July 29, 2015

Would You Rather Be Happy and Wrong or Unhappy and Right?

happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a recent comment I left at Bitchspot, I suggested that many religious believers would probably prefer to be "happy and stupid" than "sad and smart" in the sense that they are willing to believe things that are probably false as long as such beliefs are perceived to contribute to their feelings of happiness. In this post, I'd like to expand on this possibility a bit and suggest that it might not even be limited to religious believers.

If you have watched any of Anthony Magnabosco's street epistemology videos, you may recall seeing him explain how he wants to believe things that are true and avoid believing things that are false. He sometimes asks his conversation partners if this is true of them as well (i.e., are they interested in trying to maximize true beliefs and minimize false beliefs?). Not surprisingly, most say that they are. My guess is that they probably only do so because they are not making the connection between the pursuit of truth and their emotional state. That is, I'd guess that many are interested in maximizing true beliefs only up to the point where the pursuit of truth might be perceived as jeopardizing their happiness.

I have encountered several Christians who - when the conversation progresses to a deeper level of disclosure - readily admit that they would rather hold on to beliefs which might be false because they are convinced that such beliefs are essential to their happiness. For them, belief in Christian dogma leads to happiness. Because of this, they are not terribly interested in questioning it too closely. They would rather be happy and wrong than risk their unhappiness to get closer to the truth. Some have the insight and openness to admit this to themselves and others.

I used to find this mindset extremely frustrating when I encountered it. I had great difficulty comprehending how anyone could operate this way. It seemed so foreign to me. I have since come to appreciate it as just one more example of human diversity. And I have come to suspect over the years that it is far more common than the alternative position some of us have taken (i.e., freethought). Today, I'd guess that most people - and not just religious people - would prefer to believe things that are likely to be false if they think that such beliefs are part of why they are happy.

I'm not saying that most people run around looking for false beliefs to make them happy, and I'm not claiming that most people would cling to a demonstrably false belief just to experience positive feelings. I see it more as a matter of not questioning the beliefs one has adopted and to which one has become emotionally attached (e.g., religious dogma, political ideology, patriarchy theory, New Age spirituality, assorted paranormal phenomena). And I see this as being even more likely when one perceives these beliefs as central to one's identity and to one's happiness. Beliefs which one associates with one's happiness do not receive the same sort of scrutiny as those to which we are less emotionally invested.

I think this is a huge part of why freethought is so difficult; it requires a willingness to follow the evidence and entails the risk that the evidence will challenge one's cherished beliefs. The freethinker is committed to such a process of inquiry and understands that this often means modifying or even abandoning some of these beliefs.

Before concluding, it is important to acknowledge that something about the choice presented in the title of this post is misleading. Some might say that we don't know that the religious believer (or a secular believer in something else) is necessarily wrong; others will point out that plenty of believers are both wrong and unhappy. And I suspect that several of you might protest that freethought and the pursuit of reality do not necessarily doom one to unhappiness. Even if they often seem to doom one to outsider status, this is not necessarily the same thing as unhappiness. I have no argument with any of these points.

This is about perception, and what I am suggesting is that beliefs we perceive as contributing to our happiness are among the least likely to be questioned, challenged, tested, or made open to modification by evidence. While I have chosen freethought and accepted the risk of unhappiness, I recognize that this choice is not the one everyone will make.

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