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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.