‘Magic in the Moonlight’ by Woody Allen, movie still

In the time of emotional turbulences in my life, I tend to become a bit of a film addict. I often turn to my favourite directors and re-watch old movies. Recently, it was Woody Allen, who I have been a fan of ever since I was old enough to watch “adult” films.

The two films I chose to re-watch, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014), explore a very similar topic: faith vs. rationality. This was a purely accidental choice, though it strangely coincided with some events in my personal life. A close friend of mine had recently been prescribed anti-depressants. That friend is a devoted believer and a very spiritual person, who has always seen significance in everything that a non-religious person would consider random. Her recent breakdown, which I found very upsetting, made me think a lot about the common notion of religious people being sheltered from depression.

In Magic in the Moonlight, which takes place in the 1920s—time of exquisite fashion, jazz and an interest in séances—we have Stanley aka Wei Ling Soo, a celebrity illusionist who is on a mission to expose the trickstery behind the work of Sophie, a young woman who claims to be a medium. His long-held atheistic and rational views of the world and unmoderated condescension towards anyone who thinks otherwise are challenged when it becomes clear that Sophie does indeed have magic powers to predict the future. The discovery that “there is something more to our life than we see” turns bitter and cold Stanley into a much happier person. But as he is on the verge of starting to believe in God and prayer, his rational mind begins to rebel and Sophie does in fact turn out to be charlatan.

In You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, we have a group of characters, who, typically for Allen, get their lives complicated in various, both dramatic and comical, ways, and mostly end up unhappy. This includes Roy, a one-book writer who ends up destroying his marriage and career. He lives off the financial support of Helena, his mother-in-law, whose spirituality he viciously mocks. Yet the recently divorced Helena, who takes advice from a fortune-teller, and her new friend Jonathan, a widower, who runs an occultist shop and tried to contact his departed wife, are the only characters who are genuinely happy.

By making the rational Stanley grim and unhappy, and the rational Roy a self-destroying loser, Woody Allen makes a very strong point about atheists being unable to find true happiness. At the press conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, asked to share his views on the subject of Helena and Jonathan, Woody Allen said:

“This is my perspective, and has always been my perspective on life. I have a very grim, pessimistic view of it, I always have since I was a little boy, it hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies, and deceive yourself. And I’m not the first person to say this or the most articulate person, it was said by Nietzsche, it was said by Freud, it was said by Eugene O’Neill: one must have one’s delusions to live, if you look at life too honestly and clearly, life does become unbearable because it’s a pretty grim enterprise. So I feel that those people are the only two people that are happy, they are capable of deluding themselves. If I saw them at a party in real life I would think that they were foolish people and dumb, and silly, and I would laugh at them, but they would be happier than me.”

‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’ by Woody Allen, movie still

If we disregard Allen’s dry and sarcastic sense of humour, his perception of faith as the happiness-bringing factor was until recently a common belief among psychiatrists. It was believed that religion and spirituality can provide shelter from depression. But a recent study, analysed by Dr Raj Persaud in an article for the Huffington Post, has demonstrated that “there is an opposite relationship between religious belief and depression. Religion, and even more, spirituality not tied to formal religion, appears to be unhelpful in terms of protecting you from low mood, and could even be linked with more depression.”

When reality does not meet our expectations, we are likely to feel bitter, sad and hopeless. The problem with religion is that it creates unrealistic expectations: unanswered prayers are likely to deepen our frustration. If we then add a sense of guilt on top of that (prayers haven’t been unanswered because we don’t deserve kindness etc.), the result can be crushing. Accepting the randomness of life takes away a big chunk of the frustration that comes from futile attempts at examining the reasons behind everything that happen to us. To quote Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and a co-founder of the London School of Economics, “The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.” (Androcles and the Lion, Preface, 1916)

Of course, what religion can bring to one’s life is a very strong sense of purpose and meaning. According to Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl, who conducted his research in concentration camps as well as at a private clinic after the war, these two things—purpose and meaning—are crucial for individuals to survive and thrive in life. Frankl, mentioned by Gleb Tsipursky in his article for The Richard Dawkins Foundation, called them a “will-to-meaning.” Tsipursky mentions also Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, whose research “demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors.”

But religion is not the only path to gain a sense of life meaning and purpose. Having discovered that Sophie doesn’t possess any magic powers and that most likely there is nothing more to our life than we see, Stanley from Magic in the Moonlight doesn’t go back to bitterness and grimness. He falls in love with Sophie and this new love gives his life a whole new meaning.

Naturally, love is not guaranteed to happen to everyone, so it’s best to look for purpose in things that are within our reach and ability. Self-development, working on emotional intelligence, getting better at interacting with people and forming relationships, making a contribution towards the society, making use of our skills and the time we have, learning and sharing our knowledge, being a great partner/parent, becoming a sportsman, a musician, a politician, a scientist —there is an infinite number of things, big and small, one can choose as their purpose. On a website dedicated to lifting the prejudice many feel towards nonbelievers, we can read how various atheists define their purpose and meaning in life:  “What makes me happy is the ability, freedom, and courage to follow my dream.”, “I find my happiness in watching my children and grandchildren grow and mature.”, “Whether I’m in the lab investigating cellular respiration, or on stage making your feet move, my happiness is passionate and personal. I live on a big, beautiful planet with the health and freedom to explore it any way I choose. Add to that a world full of diverse altruistic humans who make every day unique and valuable.”, says Mark D. Hatcher, CFI–Washington, DC.

These ultra-positive testimonials clash with Woody Allen’s grim views on life. Given his speech at the conference for You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, I would imagine him laugh at the “beautiful planet” sentiment. Still, however cynical he might be, he has his own purpose: telling stories. His relentlessness to make films with the regularity that doesn’t cease to amaze critics and audience makes it obvious that to him, film-making is the “delusion” he considers crucial to make life more bearable. Films, theatre, literature, any sort of storytelling can provide a great deal of healthy escapism—both for the creators and the audience—that is healthy precisely because we don’t question its fictitiousness.

The Atheist Bus Campaign, image by LeoLondon (under CC licence)

The approach atheists take towards the nonexistence of God, varies greatly. Allen’s is a cynical yet charming mockery with the acknowledgment that religion does have some merits: “To me … there’s no real difference between a fortune teller or a fortune cookie and any of the organized religions. They’re all equally valid or invalid, really. And equally helpful”, he said in an interview for The New York Times. Darwinist Richard Dawkins, one of the most vocal and active anti-religion warriors, and the author of The God Delusion bestseller, certainly wouldn’t share Allen’s lenient attitude. Dawkins considers religion as a whole “a uniquely dangerous threat to scientific rationality”, and compares it to a kind of mental illness. Likewise, Steve Pavlina, famous American self-help author and entrepreneur, bluntly rejects all aspects of religion, and is not afraid to ridicule them in his blog post titled 10 Reasons You Should Never Have a Religion. Pavlina says:

For reasonably intelligent people who aren’t suffering from major issues with low self-esteem, religion is ridiculously consciousness-lowering. While some religious beliefs can be empowering, on the whole the decision to formally participate in a religion will merely burden your mind with a hefty load of false notions. (…) Religion is spiritual immaturity. It’s entirely possible to enjoy your life without spending so much of it bent over in submission. Pull your head out of your rear, and look around with your own two eyes. If you need something to worship, then feel grateful for your own conscious mind.

But writer and philosopher Alain de Botton has recently protested against dismissing religion as a whole, and came up with what he calls Atheism 2.0, which can take inspiration and positive elements from religions without the belief in God, deities or supernatural spirits. In a very popular TED talk, de Botton says that “there is something to learn from the example of religion—even if you don’t believe any of it. If you’re involved in anything that’s communal, that involves lots of people getting together, there are things for you in religion. If you’re involved, say, in a travel industry in any way, look at pilgrimage. (…) If you’re in the art world, look at the example of what religions are doing with art. And if you’re an educator in any way, again, look at how religions are spreading ideas. You may not agree with the ideas, but my goodness, they’re highly effective mechanisms for doing so.” Asked about what Atheism 2.0 can offer in place for spiritual experience, de Botton says that one can find the “so-called spiritual moments” in science and observation, without believing in the spirit. “I, like many of you, meet people who say things like, “But isn’t there something bigger than us, something else?” And I say, “Of course.” And they say, “So aren’t you sort of religious?” And I go, “No.” Why does that sense of mystery, that sense of the dizzying scale of the universe, need to be accompanied by a mystical feeling? Science and just observation gives us that feeling without it, so I don’t feel the need. The universe is large and we are tiny, without the need for further religious superstructure.”

Alain de Botton: Atheism 2.0 at TED

Alain de Botton has been widely criticised in the atheist community, but I am much more sympathetic to his ideas than the hard-headed atheists. As an ex-believer brought up in an ultra-Catholic country, I am very aware of the dangers of an organized religion, and the way it hampers the development of conscience. At the same time, I can see the benefits of some of its elements: the community, the rituals, the routine (I’ve written about the merits of routine in the past). I agree with Alain de Botton when he says that “The people in (…) the secular world, who are interested in matters of the spirit, in matters of the mind, in higher soul-like concerns, tend to be isolated individuals. They’re poets, they’re philosophers, they’re photographers, they’re filmmakers. And they tend to be on their own.” As much as I love science and data, I would happily share with fellow atheists and agnostics not just facts and figures, but the experience of, for lack of better word, soul-searching, mindfulness, meditation—and the dizziness I feel when I look at NASA’s photo of Andromeda galaxy.

I do believe that turning into one’s own mind for answers and recognizing that the ability to be happy lies in our own hands, not someone else’s, is incredibly powerful and positive. As charming and funny as I find Helena’s character in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, my sympathy goes to her daughter Sally who deals with things as they are and decides to follow her dream of opening an art gallery. But at the end of the day, religion is a choice, and everyone is free to identify their own sources of happiness and comfort—even if they are a complete delusion.

To quote Woody Allen: Whatever Works.