Is Hope Always a Good Thing?


Hope_street
“Religion offers people hope.”

I was having this argument recently with some of the theists in my head. (What — you don’t do that?) I was thinking about the way a lot of religious believers argue, on behalf of religion being a useful and positive force in human life, that religion offers people hope.

The usual atheist argument to this — and it’s one I’ve made myself, many times — is that atheists do so have hope. Do so, do so, do so. Infinity plus one more times than you could say that we don’t. 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; that the Cubs will win the World Series before we die; etc. Religion simply offers one particular kind of hope — hope for an afterlife. An atheist life can be filled with lots of hope, of all different kinds. We just don’t have that particular one.

All of which is true.

But something else occurred to me the other day:

Is hope always a good thing?

Let’s take a couple of non-religious analogies, so I can show you what I mean.

Heart in hands
Let’s say you have the hope that your ex will come back to you. Despite the fact that they’ve told you a dozen times they’re not coming back; despite the fact that they haven’t called you in six months; despite the fact that they’ve started dating someone else… you still sincerely hope that they’re going to show up on your doorstep, flowers in their hand and an apology on their lips.

Is that a good thing?

Is that hope going to make you happier, or help you make good decisions?

Yes, it may give you a reason to get up in the morning. But wouldn’t your life be better, in the long run and even in the medium run, if you let go of that particular hope, and got hold of some more realistic ones? The hope that you’ll meet someone else who you love even more, say? Or the hope that you’ll get over your broken heart soon and be able to be happy on your own?

Lottery
I could give a hundred examples. You might have hope that you’ll win millions in the lottery. That someday you’ll be a movie star. That someday everyone who ever looked down on you will realize just how much they misjudged you. That someday your blog about atheism and sex radicalism and progressive politics will get as much traffic as Cute Overload. I could go on and on. But I think you get the idea.

The idea is this: Hope isn’t necessarily a good thing.

False hope — hope for something that will never happen, for something that’s impossible or even just wildly improbable — is not a good thing. False hope leads to bad decisions. It keeps people hanging on to unrealistic goals and expectations, and stops them from pursuing goals and expectations that they might actually accomplish. It stops people from cutting their losses and starting over. It keeps people out of touch with reality.

Which, of course, leads me back to religion.

Paradiso_Canto_31
I think — for reasons I’ve discussed ad nauseum — that the hope religion offers is a false hope. I don’t think there is an afterlife in which our immaterial soul gets to live forever after we die. I don’t think there is an immaterial soul, period. I don’t think there’s a perfect, loving creator looking after us and guiding our actions and the things that happen to us. I don’t think any of this is likely, or even plausible.

And I think it’s a false hope that often leads to bad decisions. It leads people to focus on the next life, at the expense of this one. It leads people to pray or take part in religious rituals, at the expense of taking effective action. It leads people to put an excessive emphasis on unreliable forms of thinking that support their belief/hope in the afterlife, at the expense of learning skepticism and critical thinking skills that would help them avoid frauds and charlatans. It leads people to distort their moral compasses around imaginary crimes and imaginary virtues that they think will affect their afterlives, at the expense of focusing on crimes and virtues that might actually make a difference in this life. It leads people to focus on religious ideology at the expense of the real human lives in front of them: in ways that range from destroying ancient and beloved works of art to executing people for adultery, from voting against same- sex marriage to kicking their gay children out of the house.

Light end tunnel
Of course hope is a good thing. Hope is one of the main things that makes life worth living. Hope is what keeps us going through obstacles and setbacks, through pain and grief. But it’s much too simplistic to say that, because hope is a good thing, therefore all hope is always good in all circumstances. (Food is a good thing too, but that doesn’t mean all food in all situations is always good.)

Now. There is a really big “But” in this argument. It’s a “But” that I think atheists don’t acknowledge often enough, and I want to have the intellectual honesty to acknowledge them.

The “But” is this:

It is one thing to say, “Religion is a false hope, there are better and more likely things to hope for,” to people for whom that’s clearly true, to people who do have better things to hope for.

It is another thing entirely to say it to people who really, really don’t.

Somali_children_waiting
I am perfectly happy to say, “Why do you need an eternal afterlife? Isn’t this life enough?” to the Ted Haggards and Rick Warrens of the world. I am a lot less happy to say it to a starving child roaming the slums in Rio de Janeiro; a war orphan in Somalia; an AIDS orphan in Zimbabwe. The thought of saying, “Isn’t this life enough?” to any of these people fills me with horror.

I think that the “This life is enough, you’re incredibly lucky to have been born at all, what more could you possibly want?” philosophy of many atheists — including myself — is a philosophy that comes from a fair degree of privilege. There’s a reason 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. And I think atheists — including myself — really, really need to remember that.

However. That being said.

Religion opium
I would argue that religion can, in some ways, actually make things worse for people whose lives are desperate. The false hope of religion can lead people to focus on making the afterlife better… at the expense of working to make this life better, for themselves and one another. At the risk of sounding like Karl Marx, the role of religion in justifying the wickedness of the oppressors — and helping the oppressed accept their oppression — is extensive and well- documented.

That principle is also true of the people trying to offer hope, as well as the hopeless people themselves. I know, for instance, that there are some missionaries who do actual practical work to improve people’s lives. But how much more could they accomplish if they took all that time and energy they put into saving people’s souls and put it into building vaccination programs and sewer systems?

And religion — especially the more extreme versions that seem to be so common among people with deeply fucked-up lives — can add even greater horrors to the lives of already desperate people. Can you say “clitoridectomies”? “Witch- hunting ministers”? “Execution of 13- year-old rape victims”? All inspired and justified by religion? I thought you could.

Internet
Also — at the risk of sounding totally crass — the people whose lives would offer nothing but despair if it weren’t for religion aren’t surfing the atheist blogosphere. If you’re reading this blog, then there is no way your life is so desperate that there is nothing at all left for you to hope for in this life but the possibility of eternal bliss at the end of it. (Go look at Cute Overload or the Spanking Blog. That’ll give you some reasons to live.) The “religion offers hope to people who’d otherwise have none” argument does, at the very least, need to be taken seriously… but it really only applies to the most deeply and intensely hopeless. Which kind of reveals how thin an argument it is.

And finally: Even if it’s true that religion offers hope to people who would otherwise have none, some shred of comfort in an otherwise comfortless existence? Well, okay, that’s an argument for its utility. But it’s hardly an argument for its accuracy. I am endlessly intrigued by the degree to which modern religious apologists focus on whether belief in God is useful to individuals and society… without regard for the question of whether that belief is, you know, correct. It might be of some utility to humanity for people to believe in dragons, too, but I don’t see anyone seriously advocating Dragonism on that account.

I_hope
My basic point still stands. My basic point is this: It is not enough for religious apologists to say, “Religion offers people hope, and hope is a good thing.” They need to make a case for why this particular hope is not false. They need to make a case for why this particular hope — the hope that death will not be final, the hope that a good life will be rewarded with a blissful and permanent afterlife — is true, or likely, or even remotely plausible.

Or, barring that, at the very least they need to make a case for why this particular hope — even if it’s not likely or plausible or true — is, on the whole, still beneficial.

Unlike pretty much every other unlikely, implausible, almost certainly untrue hope.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    False hope #712: Spanking Blog won’t be blocked by my work’s Websense.
    (mouse-click)
    Darn.

  2. says

    I would further add that our own “hope” in a beneficent afterlife stand in the way of our changing the real world circumstances of seriously downtrodden people. If we really and truly abandoned that false hope, embraced the idea that this life is IT…then wouldn’t we be valuing this life even more? Wouldn’t we be ashamed to say that at least starving children will have a heavenly reward after their suffering? We would be more inclined to take action and responsibility for these kinds of injustices.

  3. says

    The hope for an afterlife really bothers me, because it can mean that people are too busy hoping for that to really enjoy and/or work towards an awesome earthly life.

  4. underscore says

    I’m glad you addressed the position of privilege factor, because it’s something I come across time and time again. Friends of mine or people I talk to completely disregard the position they’re in compared to those around the world that they refer to. I remember having to point this out when I first became a vegetarian, and having to explain to people that even though I sincerely advocate my reasons for excluding meat, I understand the role that my privilege has played into it, and I wouldn’t ask someone without access to nutritious non-meat options to become a vegetarian.

  5. says

    The question of hope seems to be related to another question I’ve heard from time to time: “If you met a 90-year-old woman dying in a hospital, and her religion was giving her comfort, would you tell her that there’s no god?”
    The best answer I’ve come up to for that one is the “religion is a crutch” metaphor: of course you don’t go kicking the crutches out from under someone who needs them, but at the same time, it’s best to raise people not to believe they need crutches.
    I think you’re saying the same thing with respect to desperate people: let’s not take away their religion if it’s their only source of comfort and/or hope. But for most people in North America and Europe, that’s not the case, so their religion is fair game.

  6. says

    “If you met a 90-year-old woman dying in a hospital, and her religion was giving her comfort, would you tell her that there’s no god?”

    Slightly off-topic, I suppose, but my answer to this has always been, “Did she ask me?
    Outside of this blog, I pretty much never offer my opinion about people’s religion unless I’m asked. And if someone asks, I try to answer both honestly and politely. So that’s what I’d do here. If a 90 year old woman on her deathbed is asking me what I think of her religion, I’d assume it’s because she wants to know, and I’d think she deserves an honest and polite answer as much as anybody else. Maybe even more so.

  7. Anonymous says

    Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat novels: “Slippery Jim” Degriz, the titular character, is a con man, thief, and secret agent…but also a rock-solid pacifist because he’s an atheist. It’s how I defend my pacifism, as well. If there’s no afterlife, then every life HERE is precious. IOW, False hope also gives us false justification for killing people.
    Also, I wanted to use “slippery” and “titular” in a post. :)

  8. Maria says

    //Outside of this blog, I pretty much never offer my opinion about people’s religion unless I’m asked. And if someone asks, I try to answer both honestly and politely.//
    I was in a somewhat similar situation just before Christmas. My aunt’s oldest son (my cousin) died 11 years ago, he committed suicide. Naturally my aunt was very traumatized by this and has had trouble letting go.
    Now, I visited his sister just before Christmas and she told me she was thinking of giving her mother a session with a psychic/medium as a Christmas gift, to try to contact her brother, and she asked me what I thought about it…
    It was a rather tricky situation for me (and have been many times through the years since it happened). They (my aunt and her daughters) do put a lot of hope in such things, as it being possible to get in contact with your dead loved ones, and in the afterlife on the whole. And I don’t want to be the one who kills that hope having seen how hard it has been for them to loose their son and brother in such a way. But when asked what I thought about it I had to be honest.
    We had a long conversation in which I tried to explain what I know about psychics and mediums from my atheist and skeptic point of view in as nice a way as possible.
    I haven’t had a chance to talk to my cousin since then, so I don’t know what she ended up doing, or if I got through to her. I do think they do not listen to me very much anyway, they are so deep into these beliefs. And that’s another aspect of it all I think. Atheists are sometimes accused of killing peoples’ hope, but even if that was any sort of goal for me (which it certainly isn’t) it’s not like it is that easy. You don’t change people’s beliefs that easily. I can often be as honest as I like, they don’t really care about what I am saying anyway.

  9. skepticscott says

    A good response, Greta, since if someone DID ask in that situation, it would tend to indicate that they had their doubts. In that case, a polite answer would be, “I’m not absolutely certain myself, but in either case, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

  10. Alyson Miers says

    There’s a reason 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. And I think atheists — including myself — really, really need to remember that.
    I try to remember that, too, and not even just for theistic religion in particular, but for all matters related to logic, skepticism and argument. I can pat myself on the back for my fondness for logic and empirical information, but my life is in a secure enough place that I can expend energy on thinking about such things.
    At the same time, the phrase in the quote above that jumps out at me the most is “social health.” Also, “oppression, and despair.”
    I have to wonder; how much of that oppression, despair and ill social health is a result, whether obvious or indirect, but still arguable, of theistic religion?
    It’s a vicious cycle on many levels. How many people wouldn’t have AIDS if their religious leaders didn’t fill their heads with falsehoods about sexual health and communicable disease? How much better-developed would a lot of societies be if their religions didn’t hinder their efforts at education, or keep them under needless social divisions? (Oppression of women, for example: does any society really benefit from having fully half of its adults barred from contributing to the public sphere?)
    The 90-year-old woman dying in the hospital is one matter, but what about the 14-year-old girl who is now blind due to having battery acid thrown in her face by a guy who honestly thought God was on his side? What about the children who now have to live without their mother because their father–or uncle, or grandfather–set her on fire for something they only suspected she did that offended the family’s sense of “honor”? If they say their religion gives them comfort, it may be callous to tell them they’re getting their comfort from the wrong place, but in some cases, callousness may actually be a foregone conclusion.

  11. skepticscott says

    The notable exception to the inverse correlation between prosperity and religious belief is, of course, the United States. Gregory Paul has an interesting piece exploring this anomaly in the Dec/Jan issue of Free Inquiry. There’s more there than I have the energy to summarize, but here’s as good as capsulization as he gives:
    “Among the first world’s nineteen prosperous democracies, all but the United States have adopted pragmatic, progressive and secular socioeconomic policies that maximize the financial security of the middle class (that is to say, the majority of citizens). In most first-world countries it is hard to lose middle-class status-no western European or Australian goes bankrupt due to overwhelming medical bills. These high levels of financial security, lower levels of economic disparity, and more modest rates of societal dysfunction reduce personal stress levels to the degree that middle-class majorities in western Europe, Canada and Australia feel secure and comfortable. This security and comfort being achieved, the number of citizens who feel the need to seek the aid and protection of supernatural deities has sunken to historic lows as citizens abandon their former churches in droves.”
    I think he makes the leap from correlation to causation a little too easily from one anomalous data point, and there is also more complexity between the personal stress/religiosity relationship than he explores, but it is an interesting thesis, and an article worth reading.

  12. David Harmon says

    Two thoughts:
    (1) Even for the truly benighted and deprived, I doubt that “religious hope”, as such, is necessarily making their lives better. Humans famously adapt their expectations to the circumstances they’re accustomed to, and usually manage to find some measure of happiness regardless of their them. That’s why most poor (diseased, crippled, etc) people do not in fact kill themselves, and why they can continue to rejoice in whatever small triumphs come their way.
    Naturally, this doesn’t apply to those whose lives have been destroyed by war, disaster, etc. — but even so, most of those people don’t just commit suicide — they suffer from trauma, but if they can then get out the “disaster zone”, they have a good chance of recovering and returning to a reasonable mental equilibrium.
    I’d say that besides offering false hope, religion also falsely takes credit for humanity’s natural resilience.
    (2) If you remember your Greek mythology, Hope was the last demon released from Pandora’s Box….

  13. DSimon says

    I’m an atheist, but I still hope that there’s a non-torturous afterlife waiting for me. I don’t have any evidence for expecting that there will be, but I’d like to turn out to be wrong.
    Is this unusual? Are there other atheists here who feel the same way?

  14. skepticscott says

    DSimon-
    My thinking has usually been that I’d prefer just to live a full life and be done. I suppose we really don’t know what “eternal life” would be like, even if such a thing existed, (though lots of religious folk like to assume they do), but I would find the idea of having to go on and on forever, doing whatever it is you do there, quite horrifying.
    In a few other places, just to throw pepper in the pot, I’ve asked Christians talking about heaven and everlasting life what it would be like to have spent 100 trillion years in heaven and to know that even after 100 trillion times as long as THAT, they’d still just be getting started. Makes them wonder a little about just how great it would really be. You can only read War and Peace so many times, after all.

  15. says

    I’m an atheist, but I still hope that there’s a non-torturous afterlife waiting for me. I don’t have any evidence for expecting that there will be, but I’d like to turn out to be wrong.
    Is this unusual? Are there other atheists here who feel the same way?

    This was before I called myself an atheist, but I believed in an immortal soul for a long time without believing in any sort of personal God. My deconversion wasn’t about letting go of a traditional God – it was about letting go in my belief in the immaterial, immortal soul.
    So to answer your question: Strictly speaking, being an atheist just means you don’t believe in God, and it doesn’t necessarily preclude anyone from believing in the soul or reincarnation or astrology or any other spiritual beliefs. But I personally think that the immortal soul is no more plausible than God or any other supernatural entity, and when taken to its logical conclusion, the same rational, skeptical, evidence- based thinking that leads to rejecting God tends to lead to rejecting the other.

  16. says

    I once invented a metaphysics (in a letter to the Editor of a local paper) where, when you die, your soul goes to the back of a line. When you reach the front of the line, you go into the next available human body. The point of this was to (1) abolish Heaven and Hell- Yahveh had gotten bored with torturing prisoners and even more bored with hymns of praise (2) give everyone who believed in it the incentive to establish a just, peaceful, and sustainable society here on Earth, including all people, so that there weren’t any really bad places to get reincarnated into. (Having set up this new system, of Sequential Reincarnation, Yahveh took a hike to other galaxies.)
    I cheer for Greta’s post, lucid and insightful.

  17. says

    In that case, a polite answer would be, “I’m not absolutely certain myself, but in either case, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
    Three cheers for that! That’s probably the best possible answer an atheist could give to a difficult question like that one.

  18. says

    Actually, in THE LITTLE BOOK OF ATHEIST SPIRITUALITY Andre Comte-Sponville argues (IIRC) that hope is confined to religion–and that this is a good thing, because hope leads you to think of the future instead of the present. If you hope for happiness, you’ll never BE happy right here and now.

  19. says

    Skepticscott, I doubt I’d ever run out of things to do. There’s always more math at minimum. And if we’re constructing afterlives that would make us a happy I want my mental capacity to be continuously increasing. Given that, I doubt most people would ever get bored. Put me down also in the category of doesn’t think there’s an afterlife but would likely find it to be a pleasant surprise if I were wrong (barring something like Jack Chick turning out to be correct).
    Kielexandra,
    Looking to the future isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People hope that actions today can make the world a better place for the next generation. That makes them actually go out and so stuff that help make the world a better place.

  20. Darthcynic says

    A very interesting take on ‘hope’, most entertaining and enlightening, thank you.
    “I was having this argument recently with some of the theists in my head. (What — you don’t do that?)”
    All the time, fills the gaps between unsuspecting proselytisers :D

  21. says

    I had a similar discussion with my husband during the whole love affair with Hope that Obama created. I put hope on the same level as worry, as far as “worry is wasteful.” I don’t see the point of hope. If you have a desire for an outcome, work towards it. Or if you’re totally lazy, just hope for it.
    During Rev. Lowry’s benediction at Obama’s Inauguration, I kept thinking that he’d have such a greater impact if he asked for action instead of praying for it. As an example, he said “And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.” I believe that a greater difference would have been made if he instead said, “I ask all of you who hear me today to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.”
    In the slightly twisted words of Yoda: Do or do not. There is no hope.

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