You know, it seems like very often one of the accusations that get hurled at non-Christians is that we are obviously very miserable and sad because we don’t have the “joy” that Christians feel. This accusation is usually news to us, since most of us are pretty happy without Christianity; I can attest that my own life became much happier once I discarded the indoctrination I labored under as a Christian. So today we’ll be talking about joy and happiness.
Not that it matters overmuch regarding the religion’s supernatural claims if one is happy or sad, really, as Christians would be the first to archly inform us; happiness or sadness does not make an ideology objectively true (unless the claim regards how happy its adherents are) and often it seems that objective truths are ones that we most dislike hearing. But such Christians tend to tout their “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (as the old song goes) as some kind of evidence that their religious ideas have merit, and pounce upon any sadness or misfortune in a non-believer’s life as if it is all the proof that person should need to (re)devote themselves to Christianity.
But never until now did I realize that my post-Christian definition of “joy” and the one I suffered under as a Christian are two totally different emotions and qualities. And I’ve got Ted Cruz to thank for my revelation!
In South Carolina recently, Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz trotted Phil Robertson out like a show pony before crowds of fundagelical Christians as a way of demonstrating his bona fides as a member of their tribe. Predictably, the sex-obsessed Phil Robertson devoted much of his speaking time to railing about sex, how much he wants to police it and shame those having kinds of it that he doesn’t like, and the punishments he wants to dole out against those who continue to defy his puerile demands.
Ted Cruz introduced him in this way:
“You know, there’s a reason he terrifies the mainstream media,” Cruz said. “He says the things you’re not supposed to say. He actually remembers who we are as Americans and just speaks it with a joy, not with an anger, not with a hatred, with a joy in who we are.”
Really. This wacko who seems at all times to be one inch away from a violent rage explosion is a joyful little puddle of goo waiting to hug and cuddle everyone he meets. RightWingWatch took great joy in dissecting just how “joyful” and totally not hateful-at-all Phil Robertson is, and I recommend the read linked above for its sheer comedy value, but the story gave me pause for thought. This guy, this perpetually scowling, furious-looking guy with the thousand-yard mad-dog stare, this guy who I’d actively try to avoid if I saw him anywhere around me, this guy is someone Ted Cruz thinks is joyful.
In fact, this guy is so joyful that he “terrifies the mainstream media.” Joy… wait, what? Joy “terrifies” the people Ted Cruz has identified as opposed to his theocratic agenda? It’s not his religion’s repressive views that do it, not his group’s blustering and rambling, their rage, their pure and unalloyed hatred of self-owning women and those women’s allies, their focus on (and condoning of) lurid descriptions of rape and murder fantasies as illustrations of their threats, nor their mascot’s violent demeanor, his weird past and weird current ideology, or his creepy mad-dog stare? Nope, it’s his joy that terrifies those in journalism.
Do Christians ever actually talk to anyone before forming opinions about them? One would think that people who pretend to be under a threat of eternal punitive physical torture for offending a god of truth and justice would be, I dunno, slightly more interested in truth and justice than this bunch is, wouldn’t you?
But far worse than the possibility that Ted Cruz is purely ignorant of what his mascot is really like is the worrisome idea that Ted Cruz doesn’t recognize any anger or hatred in this extremely angry and hateful weirdo. He only sees “joy” in a man who has taken a truly grotesque pleasure in describing the brutal rape and murder of an atheist family, who advises that women be married off as young teens because otherwise they just get all these ideas he hates, and who has embarrassed his entire religion and political party by being so focused on policing women’s sexuality.
I’m forced to conclude that, unless Ted Cruz is lying again, he really has no idea what joy looks like. Or both. Could always be both. He could be lying and not know what joy looks like in a person.
I mean, I sure didn’t.
The Difference Between Joy and Happiness.
I wondered often why I wasn’t happier as a Christian. It was one of the ideological promises my religion made to people, that it would give them true contentment. If you obeyed the rules, truly believed, and trusted in Jesus, then you would be joyous even if the world was falling down around your ears. Christians were people who were supposed to be joyous even in the middle of natural disasters because they were just that full of trust that Jesus would make it all right for them.
To most people, joy and happiness are largely synonymous, but even though it doesn’t make much sense at all to do it, a great many fundagelicals redefine these words to the point where they are both largely meaningless–like they do with a lot of other words, like “love” and “tolerance.” In my subculture, joy was a state of being, while happiness was an emotion that happens when someone’s having a great time right then. Joy was supposed to be something Christians feel deep down all the time, while happiness was thought to be fleeting. Joy was thought to be Biblical, while happiness was thought to be something the Bible doesn’t talk much about. Joy lasted forever, while happiness was an emotion that waxes and wanes, and thus was terribly suspect. Someone else’s denomination/church/group might have done things a little differently though; this is one of those (many) places where Christians can’t really agree on much.
Regardless of how they define the terms, any time that someone, somewhere is enjoying themselves, hardline right-wing Christians can be counted upon to try to referee whatever activity might be producing this potentially-off-limits emotion–or to simply declare that emotion a “sin” and therefore off-limits for TRUE CHRISTIANS™, as evangelical leader Eric Metaxas said of happiness itself a couple of years ago. I find it hugely suspicious whenever an ideology’s spokesperson declares that misery and injustice are actually divine and that happiness, self-determination, and fairness are evil and dangerous, since the misery and injustice being inflicted almost always coincidentally work to the benefit of that spokesperson somehow and are almost always coincidentally being inflicted by that spokesperson and his buddies, but that’s the world of evangelicalism in a nutshell, nowadays.
I knew all of the party lines just like everyone in my tribe did. I had good reason to feel hesitant about telling my tribemates that I wasn’t completely, totally thrilled all the time to be a “daughter of the King.” I thought that they were feeling this joy, while I wasn’t. They in turn only hinted at their own private hells in veiled prayer requests about their “burdens.” It was only years later that I realized we were all simply pretending.
Losing faith was supposed to also lose people all the stuff that made being a Christian supposedly so wonderful. It’s not difficult at all to find Christian pastors (and their flocks) declaring haughtily that atheists “tend to be a pretty miserable lot”, as Baptist minister Joe McKeever proclaims, before declaring that “the best Christians” that he knows are “the most put-together, positive, and effective people in the room.”
Notice he didn’t say that either Christians or atheists are “happy” or “unhappy.” This interesting omission is not an accident.It’s a dogwhistle.
There’s A Reason For That Phrasing.
This Christian is adhering to the party line in his post as well as covering every trope that belligerent Christians raise in trying to invalidate and silence non-believers–from Pascal’s Wager to arguments from authority, consequences, and popularity, a few non sequiturs for funsies, insistence that anecdotes are evidence, and all starting with a flat-out assertion that his god exists and that everyone just needs to “deal with it.”*
The one thing Mr. McKeever can’t say is that atheists are unhappy, because obviously tons of atheists are pretty happy people and he’s probably been told that any number of times. He probably also knows that many Christians are deeply unhappy. It’d take a special kind of selective willful ignorance to miss that memo. Plenty of Christians talk about it, like here, where a Christian flat-out asks why she’s so unhappy (she eventually decides that she’s unhappy because she hasn’t successfully ignored her unhappiness away and chosen to be joyous instead). Or here, where a Christian asks why so many Christians seem so unhappy even while being so damned joyous all the time (he decides that unhappy Christians are “half-hearted,” by which I think he means “not fervent enough,” a conclusion echoed here, along with an assertion that most Christians aren’t really very happy). Or here, where a Christian’s friend reveals that she doesn’t know any Christian women who are really happy (she decides that, in addition to lack of fervor, these women simply don’t have the right “perspective”).
If this religion were an MLM-distributed weight-loss supplement, every single person selling it would weigh 600 pounds. Not one of them even wonders why none of them are reaping the benefits that should be coming to them as TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
So our Christian writer can’t really say that atheists are less happy than Christians. On the other hand, it wouldn’t seem like many people at all are less happy than Christians. So he’s got to move the goalposts a bit to make his manipulative argument-from-consequences work.
By pointing to atheists’ “misery” and contrasting it with Christians’ supposed joy, as demonstrated by what he imagines to be their comparatively greater positivity, put-together-ness, and effectiveness, Mr. McKeever can try to make the case that atheists lack some essential positive state of mind that Christians alone can possess, a state that floats above simple happiness or unhappiness and which brings these essential objective signs of joyousness. He’s splitting hairs here by drawing this non-intuitive and largely meaningless distinction, and his audience is unlikely even to notice because they themselves take for granted that happiness and joy are two totally different critters and that they can feel the one without the other, while atheists can only feel the other without the one.
Moreover, Christians like him desperately need to feel that belonging to their religion gives them some superior frame of mind that non-members can’t achieve. There’s a childish sort of possessiveness and jealousy involved in trying to claim an entire world of emotions for oneself, and I feel a bittersweet sort of amusement when I see them make these insistent claims in total absence of corroboration by reality. It’s funny, but it’s also sad. He clearly thinks that what he’s saying is true, even though there is no reason at all for him to think so, and I wonder why he has to make his religion into the only source of that emotion. What he’s doing is one of the ugliest and least loving things Christians do, and he’s doing it with a big ole Jesus smile on his face and the clear expectation of praise and applause from his fellow Christians–which he is getting in spades in the comments to his post.
As with their other ludicrous claim about Christianity giving believers meaning in life that non-believers cannot ever access, this claim is nothing more than an attempt to dehumanize those outside the tribe by stripping from them a perfectly human and normal capacity for an emotion that humans were feeling long before his religion rolled into view, are feeling plenty now outside his religion, and which they will feel long after his religion falls to its inevitable (and much-deserved) decline.
Christians who make this sort of threat are not just insulting non-believers, either; they’re also terrorizing believers by making them think that if they leave Christianity, which they insist is the only approved source of this feeling, then those apostates will lose their capacity for joy and will never feel it again.
Some Ideas For Handling This Untrue Assertion.
Like other claims Christians make, this one, too, lacks credibility. All one must do to debunk it is nail them down on exactly how they’re trying to differentiate between happiness and joy, ask for a description of what both look like in action, and then tell them that why yes, non-believers feel both all the time, and always have and always will.
Whether they believe us or not when we tell them that why goodness yes, all humans feel joy and happiness aplenty regardless of what ideology they follow, that’s their problem. But I can tell you this: when people pushed back against my claims of greater joy as a Christian, it bothered me. A lot. And I’m betting it will bother plenty of Christians to see their own claims get shot down. The Christians who thrilled to Mr. McKeever’s post haven’t run into very many non-believers, so they are duped into following this dishonest huckster straight into the crevasse. But the more people who push back against his claims, the more they see people telling them that they are simply in error (and being hateful besides), the less able they are to maintain that self-delusion in their bubble.
Or, of course, we can also laugh at them and ignore their callow attempts to monopolize an entire set of emotions. Your level of engagement is your choice; don’t feel compelled to argue with Christians if you don’t want to. The fact that they’re even going there tells us all we need to know about their level of pure frantic desperation at this point to retain members and reclaim cultural dominance. At this point non-believers don’t have to do a thing to discredit Christianity and peel away its cultural dominance; Christians themselves are doing all that needs to be done in both cases.
Strange, isn’t it? Christians believe that demons and Satan are eagerly standing by to steal their joy, but they themselves are the ones trying to steal non-believers’ joy by trying to control their lives, declaring their emotions inferior to those felt by Christians, or flat-out deciding that non-believers are incapable of feeling something they claim to feel (but don’t, really). Between that and their strange fascination with making accusations, which is also thought to be Satan’s role in their mythology, one idly wonders sometimes if maybe a whole bunch of Christians are worshiping the wrong divinity.
Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?
We’re going to talk more about happiness next time. I hope to see you then! Have a joyous weekend!
* You’ll look in vain for this fellow to offer any real evidence for his god’s existence, incidentally. If fundagelicals didn’t have dishonesty and dissimulation, I don’t know what else they’d have. Reading this guy’s post reminded me anew of why I’m glad I’m not Christian anymore. I’ll fisk his post sometime when I’ve got a few beers in me. It’s that hilariously self-deluded.