Tuesday, July 09, 2002

Final correspondence

In response to my previous correspondence (see the first and second letters below) I got this:

Hey Russ!
(and who ever else reads this)

Thanks again for your resposnse to my response to your response. I'm not going to parse e-mails but I think you and yours have come dangerously close to validating my original points. I'm still not convinced that you are all a bunch of happy campers and I stand by what I have already said..
Anyway, thanks for trying and glad your listening. Say hi to Chris for me (who I will admit is one of the funniest athiests I've met) . Later!

Richie L.
I know I shouldn't, but I found this reply incredibly disheartening.

I mean, I really went out of my way to be friendly to the guy; I didn't think I was baiting him and I certainly tried to describe a "happy atheist" life in as accessible a manner as possible. But of course, he starts with the assumption that all atheists are unhappy; so rather than be bothered to think about what I wrote, the best he could come up with was more or less "well you don't sound happy to me."

I guess I should have known better.

I can't decide whether to waste the time on another reply. As I was listening to the same station this morning (I'm serious, there's very little else to listen to) I couldn't help but be struck by what a wall-to-wall bitchfest their regular programming is. America's on the decline. Satan is everywhere. The world is going to end within a few years, isn't that exciting? I was a drunken slob but then I stopped being a drunken slob and now my life isn't quite as miserable as it used to be. Homosexuals will kill you in your sleep if you don't take a stand now.

Is this the kind of "happiness" we're supposed to be living up to?

This email exchange got me thinking. The implicit message Richie was sending me was, "You're really not happy, and the reason why is because you don't have God in your life."

Now, this angle doesn't work on me, because I happen to be a person who considers myself happy. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that it doesn't really matter to him at all. He's dismissed me now as an irrelevant data point.

But not all atheists are happy. There are certainly unhappy people of all varieties out there. I'd guess a roughly equal proportion of atheists and theists are unhappy. And if he makes the same argument to a genuinely unhappy person, that person is probably going to get ticked off, but then secretly sit around and reflect to himself. "Hey, I'm really NOT happy. I wonder if there's something to this God thing after all?"

Say an evangelist makes a pronouncement to a room filled with a random sample of atheists. "None of you atheists are happy! You all need God!" Maybe six out of ten of them are really happy, and they brush him off. Of course I'm happy, schmuck. Go away. Two out of ten think, Well, my life could be better, but this God stuff is still nonsense. The other two people are really bothered by this pronouncement because they've just been thinking about how unhappy they are. Maybe I should try this out. Bingo, the congregation grows. And that happens even though the evangelist's confident pronouncement was wrong for 80% of the people in the room.

Like any sales pitch, it's a numbers game. You don't need anything like a 100% success rate, you just need to go out there and make more pitches. It doesn't even matter if it's TRUE or not that Christianity, in general will make an unhappy person happier. It doesn't matter if the jump from "I'm unhappy" to "I need to find God" is totally spurious. If you give your pitch to enough people, you randomly hit enough targets that your numbers grow, and that's all that matters, isn't it?

Worse than that, even a happy person has off days. Well, yes I'm happy... but I did have a bad day at work last week. I did have a fight with my wife. If you catch any person at a bad time, he can think of himself as unhappy.

And finally, telling someone that they're unhappy is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whether or not it's true, anyone can be influenced to start dwelling on all the things in their lives that aren't perfect. Gosh, I think I'm happy but that fight with my wife sure bothered me. I wonder if my marriage is on the rocks? Once you start thinking that way, a bad attitude can compound itself and cause real problems.

Does this approach intentionally thrive on causing misery? Do they actually try to depress people, in order to bring them into the club? It does make me wonder.

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