…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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. JackP says:

    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. writerdd says:

    One day Rebecca will finally fig­ure it out and fire me, but I’ve even writ­ten an art­icle called “I Am Not a Skeptic.” (Rebecca changed the title!)


  3. farang says:

    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?