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Atheism and Hope

“Atheists have no hope.”

Of all the slanders and misrepresentations told about atheists and atheism, this is… well, this is the one I’m thinking about right now.

Doris 26
I’m thinking about it because of something I just read. It was in Doris Zine #26 by Cindy Ovenrack, and… well, here’s what it said.

“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is a restaurant manager and we’d never really talked about politics at all, but something came up and she said, ‘Atheism and anarchist theory were the first things that gave me any hope in this world. They were the things that said we had the power within us to make things better. Everything else said we were either evil or helpless to fate.’” (Emphasis mine.)

The-audacity-of-hope
Typically, when atheists respond to the accusation that we have no hope, our response is something along the lines of, “We do so!” Which is a perfectly fair response, one I myself have made before and will make again. We point out that there are many things to hope for other than immortality (which we believe to be a false hope). And we list all the things we have hope for. We hope that our book will get published, that our children will go to college, that global warming will get handled before it’s too late. We hope that our friend’s cancer is treatable. We hope that a reasonably sane and intelligent person will be elected President in 2008. We hope to be remembered after we die.

And I’ve always felt a rumble of both irritation and pity when I hear this no-hope accusation, a rumble that sounds something like this: “Do you really have no hope for anything other than eternal life? Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life — the actual life that you’re living right now — have so little joy and meaning that you can’t imagine any hope without the promise that, when it’s finally all over, you’ll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?”

But then I remember:

Maybe the answer is Yes. That’s true. They really do have no hope for this life.

Globe_1
I remember, among other things, that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair.

Now, if the person making the accusation is some yahoo on the Internet, then I feel perfectly free to indulge in my irritation and snark. If you have the time and leisure to be reading atheist blogs, then you have the time and leisure to make something of your life. This life, I mean. The one you actually have.

But for many people, it’s not so easy.

Which is why I was so struck by Cindy Ovenrack’s comment above.

And I am reminded:

For many people, religion does not offer hope.

For many people, religion offers helplessness, and self-hatred, and despair.

And for many of those people, atheism offers a way out of it.

Hand
Atheism doesn’t just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy’s friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists… and therefore we don’t have to worry about what he thinks or what he’s going to do. And that we therefore don’t have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we’re bad people, that we’re powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.

Finger globe
Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

And that’s a pretty big hope.

Comments

  1. says

    I recently got that comment on one of my blogs, that this guy felt sorry for atheists because they had no hope. I was just going through some intellectual angst about the Christian voice that still yells in my ear on occasion. Hope, my dear friend, is not my problem. You can hope six ways from Sunday whether you’re Christian or not. Hope is a by-product of having a sense of past, present, and future. Hope is simply optimism for the future. Heck, I even hope for some form of immortality sometimes. Being an atheist only removes one hope: the hope of an everlasting life in heaven with the Christian God. It’s like that old atheist adage that we only believe in one less (or is it fewer?) god than Christians – we only have one less hope than Christians, which opens up the opportunity to other kinds of hope.

  2. ErinM says

    Considering some of the Christians I know, I fervently HOPE their heaven and their god do not exist. Eternity with them sounds more depressing than no afterlife at all.

  3. absent sway says

    Great post! The parts about religion emphasizing helplessness in some people, and having to walk on eggshells just so, and all the power we think we have being attributed to someone else, resonate with me.

  4. says

    I wonder – what would it mean for a theist to have hope? After all, aren’t they certain that God will eventually swoop in and save the day? It seems to me that if you’re absolutely positive that something will happen, you don’t have hope, you have certainty. That being the case, not only does atheism permit us to have hope, one could argue that it’s the only worldview that plausibly allows for the possibility. We can still have hope: that humanity’s moral development will continue, that our ethics will finally catch up with our technology, that we’ll enjoy happiness and good fortune in our own personal lives. I don’t see what a theist could ever plausibly claim they merely hope for, not if they believe God is benevolent and in control.

  5. says

    I completely agree, and expressing this view is part of the motivation for my new blog. Aside from caring about what is actually true, I believe atheism is also the most optimistic and hopeful, as you have beautifully expressed.

  6. Alicaida says

    A common attitude of Christians is the idea that mankind is fallen, sinful, and that the world will never get better, only worse until God destroys it. They think there must be something else, something good and wonderful waiting for them after death. That isn’t hope. That is despair dressed up in a robe.
    We affect the world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I hope we will work for the better. Sometimes I see it happen, sometimes I just know that it could happen.
    That is hope.

  7. Alex says

    Beautifully written!
    I have been enjoying your blog since the they a discover it and I would like to repay you with my favorite poem. It talks about being in peace with mortality and the fact that it doesn`t exist a higher force controling our live:
    At peace:
    Very near my setting sun, I bless you, Life
    because you never gave me neither unfilled hope
    nor unfair work, nor undeserved sorrow/pain
    because I see at the end of my rough way
    that I was the architect of my own destiny
    and if I extracted the sweetness or the bitterness of things
    it was because I put the sweetness or the bitterness in them
    when I planted rose bushes I always harvested roses
    Certainly, winter is going to follow my youth
    But you didn’t tell me that May was eternal
    I found without a doubt long my nights of pain
    But you didn’t promise me only good nights
    And in exchange I had some peaceful ones
    I loved, I was loved, the sun caressed my face
    Life, you owe me nothing, Life, we are at peace!
    - by Amado Nervo

  8. says

    good points – if all the beleivers hope for is eternal life
    why would they want that when they are so self loathing in this life?
    the idea of permanently being in that state sound way more like hell to me

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