Joy is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about religion. Indeed, you might think of religion as distinctly joyless, prohibiting or severely curtaining things that bring us pleasure.
However, according to Ariel Glucklich, joy plays a central role in religion and helps to explain its enduring appeal. His book The joy of religion. Exploring the nature of pleasure in spiritual life (Cambridge University Press, 2020) explores how religion can help us reach joy, and why this matters. His book can be situated in a broader literature (see also, recently, Stephen Asma’s Why we need religion, Oxford, 2018). Both Glucklich and Asma argue (correctly, I think) that in order to understand religion, we won’t get very far if we narrowly focus on its truth claims or even on the worldviews it presents. Rather, understanding religion requires that we need to grasp what it does for people.
According to Glucklich, religion provides access to distinct kinds of joy by encouraging (or forcing us) to give up things that provide immediate hedonistic pleasure (e.g., sex, food) which religious systems tend to exchange for a higher form of pleasure.
For example, there is a distinct joy that comes from submitting yourself to the Ramadan. You endure its discomfort, try to focus on cultivating a positive state of mind free of anger and resentment, you enjoy its release in the evening, and at the end of the Ramadan, and this joy is something you only have access to as a religious Muslim.
Or there is the joy of Buddhist meditation. As Bryce Huebner, a philosopher who specializes in Buddhism and who is also Buddhist practitioner told me, “two of the states that are supposed to be cultivated in buddhist practice are in the vicinity of joy and comfort/easiness (pīti and sukha), as well as the union of those two states. They are primitive aspects of experience that emerge when you reach a state of quietude that is secluded from mental hindrances.”
A lot of Christian music, it seems to me, is distinctly focused on the state of joy. Listening to beloved hymns and gospel songs (such as O Happy Day, Jesu bleibet meine Freude, I saw the Light, O Come Emmanuel, etc etc) can help elevate one’s mood and lift one’s spirits with the happiness that is embodied in the music and the practice.
These examples are not meant to be exhaustive or primarily characterizing these traditions, but just to give a flavor of how religion can offer us joy.
Glucklich assumes an evolutionary account of pleasure, whereby our ability to feel and cultivate pleasure serves the goals of survival, reproduction, and prosperity.
In his view, religion helps to regulate three different kinds of pleasure:
- novelty/replenishment: this are hedonic pleasures, such as offered by food, sex, new stimuli, or by the fulfillment of concrete needs such as drinking after a long trek in the desert.
- mastery pleasure: the pleasure that comes from conquering and mastering something difficult, the pleasure a mathematician might feel in proving a theorem, or the philosopher might feel in solving an issue in a paper she’s writing, or the mountaineer upon reaching the summit
- play pleasure, the pleasure of enjoying things for their own sake such as games or rituals.
For Glucklich, this exchange of hedonistic pleasure with mastery and play pleasure only became possible with the increased production of resources, political inequality, symbolic transformations, and the extensive division of labor during the Axial Age.
Glucklich draws among other things on his extensive knowledge of Hinduism to make this case, with a masterful analysis of the Ramayana. This classic Hindu epic is a narrative and imaginative illustration of the shift from hedonistic to higher forms of pleasure, particularly mastery pleasure. The Ramayana presents a conflict between dharma (moral duty) and sukha (pleasure), which is resolved by Rama’s victory over the demon Ravana. The old, animalistic pleasure is replaced by a new kind of pleasure, mastery pleasure, where the observance of the dharma brings about a deep joy.
You can observe this transformation also in other traditions, e.g., in Confucius’ short spiritual autobiography, which is as follows (Analects 2:4):
Confucius said: “At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm.”
Only at age seventy Confucius was able to align his desires with societal and religious norms. This shift of understanding the role of pleasure in religion comes about slowly in one’s own religious life too. To become more adept at the religious life is to get a deeper sense of what this pleasure is all about. I learned this personally too. It seems to me that becoming comfortable in one’s religious views and practices (though hopefully never entirely or too comfortable!) you learn what it means to derive joy, fortitude and other positive emotions from those views and practices.
An important element for me is sense of awe and wonder that religion can inspire. Philosophers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) have argued that religion helps us to cultivate an attitude of awe and wonder that helps to counteract a kind of complacency. As we go through the motions of everyday life, we tend to slip into a kind of rut of taking things for granted, we see the world just as a colorless set of routines.
According to Heschel, religion (in his view, particularly Jewish rituals) have the power to push us out of these ruts. When we wonder we are confronted with the world in a novel way, or in any case, it presents itself to us in a novel way. When we are in the right state of mind, we might marvel at the delicacy of a primrose in June, or the first snowflakes in December, as these things present ourselves with a depth and profundity that has escaped us or that we’ve simply grown too accustomed to. A simple flame on a candle might look banal, but viewed within the proper state of mind it is a wondrous thing.
The phenomenology of this religious awe and wonder was described in detail by CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy, as he wrote “Joy is distinct not only from pleasure in general but even from aesthetic pleasure. It must have the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing.” This sense is phenomenologically sehnsucht or saudade, and it can be evoked through religious ritual or even just listening to religious music.
I am not entirely sure if Joy (in Lewis’ or in Heschel’s sense) neatly fits within the threefold distinction that Glucklich puts up. In a sense, the joy that comes from wonderment is hedonistic and novelty-oriented, and so would fit better with the novelty/replenishment joy that Glucklich argues religions disavow.
Yet, if you read mystical accounts by such authors like Hadewijch, or Mechtild, theypresent religious experience in those embodied, sensuous, sensory, and sometimes even sexual terms (see here an excellent piece by Amber Griffioen on this work, which she describes as “Jesus fanfiction”).
I agree with Glucklich that religion helps us to cultivate pleasures that come from mastery, which often involve sacrificing immediate satisfaction of desires, sometimes also involve pain, endurance, and so on.
But I think in many cases religion also helps us to channel pleasure in a way that we would not gain without that religious framework. The possibility to see beauty and novelty in things we have gotten too much used to is, I agree with Heschel, one of the most wonderful gifts that religion can offer us.
It’s not coincidental that writers who discuss wonder often reference childhood. Rachel Carson, for instance, thought we have this intuitive sense of wonder as children but we lose it as we grow up (sometimes even still in our childhood).
Yet, transformed by religion (or by deep engagement with scientific practice, or through philosophy), our ability to marvel at and to derive hedonistic pleasure from the mundane, sometimes even from our own inner states of mind, is a grown up thing to do.
It’s allowing yourself to wonder and feel joy at the new way you experience the world. It’s allowing oneself to be naive or to affirm your lack of knowledge even though you’re grown up in other respects. This, as Carson and others have argued, can be an enduring source of joy particularly when things get tough (politically, economically, public-health wise). Religion is not the only pathway to this (as many works on spiritual irreligiosity indicate), but religion’s ability to facilitate this joyful wonder makes religious beliefs and practices worthwhile.