Does God Exist? Part 3: Believe Whatever Makes You Happy

Does God Exist? Part 3: Believe Whatever Makes You Happy March 30, 2020

In my humble opinion, the question “Does God exist?” is best answered by taking a particular approach:

We should answer this question by means of philosophical investigation, especially by critical examination of philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God.

However, this is NOT the only way to approach the question “Does God exist?”.  Here are a couple of alternative ways of answering this question:

2. Believe whatever religious or ideological ideas make you feel happy and content.

3. Try out different religions/worldviews to see which one works best for you.

If the point or purpose of a religion or ideology is to make one’s life better, then why not take the very practical approach of trying out different religions and worldviews, to determine which one does a better job of improving one’s life?

People often assume that happiness or contentment is what makes a life good.  The more happiness and contentment a person has, the better the quality of his or her life.  On this assumption one could experiment with different religions and worldviews, and determine which one resulted in the most happiness and contentment in one’s life.  The principle this thinking supports is approach #2:

2. Believe whatever religious or ideological ideas make you feel happy and content.

But happiness and contentment are not the only goals for life.  These are not necessarily what everyone is seeking in life.  Some people want fame and honor, and some people seek acheivment of difficult goals in sports, science, engineering, music, literature, or other areas.

People who seek acheivement of difficult goals are often willing to sacrifice happiness and contentment for the sake of acheiving their chosen goals.  For such people a life that involves sacrifice of their chosen goals in order to obtain happiness and contentment would NOT be a good life, at least NOT a better life than one where there was less happiness and contentment but where their chosen goals were acheived.   So, a slight modification of approach #2 would be to focus on what “works for” the person who is trying out various religions and worldviews:

3. Try out different religions/worldviews to see which one works best for you.

A life with lots of success at acheiving difficult chosen goals would be one that “works for” some people, even if that life does not maximize their happiness and contentment.

 

APPARENT ADVANTAGES OF THESE PRACTICAL APPROACHES

One advantage of approaches #2 and #3 is that one might be able to find an acceptable religion or worldview after exploring only a few alternatives.  This appears to be a practical approach, one that does not demand perfection of a religion or worldview, but only that a religion or worldview helps one to be happy or that it works for a person, given his/her primary goals in life.

A more philosophical approach appears to be seeking “the TRUE religion” or “the TRUE worldview”,  and to do so in a careful and objective manner.  That would seem to require examination of all religions and worldviews, or at least a large sample of religions and worldviews, in order to avoid bias and to increase the likelihood of discovering the one TRUE point of view.

The more practical approaches referenced above don’t assume that there is only ONE religion or worldview that will “work for” a person, nor that there is one religion or worldview that will work for EVERY person.  Different strokes for different folks.  We have different needs and desires, so why not have different religions and worldviews for different people?  A religion that makes one person happy and content might not make some other person, who has different needs and desires, happy and conent.

A worldview that works for one person might not work for another person.  John Stuart Mill praised LIBERTY for individuals because each of us is, in general, the best judge of what makes us happy.  I know best what makes me happy, so I am the best judge of which religion or worldview makes me happiest, or which religion or worldview works best for me.  A more philosophical approach seems to be in search of the ONE TRUE worldview, a worldview which it would thus be tempting to force everyone to accept.  A philosophical approach appears to seek a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.

Another advantage of these practical approaches to religion/ideology is that it does not require that one be intellectually sophisticated.  To base the choice of a religion or worldview on analysis and evaluation of philosophical arguments, requires that one be somewhat intellectually sophisticated, requires one to have some knowledge and skill in logic and critical thinking, and some knowledge of philosophy and conceptual analysis.

But to determine whether a religion or worldview makes one feel happy or content seems like a simpler and less demanding task.  Aren’t we all naturally good and figuring out whether we are happy and content?  We don’t need any special knowledge or skills in order to figure out whether a religion works for us, or helps us to acheive our main goals.  The practical approaches seem to be easier and less demanding that a philosophical approach to religion and ideology.

 

SOME DISADVANTAGES OF THESE PRACTICAL APPROACHES

We can already see disadvantages just by the previous comparison of approach #2 with approach #3.  Using happiness and contentment as the standard will incline people towards the path of least resistance.  For example, who would want to be a supporter of liberal democracy if born into a nation filled with Nazis or fascists?  Your fellow citizens would beat you silly, throw bricks through the windows of your house, and kill your cat or dog, so there would be very little happiness or contentment for supporters of liberal democracy in such circustances.

There is more happiness and contentment to be had in just going along with the crowd, at least in that sort of situation.  So, if you happen to be born in a fascist country, or a country filled with mindless and spineless followers of “dear leader”, then if happiness and contentment is your goal, you will probably just follow the herd and learn to praise and obey “dear leader” (and watch only Fox News).   This is, at the least, a moral problem with approach #2.

Conversely, although approach #3 does not incline a person so strongly to conformity with the masses, it does have the disadvantage that one might well end up miserable following this approach.  The best chance of success at most difficult to acheive goals is to focus almost exclusively on the goal(s), and sacrifice all other aspects of one’s life, including happiness and contentment.  Most high-acheivers are never satisfied with any particular success or acheivement.  They are driven for perfection and excellence, and set their sights higher than what they can realistically acheive.

Really big goals and projects require multiple generations of effort, so when one kicks off such a grand project, there is little hope of actually seeing the project completed in one’s lifetime.  Personal relationships are often sacrificed by people who are focused on obtaining a difficult-to-acheive goal.  Health and safety are often sacrificed by people who strive to acheive a lofty goal.  Comfort and pleasure are often sacrificed by high achievers.  So, it is not unusual for a person who is focused on acheiving a difficult goal to be a sad, lonely, and generally miserable person.

Although it seems like we are naturally good at figuring out what makes us happy and content, and naturally good at figuring out what “works best” for ourselves,  these practical approaches are not as easy to carry out as it might intially seem.  First of all, you can try out a dozen different flavors of ice cream in one day, but you cannot try out a dozen different religions or worldviews in one day, nor in one week.  You have to learn about the religion/worldview.  You have to learn about its various concepts, beliefs, and practices.  You need to get to know some people who live their lives in accordance with that religion/worldview.  You have to experience a wide variety of events and circumstances over a significant amount of time, to be able to make a reasonable assessment of how living and thinking in accordance with that religion/worldview makes you feel and helps or hinders your plans and goals.

I don’t see how being a Christian or a Buddhist for a week or a month would give one enough information and experience to make any sort of reasonable assessment of how those religions impact one’s life.  But if you have to spend a year or two trying out a religion or worldview in order to have “walked a mile” in someone else’s shoes, then these “practical approaches” are actually very demanding on a person.

Even if one were to spend just one year as a Christian, one year as a Muslim, one year as a Jew, one year as a Buddhist, and one year as a Hindu, that would just scratch the surface of the world of religions.  There are also secular worldviews to try out, like Secular Humanism, and Marxism.   One could easily devote one’s entire adult life to exploring different religions and worldviews, so that even if one was able to determine that religion X or worldview Y “works best for me” or “makes me happiest and most content”, there might be only a few years left of one’s life to fully embrace and enjoy that religion or worldview.

Another difficulty with these practical approaches is that the central aspect of a religion or worldview is what one believes, but beliefs are not easily changed or altered, especially not the basic sorts of beliefs involved in religions and worldviews.   An atheist cannot simply decide to believe in God for a week or a month or a year, nor can a Christian simply decide to stop believing in God and in Jesus for a week or a month or a year.  We don’t have that kind of control over our most basic beliefs and values.  We can try chocolate ice cream and then try vanilla ice cream without any effort or hesitation, but we cannot try out atheism and then immediately switch to trying out faith in God and Jesus.

Furthermore, to the extent that a person does manage to switch temporarily from one religion to another religion, or from one religion to a secular worldview, or from a secular worldview to a religion, the seriousness and legitimacy of that person’s beliefs are cast into doubt.  If you can change your basic beliefs and values on a whim, then presumably you never really had much commitment or involvement with those beliefs and values.

Religious and worldview beliefs are supposed to be part of a person’s character and self-identity.  A person who can simply decide to stop believing in God and stop following Jesus is not much of a Christian believer.  So, someone who “tries out” Christianity for a year, and then on the very last day of the year, immediately stops believing in God and stops praying to Jesus, and stops following Jesus, is NOT someone who has sincerely and seriously been a Christian believer for a year.  It is not clear that it is really possible to “try out” a religion or worldview, at least not as an intentional experiment.

Another difficulty with making “happiness and contentment” the standard by which to judge a religion or worldview, is that it is far from clear what “happiness and contentment” means.  The question “What is happiness?” is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, and it is NOT a particularly easy question to answer.  So, although it seemed initially that no particular knowledge or skill or intellectual sophistication was required to follow approach #2, this may not actually be the case.  It makes no sense to spend years of one’s life trying out different religions and worldviews in order to determine which one does the best job of producing “happiness and contentment” if one is UNCLEAR about what “happiness and contentment” mean.  So, a degree of philosophical and intellectual sophistication may be needed just to get this project started, to get it headed in the right direction.

Similarly,  approach #3 assumes some goals or purposes that are cherished by the individual who is setting out to investigate various religions and worldviews.  But what if a peson’s goals or purposes are bad or foolish?   Suppose a scientist wants to make a bomb so powerful that it could destroy our galaxy? or destroy the entire known universe?  Do we really want to encourage that scientist to find a religion or worldview that HELPS him or her to acheive this horrible goal?  So, it seems like there is an additional first step needed with this approach as well: determining whether the goals or purposes that a person seeks to acheive are truly good and valuable and reasonable goals or purposes.  But this is, once again, a deeply PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, one that requires some intellectual sophistication to have any chance of arriving at a solid and thoughtful conclusion.

Approach #2 is of little use if one is UNCLEAR about what “happiness and contentment” mean, but that is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION requiring some intellectual sophistication.  Approach #3 is of little use if one is UNCERTAIN about the wisdom or value of the basic goals that one seeks to acheive in life, but evaluation of basic goals in life is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION requiring some intellectual sophistication.  So, the initial appearance that these practical approaches do not require any intellectual sophistication, in contrast with my favored philosophical approach, was misleading, and now it appears that the practical approaches also require a degree of intellectual sophistication in order to have some reasonable chance of success.

 

ONE BIG DISADVANTAGE

Perhaps the most important problem with these two practical approaches is that they are UNCONCERNED with truth.  False ideas can be comforting and make one feel good.  The truth is often painful and unpleasant.  So, if we judge religions and worldviews in terms of what makes us feel happy or content, then we are very likely to FAIL to discover what is TRUE or FALSE in terms of religious beliefs and worldview beliefs.

Similarly, ideas and beliefs that help one to acheive a particular goal might well be FALSE.  There is not a direct and constant connection between true beliefs and beliefs that help one to achieve a particular goal.  In any case, even when people focus their best and most intelligent efforts at figuring out what is TRUE and what is FALSE, they still often fail, so if we focus on some other goal besides figuring out the truth, then we are almost guaranteed to FAIL to arrive at the TRUTH.  So, the main problem with these two practical approaches to evaluating religions and worldviews, is that they give up on the search for objective truth.

If there is no such thing as OBJECTIVE TRUTH in matters of religion and ideology, then I suppose a practical approach is as good as any other approach.  But before one gives up on OBJECTIVE TRUTH in religion and ideology, one should first put some serious thought into the question “Is there such a thing as OBJECTIVE TRUTH in matters of religion and ideology?”  This, of course, is a PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION, and if you want to have any chance of arriving at a solid and well-considered conclusion on this issue, you will need a degree of intellectual sophistication, a degree of skill and knowledge in logic, critical thinking, and philosophy.

So, it makes no sense to jump on board the “happiness and contentment” bus, nor the “it works for me” bus, at least not in order to avoid getting onto the PHILOSOPHY BUS, because you are going to have to take a ride on the PHILOSOPHY BUS before you can reasonably decide whether to get onto one of those practical-approach busses.

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