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One of the big threats Christian leaders make to their flocks about deconversion is that if they leave the religion, they’ll become miserable.

Oh, certainly Christians make other threats that are equally ludicrous: ex-Christians will instantly lose all meaning and purpose in life; they’ll become terrible and immoral people; they’ll destroy and/or lose their families; they’ll suddenly get a long run of absolutely horrible luck… I’m sure I missed some there, but that ought to get everyone started. Today we’re going to cover that first threat: how Christianity is supposed to make believers happy–and how it doesn’t, and how we know that.

(Credit: Hubert Figuière, CC-SA license.) Shown: Atheist dog.
(Credit: Hubert Figuière, CC-SA license.) Shown: Atheist dog.

A Most Dreadful Threat.

I believed this threat myself, when I was Christian. I thought that non-Christians–especially those who rejected my religion’s claims, like all the atheists I knew in college–were all miserable. Oh, they sure sounded contented at times, sure, but even the ones who acted happy were actually not happy at all. They were pretending. Or demons were giving them temporary happiness to trick them into rejecting my religion’s claims. Or their “flesh” was being sated with illicit pleasures that lulled them into complacency somehow. (Mr. Captain saw this and suddenly said: “I’m intrigued.”) My religion had a whole library’s worth of excuses about why a non-Christian might act happy.

Sinners were supposed to be unhappy. Either they were pressed down by the guilt and shame of their sinful condition, or they were doing things that might feel great right then but which would bring them great unhappiness at some future point. One of the reasons sinners, well, sinned was because they needed so much to comfort themselves somehow and didn’t know any other way to do it but to self-medicate with off-limits behavior. They didn’t have access to the “peace which surpasseth all understanding” like Christians did. Even when they felt happiness, it wasn’t real happiness, not like ours. Ours was the real deal, and it was totally better than anything heathens might claim to feel.

But even that ersatz happiness sinners felt would be not only short-lived but also backfire on them in the end, making them more miserable than ever once it faded in the morning light. Didn’t an entire book of Job talk about exactly this so-called truth? Why yes, it said that “the exulting of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless but for a moment.”

And Christians who didn’t seem to be all that happy despite having access to the religion’s “peace”? Well, we had plenty of explanations for them, too.

1. How Christians Become Happy.

The Bible doesn’t talk all that much about happiness. It talks about comfort and rejoicing, but it doesn’t say much about actual happiness–outside of a religious context, at least. If you peruse that list, you’ll quickly notice a trend: the people practicing each verse’s preferred religion got their happiness from worshiping and doing other religious stuff, while people who did not practice the correct religion got their kicks doing stuff that was totally sinful and off-limits.

Moreover, when those aforementioned godless heathens got their kicks, the pleasure derived therewith is depicted as being pretty nice, sure, but nowhere near as nice as getting one’s happiness from the only approved source.

Ah, one might ask, but how does one get one’s happiness from that source?

This link didn’t exist when I was Christian, but it describes to a “T” how I was taught to be happy. It talks about an “exchange” of a Christian’s sadness for divinely-granted joy. Here’s the process:

1. Bring your dejection, your mourning, the ashes of your life and put it upon the table.
[Translation: You’re wayyyy too attached to feeling sad. Stop being that way, you attention-seeker, you.]
2. Get to work on this trade by taking charge of your thoughts.
[Translation: Keep your mind solely on “God” because otherwise you’ll just keep thinking about all that bad stuff making you unhappy.]
3. Acknowledge God’s existence, His authority, His ownership of all things — including yourself, His involvement in your life, and His ability to affect the outcome of your life and circumstances.
[Translation: Christians like you don’t already spend enough time doing this, so do this extra.]
4. Come with thanksgiving.
[Translation: Now that you’ve done all that other stuff, just praise and give thanks a lot. Keep doing that until it works!]

See? Easy peasy chicken cheesy. What on earth could be easier? Ignore your problems and just praise Jesus! About all that’s missing here is my previous denomination’s insistence that the first step on the road to happiness involves confession of sins to make sure one’s conscience is squeaky clean, since–remember–no sinner can really be truly happy.

Just don’t ask exactly how one “puts it upon the table” or precisely how to “take charge of your thoughts,” or just why “acknowledging God’s existence/authority/etc” links to happiness at all, or even what writing down all the good stuff in one’s life is supposed to do when someone is still unhappy despite knowing that good stuff is there. Christians aren’t very good at nailing down nebulous concepts with concrete examples or at figuring out real-world problems using real-world evidence. And they’re deeply distrustful of psychology generally, so even these techniques might well strike some extremist members of the religion as being suspiciously pop-psych.

Instead, what they (think they) know is that in their Jesus-fied view of the world, a Christian who is ultra-gung-ho ought to be very happy, and so all they’ve got in their toolbox is ways to get themselves super-psyched. That’s why this advice centers around praise and worship, thankfulness and submission. Those are many of the traits of an officially gung-ho Christian to most Christians.

2. Why Do So Many Christians Think That Non-Christians Can’t Be Happy?

Movies like God’s Not Dead accept as a truism (along with their intended audience of fundagelical Christians) that atheists are angry and unhappy people while Christians are content and happy. (They tend to conflate Nones, Dones, and other such unaffiliated folk with scarlet-letter-A atheists, so you’ll notice a bit of overlap here in terms. While I know there’s a big difference, they tend not to understand that finer point.) This accepted myth is now such a large part of Christianity that it’s hard not to run into a Christian insisting that non-believers are all not only secretly miserable but also aching to know what Christians’ big secret is to becoming and staying happy.

Sometimes Christians will even portray non-Christians as put-together and cheerful, even maybe optimistic and upbeat, but then–as happens to one of the atheists in that aforementioned movie–something terrible happens and they’ve got no comfort at all from the supernatural world, and no hope of getting maybe perhaps a little magical something-something from any supernatural friends in high places. If you see one of these representations, you may be sure that by the end of the movie, speech, or presentation, the non-Christian will be brought low and realize that he or she needs to convert in order to find true happiness. There’s a reason why this trope appears so frequently in Christians’ testimonies, after all!

Christians think that only they can have happiness because only they believe in Jesus–because all happiness comes only from this belief. If a Christian has belief, then nothing can “steal their joy.” The idea is that if someone is truly happy/joyous/whatever (remember, they do like to split hairs about those emotions), that life’s inevitable setbacks and losses won’t really bother them.

Non-Christians might think we’re happy, but we’re really not at all–and even this false happiness is as ephemeral and as easily scattered as dust in the wind. By contrast, Christians’ happiness is real happiness, and it cannot be shaken as long as the Christian maintains faith and is obedient in his or her worship duties. One could be a noble in a castle or a pauper in the gutter, but if one only believes and trusts in Jesus, then one can be deliriously contented with life no matter what one’s lot in it might be.

Even by the standards of over-simplistic party lines, this one’s over-simplistic.

3. Are Christians Really That Happy?

In a nutshell, no, not any more than any other group of people following an untrue ideology that they’re insisting is true in absence of facts. I had much the same experience as that poster. Biff’s volunteer work exposed me to a lot of the seamier underside of Christian culture, where I learned that not only were the flocks filled with misery and dysfunction, but their leaders weren’t the happy-happy joy-bots they acted like in the public eye, either.

One reason why I don’t think it’s a good idea to chain oneself to an untrue ideology is, in fact, the tendency of untruthful ideas to start piling up one after the other. The group is incapable of identifying, recognizing, or dealing with any untruthful claim they encounter without shining a very uncomfortable light on the group’s central untruthful idea(s). So they lose their sense of skepticism and start accepting any claim at all as long as it fits in with their existing delusions. (This process is also called “rightly dividing the truth.” No, really. I’m not being snarky. That’s really how it works. It’s a theological game of “if it fits, they sits”.)

When someone in their tribe finally admits that they’re not really very happy, then about all the rest of them can do is accuse that person of failing somehow. Either these failing people aren’t doing enough of the right stuff, they’re doing it wrong, they’re doing it while concealing some secret sin or predilection toward sin in their hearts, or else demons are oppressing them. You’ll notice that every single one of these accusations is based on purely subjective judgment; there’s no objective way whatsoever to tell if any if these is actually happening. Even the unhappy Christian in question often doesn’t know where the problem might be, so assumes that one of these conditions explains it. Remember all those links I gave you last time about unhappy Christians trying to suss out why they’re not happy? Every single one of them blamed themselves for Doing Christianity Wrong in exactly this fashion, just like this one does.

Good luck getting them to admit that their system isn’t perfect, though. In a religion where absolutely any thought might be considered a sin, there is always a way to blame an unhappy Christian for doing something wrong and causing the magic spell to fail.

Most of us who’ve come out of Christianity can remember many times when we were deeply unhappy even while doing everything in our power to perform the spell correctly. I’ve only met one or two people who seemed genuinely quite happy as Christians. Even those of us who were happy much or most of the time while Christians can remember other people we knew in church who weren’t at all happy–who were angry, bitter, negative, resentful, entitled, and constantly-frustrated folks with hair-trigger tempers, never a kind word to say about anyone or anything, or even prone to violent outbursts.

Adding to the problem, a deeply compartmentalized Christian might be able to go from singing joyously about how wonderfully happy they are to expressing some deeply angry or depressed feeling sixty seconds later–and never connect that they’re actually very unhappy. Ever hear about Christian projection? This is one of those situations. When I was Christian, I thought I was “joyous” even if I didn’t feel happy, but it wasn’t until after I deconverted that I realized just what a miserable sack of flesh I’d turned into during my time in church. I didn’t connect my PTSD, rage blackouts, and constant crying spells with genuine unhappiness. But all that didn’t stop me from thinking that I had the cure for myself those poor lost souls who were so desperately, if secretly, unhappy.

I didn’t understand why I wasn’t as happy as my religious leaders said I should be, when I was doing absolutely everything they said someone should do in order to achieve happiness. “Joy” didn’t feel all that happy to me, for some reason, but I thought that the problem was me, not the ideology I was pursuing.

Thinking back, I can remember a lot of Christians who were just like me–maybe not in the same way, but who fought “demons of depression” and the like constantly and never connected those feelings to being part of a religion that seems like it was deliberately and uniquely designed to destroy its adherents’ self-sufficiency, self-esteem, sense of fair play, compassion, and independence.

So when a Christian accuses a non-Christian of being secretly unhappy, maybe, just maybe, they’re getting that idea from somewhere very close to home.

4. Acting Happy Isn’t the Same as Being Happy.

In one recent survey, evangelicals were quick to describe themselves as “very happy” compared to mainline Protestants. But that happiness seems much more common in those evangelicals who are both moderately wealthy and frequent church attendees–indicating that not only did money help buy them that happiness, but that something about being an active member of their church either led to their happiness or led to them falsely report a level of happiness that maybe they didn’t truly feel.

It wasn’t a perfect survey, of course. Few are. The term “happiness” apparently wasn’t especially well-defined and might be just as superficial and consumer-driven as any other group’s definition of it. Christians like to think their version is loftier somehow and more “real” than that of non-Christians because it’s Jesus-centered, but I’ve never seen any sign that this is the case.

Further, as a sociologist quoted in that CT link indicated, this survey might just indicate that evangelicals are well aware that they’re supposed to say they’re happy.

Christians are, first and foremost, salespeople for their religious ideas. Salespeople don’t care about the truth. They care about sales. They aren’t paid according to how truthfully they communicated their product’s features to customers; they’re paid according to how many of that product they’ve sold. As Jeff Foxworthy said about a job interview he had once, when they asked him to tell them something bad about himself, he replied, “Man, I’m trying to sell you a product. I’m not going to tell you what’s wrong with it.”

Buyer beware, indeed.

If their religion claims that it makes people happy, then its salespeople can’t very well display unhappiness, now can they?

So if we want to evaluate how happy Christians really are, we can turn to other statistics: crime, poverty, education, and all the rest. The problem there, of course, is that very Christian areas tend to be riddled with dysfunction in every single marker we know how to measure. You’ll notice that every single state on this list of most miserable states are also states that are known for their religiosity. As we’ve often discussed on this blog, secular areas–states, communities, nations, you name it–tend to be better in all directions than their religious counterparts.

Since we know that poverty makes people unhappy because it introduces huge amounts of stress in their lives, we can get an idea of how stressed a group of people is by looking at poverty rates in their area. We can also get an idea of how unjust a person might feel their area is by looking at stuff like income inequality (the measure of how rich the richest people in that area are compared to how poor the poorest people are). We know that some markers are even more indicative of unhappiness than others–like unemployment, divorce, suicide rates, and crime. The more of those markers of dysfunction we note in an area, the more likely it is that its residents aren’t generally very happy. (That’s why “The Misery Index” is called that and not just “The Inflation+Unemployment Index.”)

But the states suffering the worst dysfunction are not only the most religious, but also act the most happy, it seems like. But acting happy isn’t being really happy, no matter how strenuously someone acts that way. If Christian-heavy states are also very high up the list on markers for dysfunction, chances are they’re not really as happy as they’re saying they are.

Ah, Christianity. If you didn’t have dishonesty, what else would you even have?

So how does one actually achieve happiness? Where is it found? We’ll talk about that next time we cover happiness. I’ve decided we’ll definitely do that fisking I talked about last time, and I have a post coming up at some point responding to a Christian evangelical leader who thinks that his religion is dying of “natural causes.” (Spoiler: hahaha, no.) See you next time!

A rare Lord Snow sighting on the bed. Normally he doesn't like walking across plush or spongy surfaces. LOOK AT THOSE TUFTS. LOOK AT THEM.
A rare Lord Snow sighting on the bed. Normally he doesn’t like walking across plush or spongy surfaces. LOOK AT THOSE EAR-TUFTS. LOOK AT THEM. LOOK.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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