God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann 1882
Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
~ Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet 2.2 c. 1600
Despite the scrumptious, about-to be-devoured meals I see on my hedonistic Facebook feed (accompanied by their self-congratulatory “not-to-shabby” captions), within the concrete walls of my work world, I’m much more likely to hear “Happy Friday” than “Life is Good.”
It could be I’m merely projecting my late life dissatisfaction onto the rest of my American brethren; however, the contemporary novels I read tend to support my thesis that a majority of our citizens are unhappy with their lot. The novelistic worlds of Jonathan Franzen, Jenny Offill, or Colum McCann are worlds of woe, of fragmentation, of fractured families where spouses spit spleen at one another and disaffected children fail to prosper. And certainly, the recent US election suggests that 46% of voters would rather cast their lots with a ranting, inarticulate prevaricator who promises change than suffer through four more years of a considerably less corrupt status quo.
The reasons for our unhappiness are no doubt manifold, but I’m going to suggest that the decline in religious belief and observation must play a significant role in our Great Dissatisfaction. Now, I don’t want to get into the barren argument of whether there is or isn’t a deity, of whether belief is an illusion or disbelief a delusion, but rather, how the absence of religious observation – and by observation I mean not only attending services but also following precepts – might lead to malaise.
A recent Pew Research Center study of Religion in Everyday Life supports this contention:
“Highly religious people are distinctive in their day-to-day behaviors in several key ways: They are more engaged with their families, more involved in their communities and more likely to report being happy with the way things are going in their lives.”
The scoop, though, is that in the US Protestant Christianity and non-Orthodox Judaism are in decline.
The population of Orthodox Jews is growing by 5,000 per year, but the more liberal, non-Orthodox Jew population is shrinking by 10,000 per year. Liberal politicians used to count on strong support from the Jewish community, and while the more secular leaning Jews still vote mostly Democrat, the growing Orthodox sect identifies much more with a conservative mindset, which further divides its dwindling numbers. from World Religion News
As far as the US is concerned, it seems as if Nietzsche was a bit premature in declaring God dead, but when it comes to not merely believing but also adhering to the precepts of American religion, God has entered hospice care.
It seems to me that observation — what Buddhists and Jews call “practicing” –makes a significant difference in achieving some sort of happiness, that it’s not merely enough to call yourself a Christian or Buddhist or Jew to achieve the peace that passeth understanding.
I’ll use myself as an example. For years – almost thirty to be non-exact – I dabbled in Buddhism, in fact, declared myself to be a Buddhist. I read books, meditated, served ever so briefly on the board of a Tibetan Society, could rattle off the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Golden Path, plus chant the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” with the best of them.
Although Buddhism didn’t offer the promise of eternal bliss, it did provide a regimen of meditative exercises to help me come to grips with life’s slings and arrows. When I was a practicing Buddhist, I had at least embraced a system of belief, but here’s the rub, you can’t merely be a Buddhist, you have to practice Buddhism, you have to meditate, you must also do. Therefore, I no longer consider myself a Buddhist but a Dharma Dilettante.
Why did I give it up, you ask. It’s very, very, very hard work, which, as the Bodhisattvas say, may take lifetimes to achieve.
Should I mention distractions like the Internet and the unhappy fact that I enjoy mockery?
Am I happier as a non-Buddhist?
As far as Christianity is concerned, I don’t think you need “to practice” to consider yourself a Christian but you can merely be one. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity does offer the prospect of eternal life, and it seems to me that even if God clings to life, that his adversary Satan is as dead as a doornail when it comes to personal belief (see Hamlet above), so I suspect that most non-practicing Christians don’t see the afterlife as binary, that they’re all going to heaven if they mutter some sort of prayer in what Lucinda Williams has called “those long last moments.”
However, what ultimately makes people happy is the extinction of ego, and if that’s the case, it’s no wonder people in the Age of Social Media are dissatisfied, despite their magical powers of conjuring movies and music instantaneously; it’s no wonder that our novels depressive, our sci-fi dystopian.
 I know, given the context, an unfortunate choice of words.