As Christians, we have always heard that only God can make us happy. In fact, some Bible translations render Psalm 16:2 as, “You are my God. My happiness lies in you alone.”
But an atheist would say, “I don’t need God to be happy. I can get along just fine without him.” How do we respond?
It is true that an atheist can experience kinds of happiness without living for God. But if an atheist persistently and culpably rejects God, he would not be able to experience ultimate or perfect happiness.
In his recent book, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts, Fr. Robert J. Spitzer, founder and president of the Magis Center, elucidates four levels of happiness. The first level of happiness is the happiness associated with sensory pleasure obtained through food or drink and the pleasure experienced with the possession of material goods. The second level is happiness experienced when the comparative advantage over another is gained. The third level of happiness consists in the pleasure experienced when one contributes to the good outside of self and makes a positive difference. An atheist can attain these first three levels.
The fourth level of happiness that Fr. Spitzer identifies is transcendent happiness—the happiness experienced when the deepest human desires for perfect and unconditional (infinite) knowledge/truth, love, goodness/justice, and beauty are satisfied by the transcendent God, who is perfect and unconditional knowledge, love, goodness, and beauty itself.
Such transcendent desires are universal—that is to say, they belong to all human beings, including those who reject God. Consider the desire for perfect and unconditional knowledge. Have you ever recognized answers to your questions as incomplete? If so, what was your response? You probably were a bit frustrated—unhappy—and sought a better answer.
We have to ask ourselves, “Why do we get frustrated (unhappy) with imperfect or limited manifestations of knowledge?” As many great thinkers throughout the centuries have concluded, it is because we desire perfect and unconditional knowledge. If we didn’t desire this type of knowledge, then we would be content with imperfect and limited manifestations of it. But we are not content with imperfect and limited manifestations of knowledge. Therefore, we desire perfect or unconditional (infinite) knowledge—what Fr. Spitzer likes to call “the complete set of answers to the complete set of questions.”
Consider love. Have you ever been frustrated when someone manifested imperfect love? Those involved in any sort of relationship will affirm this to be true. But why do we get frustrated when we experience imperfect manifestations of love? As with knowledge, the answer is because we desire perfect or unconditional love.
What about justice and goodness? Have you ever been frustrated when an injustice occurs? Atheists acknowledge this to be true when they object to theism by pointing to the problem of evil. Have you ever experienced a bit of discontentment when you were confronted with imperfect goodness? Maybe you are a boss and your employees are not performing up to par. Maybe you are frustrated with your son or daughter who is not taking school seriously. We have to ask, “Why do we get frustrated with injustices and imperfect manifestations of goodness?” I think the answer is because we desire perfect and unconditional justice and goodness.
Finally, we desire perfect beauty. This desire manifests itself in various ways. We do not look good enough—neither do other people. The house layout could always be better. The beauty of the valley from a vantage point on the mountain could always be better. We are always looking for a little more beauty. But why is this? Why are we always discontent with forms of beauty in this world? You have probably guessed it—because we desire perfect and unconditional beauty.
Now, philosophers throughout the centuries have persuasively argued that God is perfect and unconditional truth, love, goodness, and beauty. From this it follows that if God does not exist, then the only things available to satisfy these natural desires are imperfect and conditioned things. But the imperfect and conditioned things of this world cannot possibly satisfy the desires for the perfect and unconditional. Therefore, without God, the desire for perfect and unconditional knowledge/truth, love, goodness/justice, and beauty go unsatisfied. But if these intrinsic human desires for the perfect and unconditional are perpetually unsatisfied, then human happiness is unachievable. If human happiness is unachievable, then life is absurd.
The bottom line is that an atheist, while able to attain some degree of happiness on this earth—at levels 1, 2, and even 3—will never attain the happiness that comes from orienting one’s heart toward ultimate or perfect happiness (transcendent happiness). As St. Augustine writes in reference to God, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” In other words, we are transcendent beings, and as such we have a desire for transcendent things. Stifling or ignoring this desire eliminates the greatest peace and joy possible during our earthly existence.
Written By Karlo Broussard