…but is it the opiate of the masses?


The Choice of Heracles, Paolo di Matteis, 1712

What is it that makes a happy life? People have been ask­ing that for mil­len­nia and I have a few minutes while I wait to col­lect someone, so I might not have a com­pre­hens­ive answer. The reason I’m ask­ing is that Religion ‘linked to happy life’ is one of the most emailed stor­ies on the BBC News site today. I have to admit I’m sur­prised that there are so few responses to the story on Technorati, but maybe every­one like me is won­der­ing what a happy life is.

Or maybe I’m a bit early with the story and when this goes live that Technorati link will prove me wrong.

The topic of a happy life is a chapter in Julia Annas’ Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. It’s a good book. She uses the image above to intro­duce Prodicus’ Choice of Heracles. Prodicus was a soph­ist of the 5th cen­tury BC, but his story has come down to us via an ancient form of Chinese Whispers. Socrates told the story to Aristippus — and that con­ver­sa­tion was recor­ded by Xenophon years later.

According to Prodicus:

When Heracles was passing from boy­hood to youth’s estate, wherein the young, now becom­ing their own mas­ters, show whether they will approach life by the path of vir­tue or the path of vice, he went out into a quiet place, and sat pon­der­ing which road to take. And there appeared two women of great stature mak­ing towards him. The one was fair to see and of high bear­ing; and her limbs were adorned with pur­ity, her eyes with mod­esty; sober was her fig­ure, and her robe was white. The other was plump and soft, with high feed­ing. Her face was made up to heighten its nat­ural white and pink, her fig­ure to exag­ger­ate her height. Open-eyed was she; and dressed so as to dis­close all her charms. Now she eyed her­self; anon looked whether any noticed her; and often stole a glance at her own shadow.

The hussy was called Pleasure and the frump called Virtue. They both offered dif­fer­ent routes to hap­pi­ness. Pleasure’s argu­ment was roughly “Wahey! Get a load of this! Grab it while you can! Know what I mean? Nudge, nudge.” Virtue in con­trast wasn’t even offer­ing a quick snog. Instead she said hap­pi­ness can only be found in the things worked for and earned, even if that means self-denial and frus­tra­tion. Pleasure’s gifts, she warned, would be tem­por­ary but hers were lasting.

Julia Annas picks up on the oppos­i­tion of Pleasure and Happiness in the tale. She says it’s a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing to about Happiness than Utilitarian philo­soph­ers like Mill or Sidgwick who see Happiness as the accul­mu­la­tion of pleas­ure and avoid­ance of pain. Utilitarianism appears to be the philo­soph­ical under­pin­ning of this news story, the avoid­ance of pain makes you a hap­pier per­son.

Their find­ings, they said, sug­ges­ted that reli­gion could offer a “buf­fer” which pro­tec­ted from life’s disappointments.

Professor Clark said: “We ori­gin­ally star­ted the research to work out why some European coun­tries had more gen­er­ous unem­ploy­ment bene­fits than oth­ers, but our ana­lysis sug­ges­ted that reli­gious people suffered less psy­cho­lo­gical harm from unem­ploy­ment than the non-religious.

They had higher levels of life satisfaction”.

I can put in the Marx quote from Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right that every­one knows here, but I’ll also add the sen­tences around it.

Religious suf­fer­ing is, at one and the same time, the expres­sion of real suf­fer­ing and a protest against real suf­fer­ing. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heart­less world, and the soul of soul­less con­di­tions. It is the opi­ate of the people.
The abol­i­tion of reli­gion as the illus­ory hap­pi­ness of the people is the demand for their real hap­pi­ness. To call on them to give up their illu­sions about their con­di­tion is to call on them to give up a con­di­tion that requires illu­sions. The cri­ti­cism of reli­gion is, there­fore, in embryo, the cri­ti­cism of that vale of tears of which reli­gion is the halo.

The fact that reli­gion makes people feel bet­ter, or even gives pleas­ure, is no sur­prise. When Marx was call­ing it the opi­ate of the people he wasn’t pro­pos­ing that we train sniffer dogs to seek out mul­lahs being smuggled on flights from Afghanistan. He was say­ing that reli­gion sat­is­fied and sed­ated people to the extent that they were con­tent to accept the status quo. If you were using Marx to delib­er­ately build a total­it­arian state to exploit people (as opposed to doing it by acci­dent) then the first thing on your shop­ping list would be a religion.

The research is a con­fer­ence paper, based on the work­ing paper Deliver us from Evil: Religion as Insurance [PDF]. It’s not been pub­lished in a journal as far as I know but what the hell, we can cri­tique it. What I find puzz­ling is that Clark and Lelkes use Life Satisfaction rather than Happiness, which they think is too eph­em­eral. What does it mean to have life sat­is­fac­tion? According to page 10 a per­son who has a sat­is­fied life is someone who answers “10” to the ques­tion “All things con­sidered, how sat­is­fied are you with your life as a whole nowadays?” They then cor­rel­ated this with factors such as whether the per­son had been divorced, sep­ar­ated, wid­owed etc.*

There’s a pretty obvi­ous hole. Does reli­gion cush­ion people from life’s dis­ap­point­ments or does it dull the senses to everything? If you really want to test the opi­ate of people idea you’d need to per­form sim­ilar tests for pos­it­ive cor­rel­a­tions. What the research has found is that life has dis­ap­point­ments and reli­gion can be an anaesthetic.


Some of the res­ults are odd. They point out that divorce is worse if you’re Catholic rather than Protestant, which makes sense when you com­pare what the churches’ pos­i­tions are on the topic. Clark and Lelkes inter­pret this a pun­ish­ment effect. I’m not con­vinced this inter­pret­a­tion stands because, if I’m read­ing the table cor­rectly, it’s an even big­ger pun­ish­ment effect if you’re a churchgo­ing Catholic and your part­ner dies. The cor­rel­a­tion fig­ures appear to be twice as bad as the divorce fig­ures. The best thing to do — if you’re a griev­ing Catholic — might be to sit a home, alone, and pray. I may not be read­ing it cor­rectly, there’s no con­fid­ence factors for some of the fig­ures and the cor­rel­a­tions aren’t easy to com­pare — but this is a work­ing paper — so you wouldn’t neces­sar­ily expect that.

What this con­fer­ence paper doesn’t seem to tackle is how many of those dis­ap­point­ments were made worse by liv­ing in a soci­ety which bestows priv­ileges on some reli­gions but not oth­ers. Does grant­ing heart-felt pre­ju­dice respect (so long as it’s a pre­ju­dice with a long tra­di­tion in that nation) cre­ate a need for other reli­gions as a salve for the injur­ies inflic­ted by the in-crowd? It’s very much the eco­nom­ics of the indi­vidual rather than the soci­ety and I think that may be a little myopic. I could do some research to show smack addicts with a reli­able sup­ply exper­i­enced more life sat­is­fac­tion than those without such a sup­ply. That wouldn’t mean that smack was a Good Thing.

I’m not sure if this is a case of over-enthusiastic mis­re­port­ing. Using these find­ings as evid­ence for the pos­it­ive effect of reli­gion is really on a intel­lec­tual par with simply say­ing Christians slaughtered mil­lions of people in the Americas (or whatever Christian atro­city you prefer), ergo all Christianity is bad. Yes the first state­ment is super­fi­cially true, but you’d be amaz­ingly naïve to think the Europeans would have respec­ted the nat­ives if Christianity didn’t exist. Similarly there’s an argu­ment in this paper that there are imme­di­ate bene­fits to reli­gious belief given the cur­rent state of soci­ety, but it doesn’t answer whether or reli­gious belief is an optimal solu­tion or an example of mar­ket failure.

Most of all there’s the big ques­tion of what a happy life is. I don’t think that’s going to be answered with a scale from zero to ten.

I put this together in short bursts through­out the day between driv­ing rel­at­ives to places, so a few more people have pos­ted on the topic since I star­ted writ­ing it.

Drink-Soaked Trotskysite Popinjays for WAR pick up on the same heavy-handed allusion.

The always excel­lent Skepchic is, not entirely sur­pris­ingly, scep­tical.

Comments on the JPS Blog’s brief, but poin­ted entry Headlines can make you look stu­pid include the other obvi­ous line which I cut due to space. Ignorance is bliss, goes back to Plato’s thoughts on reli­gion and what the popu­lace should be told to keep them moral.

There’s also JackP at the Pickards is the only blog­ger broadly sup­port­ive of the find­ings that seems to have thought about it in any depth. At least the only such blog­ger I’ve found at this time. There may be more found by Google soon.

* I don’t know if they’re using a strictly lin­ear scale which pro­poses there’s a fixed upper level of sat­is­fac­tion or if they’re using a Sternbach/Okuda non-linear scale where 10 is a point of infin­ite sat­is­fac­tion. Nor is it clear where Larry would sit on this scale. Mick Jagger is at zero, unless we’re being pedantic about double negatives.

3 thoughts on “…but is it the opiate of the masses?

  1. I was being slightly tongue in cheek.

    I’m a staunch agnostic myself, but I tend to feel that — at least amongst the ones I per­son­ally encounter — that athe­ists tend to be more mil­it­ant and less tol­er­ant of other beliefs than the reli­gious people I know.

    After all, if one of the reli­gions is right, then at least some people who are cur­rently “happy believ­ers” of dif­fer­ent faiths are going to have an etern­ity in hell (which I rather feel would dampen the party mood after a while).

    I also take a slightly dif­fer­ent line, because of my thanato­pho­bia (see the cat­egory on my site if you’re inter­ested), mean­ing that while I’m agnostic, I accept that I would have a hap­pier life if I did believe. So for me, cor­rect or no, belief would improve the qual­ity of my life.

    For now, I’m hav­ing to make do with stoicism :-)

  2. farang

    To put in bluntly, belief in ancient myths of super­nat­ural beings that were ori­gin­ally unex­plain­able nat­ural phe­nom­ena, like vol­canos, earth­quakes, comets, along with the unfathom­able (to the ancients) stars and plan­ets, may “make for a hap­pier life”, but then, ignor­ance IS bliss, isn’t it?

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