The Pursuit of Happiness

My speech at an Interfaith Dialogue in September 2017, alongside a Christian And Muslim Speaker at La Trobe University.

The 2017 poster of the Interfaith Event at La Trobe University.

I acknowledge and pay my respects to the Traditional Custodians and Elders of this nation, past, present and emerging; and to the continued cultural and community practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Based up and Reconciliation Australia

I begin with an Acknowledgement of Country because it is appropriate. Similarly, I am wearing a ‘Vote Yes’ T-shirt tonight not to confront people regarding the same-sex marriage postal vote, but because the T-Shirt and the AOC are pertinent to what I will be saying.

My name is Geoff and I am an atheist and humanist. Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight at your Interfaith Dialogue, although I should start with some clarifications and definitions.

Unlike Islam, Christianity and other religions, atheism is not a faith position. It is the exact opposite – a lack of belief in a god or gods. Beyond that, there is no singular ‘atheist position’ on any issue or argument, which is probably why we generally do not have atheist churches or many social groups. Atheist views are as diverse as are the background cultures and societies of atheists around the world. Therefore, I am not here to give ‘the’ atheist perspective on happiness but simply one individual atheist perspective – my own.

Many atheists subscribe to humanism, an outlook that provides the foundation for much of our modern, secular world, and of our understandings of human rights, humanitarian charities, the humane treatment of animals, and a recognition of our common humanity.

In the words of Shakespeare: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”

This is not some subverted form of religious worship inverted back upon the human ego, but an evidentiary recognition that humans have singular capabilities to solve the problems of the world – and a related responsibility to do so.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We all know the words and understand that these are three things to which humans presumable aspire. But what exactly is happiness? How might atheists and humanists view happiness?

In the words of one old song, happiness means different things to different people. We all understand and emotionally connect when we see the happiness on the face of a smiling, giggling baby; we all laugh when a friend shares a funny joke; we are all susceptible to the charms of advertisers who tell us that our lives will be happier if we purchase their product.

But happiness as an emotion is transitory and fleeting. It is unreliable and can be deceptive. I have been told by believers that their faith makes them happy or that, conversely, if they lost their faith, their lives would feel empty and unfulfilled. Either way, they are equating their religion with their happiness as some sort of supposed evidence of their faith. I have two problems with such a position. Firstly, as an atheist, my lack of belief gives me an equal sense of happiness and fulfillment – and I recall a Christian friend who admitted to me, a year after I lost my faith, that she could see that I had never been happier. So you with your beliefs and I with my non-belief may feel equally happy, but we cannot both be right.

Secondly, alcoholics and drug addicts find happiness in substance abuse. They actually feel happy even as they potentially destroy their lives or the lives of others. Their example shows me that the emotion of happiness is not a measure of whether something is necessarily good or bad, right or wrong, true or false.

But there is more to happiness than the emotional state. Happiness is also a sense of well being and fulfilment that comes about when our physical and psychological welfare needs are met. In his book ‘The Expanding Circle’, ethicist Peter Singer explores the evolution of our sense of welfare as both individuals and as a collective human society. Singer writes that reason leads to the principle that “one’s own interests are one among many sets of interests”, and that none of these other sets of interests are ordinarily more or less important than our own.

As we individually grow from childhood to adulthood, we learn that our welfare is interdependent with that of others around us. As children, we learn that the welfare of our siblings and parents is inextricably bound to our own. Beyond that, we learn similarly of our school friends, our neighbourhoods, our churches and other social circles, then ultimately of our nation and the world.

Such growth in understanding can also be seen in collective human societies as they evolve from small hunter gatherer clans, to larger city states, and beyond into widespread national and trans-national identities. Indeed, recent human understandings have expanded our welfare concerns to include those of animals and of the environment.

I view the holy books of the three Abrahamic religions as literary products of their pre-industrial and pre-enlightenment societies, conflating tribalism with particular religions, and concerning themselves with the preservation of those cultural identities. I also see that the world is evolving beyond such tribalism, and increasing numbers of people see religion as providing insufficient foundation for our identities as digital and global citizens. In response, and despite their insistence upon tradition, religions adapt and evolve in order to survive, as does all of human society.

This brings me back, full circle, to my beginning, with my Acknowledgement of Country, which recognises that everything we do can impact upon other people’s lives in ways that are positive, negative and neutral. My country also currently incarcerates refugees and asylum seekers in concentration camps under conditions that are cruel and inhumane. How can humanists respond to such injustice?

As a part answer, I offer my T-shirt, which concerns itself with the same-sex postal vote. I wear this ‘yes’ T-shirt with pride, fully aware that there may be others in this auditorium who disagree. But I ask for your indulgence in a quick thought experiment. If, instead of same-sex couples, the postal vote was asking us about another minority group. What if it asked whether Jews should enjoy equal rights in Australia? Or Muslims? Asian Australians? Catholics? Indigenous Australians? How would you vote then? I would hope that you might vote for equality and compassion, in recognition of our common humanity – as though your brother’s or sister’s human rights were under question, because indeed they are.

In all these cases, I would still vote the same way and still wear this T-shirt with equal pride, because I believe – as I hope you do – that we are all equal in worth and dignity, and should be entitled to equal protection under the law. Our entitlement to happiness as living, thinking beings, surely compels us to work towards the mutually beneficial welfare of all.

We are all here at university because we recognise that we do not and cannot know everything, but we wish to learn skills that will enable us to research wisely, to think critically, and to reach informed and reasoned, evidence-based conclusions as part of our individual journey towards becoming empowered global citizens. You may believe in an afterlife – I do not – but I hope that we share a similar desire to do our bit to help create a bit of heaven here on Earth, because our minds give us the capacity to do so and our conscience compels us to act.

Caring for the welfare of others, and working towards that end, helps to create fulfilled individuals and produces a society wherein an optimal amount of happiness might be created for all. My own quest for happiness inspires me to work for the happiness of others, as I hope your journey may similarly inspire you.

© 2021 Geoff Allshorn

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