aside.


Instead, I want to focus on religion in a less familiar but I think ultimately important sense: as a virtue that is defined by certain acts that render what is due to the source of all being—i.e., God—grasped under the description, the “first principle of creation.” (ST II-II 81.a3) Religion in this sense is sometimes called “true religion,” and was classically understood as a moral virtue whose intelligibility came from shared practices of worship and devotion.


Talking about religion as a virtue is important to our question, since I take it that the virtues are necessary for any genuine, relatively stable, non-trivial sense of human happiness. The philosophical tradition that I spend my time defending (the broadly Aristotelian tradition) treats virtue as a stable disposition to act in certain ways that make its possessor good by making his actions good. The virtues perfect a man’s natural human powers, thereby allowing him to attain genuine human goods in common with others—goods such as family, friendships, and knowledge—and in attaining these goods to live well and experience happiness.

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