I have often heard Christians describe certain things in this world that are pleasing to humans as “gifts from God.” Some examples include music, the beauty of nature, and the comfort and companionship of animals. These things, they say, are good for us and make us happy, and therefore we should be grateful to God for them. In fact, the existence of these things is evidence for God, for what are pets and flowers and symphonies if not indicators that God loves us and wants us to be happy?
Well, to answer that question, let’s take at look at exactly how these phenomena are beneficial to humans.
Modern research has shown that (pleasant) music is intrinsically rewarding – like food or sex, it stimulates dopamine release in reward centers of the brain. Pets, as you’ve probably heard, are good for our psychological wellbeing and cardiovascular health. One study followed adults who had been victims of heart attacks, and found that after one year the adults who owned dogs had significantly lower mortality rates than those who didn’t. And nature, research has shown, has a positive effect on our ability to concentrate and deal with stress. One study even found that having a view of nature helped hospital patients recover more quickly after surgery!
So all of these things do indeed increase wellbeing. But the other side of the coin is that without them we are less healthy and less happy. Consider the hospital patients who didn’t have exposure to nature after their operations – those patients had longer recovery times and required stronger pain medication. Consider the adults who didn’t own dogs in the heart attack study – after one year these people were more likely to be dead than their dog-owning cohorts. None of these are favorable outcomes. Clearly, the factors that contribute to human wellbeing aren’t “optional extras” in our lives – they’re absolute necessities if we want to remain as happy and healthy as possible.
And here’s the thing- God made us this way. God made us so that we couldn’t be calm and focused and healthful while surrounded by concrete walls and desolate landscapes. He made us so that we would be at a greater risk of death simply for not having a dog in our lives. He made us so that certain patterns of sound are pleasant, whereas others make us miserable or set our nerves on edge. To call these things a gift is to imply that God gave them to us with the message, “Here, I want you to be happy.” But at the same time God made us dependent on these things for our happiness. Why should my wellbeing be dependent on something as changeable as the particular patterns of light that fall on my retina?
Just think of what life could have been! God had the ultimate say in how he created the universe. He could have made every flash of light a sunset, every sound an Ode to Joy, every touch a caress… How wonderful that would have been! Imagine if the monotonous, dreary walls of an office were as pleasant and invigorating to us as our favorite natural setting. That would have been a gift!
Yet this gift is something humans were decidedly not given.
I imagine at this point some theists will rebut that life cannot be one long uninterrupted joy. That we need both joy and sadness in order for either to have any meaning. If that’s the case, I hope these people do not also believe in heaven – because they’ve just refuted it.
Ultimately, the explanation for why we have innate preferences and aversions is because evolution made us this way. Preferences are a way of motivating us to seek out things that are beneficial to our survival (such as a savannah-like natural environment). Life isn’t one long stream of uninterrupted joy, because evolution had no need to make us that way. And God, if you think he exists, saw no need to give us anything better. That’s not to say that we must be despondent about our lot in life – on the contrary, there’s plenty to be happy about. But if our lives are wonderful it’s because we work hard to make them so. God doesn’t get the credit for that.