BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Interview: Why are the Religious Happier?

‘Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be, you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.’

— Psalm 32 (The Message)

Last Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of being interviewed on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire to offer my comments on a recent Pew research poll that showed that religious people were, on average, happier than their non-religious counterparts, and less likely to drink or smoke. Here are some of the comments I made on the show, and a few that I wished I’d had time to make. Of course, I’m commenting as a Christian in particular, not as a religious person in general, and all my comments were made from an unapologetically Christian position, since I wouldn’t pretend to be able to speak on behalf of other religious groups.

Christians do community well, but primarily because we didn’t start it

It is nice to have the recognition that the church is a huge social good in the world, and in an age and culture in which many feel profoundly lonely and disconnected, perhaps we should be making more of the fact that Sunday mornings offer an alternative to the disconnected and disembodied life of social media, etc. And it’s worth noting that Christians aren’t particularly weird people (though obviously individual exceptions to that statement spring to mind…), and that the sorts of things that make others happy are the same things that make others happy, but we fall short of explaining the root of Christian happiness if we speak only of our social relationships with each other. The Biblical word that perhaps best articulates what Christians talk about when they talk about happiness is ‘blessed’. It’s been cheapened by its use in responses to sneezes and its use as a hashtag on pictures of people on beaches, but blessedness is better understood as a deep happiness that comes from living in God’s favour, and in right relationship with him. Christians aren’t just happy because they’ve got mates they see at church every week, and they aren’t just happier because they feel as though they’re part of something bigger than themselves, but because they have been forgiven. We do community well because God started the whole thing — he brought people back into relationship with himself through Jesus, and then into relationship with each other.

Christians have a drinking culture too

Regarding Christians drinking, the point was made by the humanist representative that many religions or religious groups have prohibitions on smoking or drinking, and that this was the grounds for the difference in the stats there. While this is undoubtedly true (Islam, as I understand it, prohibits drinking altogether, and St Paul prohibits drunkenness for Christians in his letter to the Ephesians), I added that the culture of drinking for Christians is profoundly different that that for some (not all) non-religious people, which leads to lower alcohol consumption. 

If I could put it this way: Christians have a  drinking culture at the heart of their life together — if you’ve ever passed a church that tells you when they celebrate the eucharist, then you know when that church is drinking. However it is the motives and the meaning of the drinking and not just the quantities, I suggest, that make it very different from the Friday night session after work at the pub. Much (again, not all) drinking at the weekend is celebration of something miserable that has finally finished (that is, the working week, until Monday), and much of it is done to forget or move on from the past, and to disassociate from it in some measure. By contrast, in the Eucharist, Christians drink to remember something great having been accomplished, not to disassociate from reality, but to pay more careful attention to the deepest realities of Jesus’ death and resurrection. To paraphrase the Eagles: some drink to remember, some drink to forget. 

I concede, I’m pushing it. We all know that taking the Lord’s Supper is hardly representative of the way most Christians drink at most times. But I contend that the basic assertion is true — Christians have fewer motivations to drink heavily, and that curbs Christian drinking as much as the explicit prohibitions against drunkenness. 

Two routes to happiness

It seems to me that there are fundamentally two routes to happiness. Few of us have no desire for the transcendent or the eternal — what could be called ‘wishful thinking’, if one wished to use pejorative terms to reach their conclusion before considering any evidence — and there is, if you like, an optimistic (broadly speaking, religious) and pessimistic (broadly speaking, non-religious) way of dealing with those innate longings. The pessimist says that there is no eternal, all we see is all we have, the desires will not and cannot be fulfilled: they must instead be denied if one wishes to be happy, and swapped for what can bring immediate pleasure. The optimist says the reverse — the universe does not have so low a ceiling on it, there is an eternal and transcendent: your longings needn’t be denied when they can be fulfilled.

So what makes the difference between the two? Why pick one approach as opposed to the other? This is where I contended that the Christian has a particular advantage over the other religious believer — our hope is not rooted in mere speculation, but in the historical claims of the person of Jesus as he is presented in the gospels, and the historical fact of his physical resurrection. If the resurrection happened, then forgiveness is on offer, hope has a real object, and a deep and lasting happiness is possible. I’ll drink to that.*

*On the second Sunday of each month at the 10am and 11:30am services, and the third Sunday of each month at the 5pm service.

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