Can Unbelievers Really Be Happy?
Yes, agnostics can find contentment, and many describe themselves as happy. But do they derive their happiness from their beliefs?
The number of non-believers is growing, with at least 450-500 million declared atheists worldwide – about 7% of the global adult population. But since non-believers can include not just atheists but also agnostics and so-called “nones” – the religiously unaffiliated, who might tick “no religion” in surveys – this number is likely to be much bigger.
Valerie van Mulukom, a Cognitive Scientist at Coventry University, decided to find out if unbelievers find solace in life in times of crisis. In her piece at The Conversation, she presents what she found. Her opening sentences, though, suggest a bias toward asserting that one doesn’t have to believe in God to be a happy, fulfilled person.
The saying “There are no atheists in foxholes” suggests that in stressful times people inevitably turn to God (or indeed gods). In fact, non-believers have their own set of secular worldviews which can provide them with solace in difficult times, just as religious beliefs do for the spiritually-minded.
The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals.
In this opening, Mulukom asserts equivalence between religious contentment and non-religious contentment, leading one to believe that it’s simply a matter of individual choice. The results are the same; take your pick. Her intimation fits well with today’s post-truth mentality that individual happiness is more to be desired than truth.
Coping with Uncreatedness
In his 1972 book Genesis in Space and Time, Francis Schaeffer referred to Simone Weil’s description of the unbeliever’s world as one of “uncreatedness” – a cold, impersonal reality, autonomous to itself, that doesn’t care if we live or die. Honestly, the world often appears that way to everyone. Earthquakes and tsunamis kill believers and unbelievers, young and old, rich and poor alike. The current coronavirus doesn’t check to see if an elderly grandmother believes in God or not before entering her body. Everyone, believer or unbeliever alike, faces a need for comfort and solace in times of crisis.
Mulukom lists some of the statements that unbelievers make to come to grips with what we are calling ‘uncreatedness’ as the world of the unbeliever. She received 1,000 responses to her online survey, with respondents from across America, Europe and Australia, and noted common themes.
We found that across these ten countries, the six most common beliefs and worldviews were those based on science, humanism (or belief in humanity and human ability), critical thinking and scepticism (including rationalism), being kind and caring for one another, and beliefs in equality and natural laws (including evolution).
This overlap was striking. Despite huge geographical and cultural differences, we found these categories came up over and over again. Frequently mentioned worldviews included statements like: “I believe in the scientific method and the ethical values of humanism. I reject all beliefs that are not evidence based”, and “We have one life. We have this one opportunity to enjoy our brief moment in the sun, while doing the most good we can to help our fellow creatures and protect the natural environment for future generations.”
Such sentiments are very common in the world today. They challenge the often-assumed privilege of religion for providing meaning and purpose for life. But can these sentiments really help when facing death, or dealing with a crisis like the current pandemic? Mulukom ends with thoughts about the efficacy of the ontology of ‘uncreatedness’ to help in times of trouble:
But how do these worldviews help in times of crisis? Most frequently, the respondents said they helped cope with the situation, reduced anxiety, created an increased feeling of control and sense of order, and explained or gave meaning to the situation.
Many participants indicated that understanding a difficult situation proved paramount to accepting it and coping with it. One said that “understanding the process of loss and moving on via understanding psychology helps”. Others stated that “my belief in science explained what was happening and I also trusted in modern medicine that we could overcome it”, or that it helped to consider that “depression [is] a condition that responds to time and care”.
Summarizing, here are phrases that unbelievers might rely on for comfort:
- Trust science.
- Humanity will solve our problems if we work for one another’s good.
- We’re all in this together.
- The law of evolution brought us to this point and will continue moving life forward.
- Only accept evidence-based beliefs.
- Use reason.
- Make the most of the one opportunity you have.
- Do good to our fellow creatures.
- Preserve the environment for future generations.
- Seek understanding, which brings a sense of control.
- Learn to accept and cope with what you can’t control.
- Someday science and modern medicine will make things better.
- Over time, we all get over sad situations.
Take this opportunity to think through these coping mechanisms unbelievers use. Undoubtedly you know people who agree with these responses; perhaps you do yourself. How would you evaluate the strength of these statements? They obviously seem to work for some people who remain unbelievers, foxholes or deathbeds notwithstanding. If you are a believer in the Creator God of the Bible, how would you respond to someone who says these things? See what you come up with, and watch for our commentary later today.