The last ten years have seen a veritable outpouring of books intent on discrediting belief in God. Many regard their authors as heroic liberators for exposing the psychological origins of belief and the associated myths promulgated by religious traditions.
With the superstitions of organized religion finally laid to rest, humanity can now get on with the important work of building a more sober and rational society. But is a self-contained universe without any hope of transcendence capable of satisfying the human heart?
In other words, will we be happy in this material utopia? I’m convinced that we won’t be.
As human beings we’re not just an assemblage of atoms and molecules but a composite of matter and spirit.
We frustrate our quest for happiness by denying transcendence.
If we were simply clever animals, differentiated from the other beasts by our ability to build better tools, then we might be content with technology’s ability to make our lives more comfortable, productive, and entertaining.
Furthermore, our animal instinct for the survival of the fittest would make every personal victory deeply satisfying.
The big names in sports, entertainment, business, etc. would be eminently happy, because as winners in their respective fields not only would they satisfy their basic instinct to win but they’d receive the acclaim, wealth, and admiration that comes with success.
Unfortunately, as the tabloids and talk-shows all too frequently remind us, money and success do not guarantee happiness.
At this point some of you may be thinking that my portrait of the good life is incomplete because I haven’t included relationships, which are certainly more important than individual possessions and accomplishments. After all what is wealth and success if you don’t have anyone to share it with?
For those of you who feel this way you have the wisdom traditions of China, India, the Middle East, and the West as affirmation. Philosophers and sages have taught for millennia that there is a hierarchy to human desire, and because the most general definition of happiness is the fulfillment of desire, happiness is thus included in that hierarchy.
A number of systems have been developed to describe this ascendency but basically they can be synthesized into four fundamental categories or levels:
1. Desires connected with physical pleasure
2. Ego-comparative desires
3. Contributive-empathetic desires
4. Transcendental desires
We started off by discussing the first level, which can be fulfilled by material things such as clothes, houses, cars, and jewelry, and then the second level, which stems from our desire to win and to be perceived as better or better off than others.
A moment ago we added the third level, which recognizes the social aspect of our nature – particularly the desire to contribute to and care for family members, friends, associates, teammates, etc. But the question remains – Is this enough?
So here’s my response. The first three levels of desire reveal the richness of our relationships with the things and other people in the world. Yet, as I indicated at the outset, the human person possesses something more.
We have powers to recognize and appreciate not just things in the world but also intangible realities like truth, love, goodness, and beauty and through them make contact with a transcendent, one might say, spiritual world.
We are remarkable mysteries, possessing transcendent powers that surpass the physical world, and these powers bring us to new almost inestimable heights.
It is these powers that stirred our distant ancestors to believe in a supernatural order and to eventually develop religious practices. To deny their existence is to deny a part of our humanity.
In his 1938 book, “Psychology and Religion,” Carl Jung warned that religious belief was integral to mental health and that the human psyche without religion is susceptible to a variety of mental illnesses.
Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), a leading interpreter of religious experience, also contended that the abandonment of religion by modern people would give rise to existential anxiety.
He predicted this because he understood that the abandonment of religion is tantamount to a denial of the possibility of finding ultimate meaning and fulfillment.
More recently, a 2004 study in the American Journal of Psychiatry reported that nonreligious affiliation correlates with increased suicide rates, decreased contact with family, decreased sense of meaning in life, and increased lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder (Dervic et al. 2004 AJP Volume 161 No.12. pp 2303-2308).
To summarize, we frustrate our quest for happiness by denying transcendence.
This is unfortunate because materialism is increasingly being challenged by discoveries in cosmology, quantum physics, molecular biology, psychology, mathematics, and consciousness studies. Like the retrograde motion of the planets that cast suspicion on (and eventually falsified) Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe, new scientific evidence is shaking the foundations of materialism.
A decade or two from now materialism could be as outdated as an earth-centered universe.
At present, it is a leaping “non-sequitur” to assert that science (or any other academic discipline) has proven belief in transcendence, spirit, and yes, even God, to be mere wish fulfillment. After all, scientific evidence, by its own requirements, must be drawn from the material world – and so it must be asked, “How can evidence from the material world be used to disprove the transcendent, which is, by definition, beyond the material world? The answer is obvious – it can’t!” In other words, reports of God’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
In light of this I strongly encourage the reader to pursue happiness at all four levels but to place a greater emphasis on levels three and four.
All of the major religions teach that the path to ultimate happiness is love of God and neighbor.
Notice that this is not an “either or” but a “both and” because without love of neighbor our love can become esoteric and self-centered and without God it can become hopeless and discouraged.
Christian philosopher Joseph Pieper has a book entitled, "Only the Lover Sings," to which I add, “she sings because she is happy.”
May God light your path to transcendent happiness.
Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., is the former president of Gonzaga University; the founder of the Magis Institute, which educates the public about the relationship between physics, philosophy, reason, and faith; and author of “Finding True Happiness” and his latest book, "The Soul's Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason."