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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Don’t Be Happy

<;I used to pray before I went to bed every night. I’d close my eyes, flash each of my family members before the projector in the mind’s eye, and murmur: “I love you mom, please keep mom safe. I love you grandpa, please keep grandpa safe, I love you gramma, and so forth.” Then, I’d move on to regions of conflict (“please, God, bring peace to Palestine, bring peace to Darfur…”) before asking for blessing over the whole world.

This began after 9/11. You could certainly view praying simply as a way of coping with the shock of the attacks, cajoling my consciousness in bad faith to believe an expression of gratitude and longing might be rewarded with a tranquil existence for myself and my immediates. Religion as anthropomorphism: “Man projects into heaven what he would like to see realized on earth.”

A psychoanalytic approach to interpreting religious expression didn’t originate with Marx but I’m going to pick on him anyway because his critique of religion was pretty central to shaping contemporary attitudes. According to Marx, religion is both true and false. It is true insofar as it is an expression of human suffering, a “sigh of the oppressed creature in a hostile world, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.” However, it does nothing to actually alleviate the individual’s miserable condition. Its soothing nature prevents the revolutionary action necessary to create change in social structures. Every minute you spend praying is one you could be spending fighting the system. Thus, it is a way that empowered classes keep the lower ones in a state of oppression. Religion, Marx says, permits an experience of “illusory happiness” that simultaneous prevents the attainment of “true happiness.”

The weakness of Marx’s argument is that he could not conceive of religion as anything other than a means to an end already revealed. He rails against the alienating affects of mean-ends logic that modern capitalism inculcates yet dogmatically views religion as nothing other than a tool for achieving a measure of happiness by alleviating suffering.

Today, public discourse – especially in the social sciences – is still haunted on occasion by Marx’s specter. It’s near impossible for many people to think of religion as something other than simply a technique for happiness or health for those too weak to handle staring into the proverbial abyss. When Lent was approaching this year a friend of mine remarked that people shouldn’t need a special holiday to give up bad habits – as if the holiday was merely a strategy for the self-improvement of those lacking the discipline to act properly year round.

Many articles float around the internet nowadays with a pitch something like this: “Many people adhere to religion for the sake of their souls, but it turns out that regular participation in faith-based activities is good for the body and mind, too. Here are some of the ways that religion can make people happier and healthier.”

We now can study the positive affects of mediation on brain. We can even use electroshock therapy to turn believers into unbelievers or return faith to the faithless. But correlation doesn’t equal causation, and the ability to control doesn’t mean the achievement of understanding.

We are perfectly willing to notice that religion does violence to various groups, but we can hardly imagine it being something painful to an individual (or if we do notice an internal struggle, we write it off as a symptom of repression). Our social science looks stupid however when it tries to explain the doubts of a Pascal, the angst of Kierkegaard, the compassion of Jesus…

Over break, a friend posted an Upworthy video titled “What The Hell Do People Believe In If They Don’t Believe In God? This Guy Has One Heck Of An Answer”. In it, narrator Stephen Fry begins by stating the question “How can I be happy” Some people, he says, answer this by believing in a higher purpose or larger cosmic plan in which their place is waiting to be discovered. He contrasts this with the “humanist” perspective, which holds that there’s no obvious purpose to the universe. “Meaning is not something out there waiting to be discovered, but rather something that we create.”

Fry’s spiel is a pop version of Sartre’s existentialism, and Sartre, like Marx, dooms man to only a partial glimpse of reality because he allows objects to be revealed to man only in so far as they are the raw material for our own fashioning and manipulation. The meaning of other people and objects are reduced to the meaning contained in our personal relationships to them (which we control ourselves), and so that which is different about them isn’t allowed to shine through.

Fry lists examples of places where humanists might find meaning (he tellingly switches from “create meaning” to “find meaning” without explanation). Some of these include cooking, savoring wine or a new food or watching soap operas. “The time to be happy is now,” he concludes. I can’t watch this and not be reminded of Zarathustra’s description of the Last Man, who believes he has invented happiness and blinks.

Nothing against Pharell, but when being “happy” has become the goal of life and happiness entails watching soap operas (or Netflix, Youtube, etc…) you can’t help but understand – which is not to say condone – where modern religious extremism comes from.

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