This evening I went along to a talk, part of Bristol’s Festival Of Ideas, by geneticist Steve Jones. He’s recently published a book, The Serpent’s Promise, in which he reinterprets the Bible as a science book. It’s not as spurious as it sounds, although I’ve not read the book yet – Jones is an atheist, and was interested to investigate whether there’s any science to be found in the books, and to reinterpret the pseudo-science and historical claims it makes. Which sounds tremendous, so Laura and I went along.
The talk itself, in which Jones answered questions from a host, was a good time. It was a touch lacking in depth, a little heavy on the “buy the book in the foyer after” and a little light on the meat. But an enjoyable evening nonetheless.
One particular comment really stood out to me. It was a response to a question about whether religion made people happier, in which he explained that the data he’s seen showed that no, in fact religion fails to make people happier. Those who identify as agnostic or atheist tend to identify as happier.
And I realised a part of where this debate is going so wrong. Obviously the “Science vs Religion” discussions are far too often between those who wish to “oppose science in the name of religion” and “oppose religion in the name of science”, as if either were anything less than mad. But it’s understandable! Because the religiosity that’s presenting itself is one that absolutely should be attacked by those of a rational, scientific mind.
During Jones’ talk, it became very apparent that the version of Christianity he’s experienced, and the version that others have expressed to him, absolutely merits the dismissal and refuting it receives. A Christian doctrine that proselytises on the basis of offering “happiness” is fundamentally unrelated to the faith on which they claim to be based. Christianity sold as everything from a means to escape the pits of hell to a self-help cure for the lacklustre is a heretical misinterpretation of the most serious magnitude. This is perpetuated by both the intentionally malevolent, usually with a financial and/or power-based incentive, and the ideologically naive, people who very genuinely want to help spread something they believe to be good. This “Christianity”, the one that makes people happier, entirely merits the scorn it receives from the scientific community, and absolutely deserves to be found as lacking under any scrutiny.
It’s just, that’s not Christianity.
In fact, it’s such a warped understanding of the faith that it becomes ultimately destructive. It makes perfect sense that societies with this as their basis – and indeed so many Christian nations are – should be the most unstable, the most cruel, the least socially advanced. Because it’s a religion of self-fulfilment, of achievement over others, of intrinsic hedonism, and ultimately of selfishness. Whether the basis of your religion is to protect yourself from some non-specific eternal damnation, or to reach some sense of internal enlightenment and satisfaction, it’s narcissism, and utterly without basis in the teachings of Jesus. It by its nature is inherently “them” and “us”, insiders and outsiders, acceptable and unacceptable. It breeds inequality – it strives for it.
Christianity never offers “happiness”. Such a spurious and delusional notion would be meaningless to offer anyway. To achieve a state of fixed happiness would require the complete abandoning of any notions of sympathy, empathy or social awareness – in other words, it is to be a sociopath. To exist in such a way that the horrors affecting others no longer impact on your state of mind is to be dangerously delusional, and deeply hideous. Anything that promises you “happiness” is automatically to be deeply feared.
Christianity, in fact, promises a greater lack of this notion of happiness. When people approached Jesus and asked him what they needed to do to follow him, he invariably responded by saying, “Give up the thing that makes you happy.” This wasn’t self-flagellation, or some cult-like stripping of someone until they were dependent upon the leader. This was, simply, sacrifice. It was about taking away the meaningless trinkets that delude you into believing you are content, and facing the brutal reality of life, such that you would be finally in a position to do something about it. Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and you’ll feel better.” He said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” That is, pick up the instrument of torture on which you will ultimately die in misery and pain, and follow me. Who’s up for following now?! This Christianity is about learning the joy of responding to suffering. It is a rejection of “happiness”, “contentment”, “wholeness”, or however else it’s sold, in favour of experiencing love as a transforming action.
So the question at the beginning of it all begins to look so farcical. Christianity is questioned as to whether it is “really succeeding” for people, by a measure of whether it makes them more happy. And is found lacking. Of course it is, although mostly for the worst reason. Mostly it’s because people who have been sold this heretical religion, this Christianity that cures your melancholy and plasters a smile upon your face, and it cannot possibly succeed. Because it’s dishonest, unrealistic, and plain grotesque. It’s a lie. Those who join in with the hope of happiness are certainly going to feel let down. Of course they’re not going to be demonstrably more “happy” than the secular.
Let alone those who respond to Christianity on the basis of what it actually offers: a stark, painful truth. To follow Jesus, to “be a Christian”, is to live a life in which you are fundamentally aware of inequality, injustice, and cruelty, such that you are in a position to respond to it. To see every human being as created and loved by God is not to see a world made of rainbow-sprouting clouds and especially bouncy bunnies. It’s to see so many of those created and loved beings living in horror, and to feel the weight of that. It’s to sacrifice to option to dismiss the poorest around you as “scum” or “scroungers”. It’s to sacrifice the ability to delude yourself into believing that the brown kids with flies on their eyes aren’t actually the same as you. It’s to sacrifice the false comfort of calling paedophiles “monsters” and dehumanising the most abhorrent amongst us. Is that going to make anyone happier? Of course not.
(I want to stress that Christianity is obviously not a necessity for someone to recognise the horrors in the world, and nor is it at all necessary to be someone who lovingly responds to it. The point is that it is required for those calling themselves Christians to see and respond, if they are to have any understanding of the faith they purport to live in.)
(I also want to stress that living with a Christian faith isn’t abject misery. It is also to live knowing the love of God, which is fairly fundamental. It’s just, if someone experiences that love, and then isn’t driven to damn well go fix the stuff that’s wrong, to have a greater perspective of just how wrong the wrong things are, then they’re not following Jesus at all.)
The question asked of Steve Jones tonight should have been, “Do you think that religion is succeeding in making Christians appropriately unhappy?” And Steve Jones should have been able to respond, “No! It isn’t! It is taught as either self-help or as a consequence of fear, and exists in the self-delusion that it is achieving anything in doing so, ignorant of all rational, scientific understanding of the human condition.”
Of course the secular scientific community thinks that Christianity is demonstrably failing in its apparently intended goals, even before they get to the impossible and unproductive discussions of attempting to disprove the unprovable. And of course such a deluded, reactionary, and ultimately ignorant religion reacts to the scientific community with fear and hate – they can barely cope with maintaining their own façade of “happiness”, let alone with these other people poking at it from the outside.
Meanwhile there is a Christianity being practised by very many that has no aspirations toward delusions of happiness, and funnily enough also isn’t driven to distraction by arguing against those discovering the wonder of the cosmos, the phenomena of genetics, the impossible joy of the atom, the mysteries of string theory, the issues of global climate change, and the extraordinary, beautiful nature of evolution.