An Atheist Case for Hope

I have another guest post today. This one is from Derrick, a life-long atheist and a regular participant here on this blog.  His topic is of particular interest for me. I recently had a discussion with a Christian on another blog who believes that we (atheists/agnostics/humanists) will one day wake up and realize that our lives are meaningless and without hope—and this will prompt us to run back to God. Derrick addresses this misconception that we have no hope. Thanks, Derrick, for sharing your thoughts here!

Remember: if you’d like to share your questions, insights or experiences, drop me a line to the email in the sidebar.

An Atheist Case for Hope

First and foremost, a sincere thank you to Debbie for suggesting I contribute a guest post and then graciously accepting it. This is truly a community of many voices. To begin…

James Freeman Clarke once noted  “The atheists have no hope.” [1] [2]

This phrase has been trumpeted repeatedly by theists for over a century. Freeman’s idea was that without god there could be no redemption and no ever-lasting life. This, to him who was a very devote man, caused life to lose all hope. The phrase is routinely trotted out and lobbed at atheists although the connection to the author of it is regularly lost or misunderstood.[3] [4] Moreover, the entire concept is patently absurd.

Hope, to begin with, is not the sole property of theists. There is nothing inherently special about hope, except that it is often the foundation of why most people continue to move forward through life. It is not the province of any deity in any manner, yet theists like to state without hesitation that atheists are devoid of hope. They argue the rejection of god and religion strips atheists of this vital human force. Even more important is that at the heart of the theist argument lies a truly bleak philosophy.

Consider that a good many of the world’s religions contain some sort of apocalypse in their theology. Think about this: most religion are actively awaiting the end of the world. Christians are especially prone to this because of the Book of Revelations. These types of theology look forward to a torrent of destruction and suffering. Their only hope, and the irony of that phrase is well understood, is if they are just righteous enough to escape eternal damnation and torment. This is not hope: this is fear.

In short, theists contend it takes god – or rather the act of redemption and salvation through a deity – to offer any kind of hope for humans. Without it, they hold, mankind is left wandering aimlessly in the void without any real sense of meaning or an objective for living. In their framework of thinking, evil would continue to exist and gnaw away at the human spirit. Furthermore, this would mean humans are enslaved to the single goal of being spared damnation by their god. One has to argue and wonder how anyone could consider this type of philosophy emotionally or mentally healthy. Once again, this is not hope by any stretch of the imagination. It is the exact opposite in most respects.

How then can atheists have hope? Consider that Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines hope as “…to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true….”[5] What is interesting about this definition is it tends to be a central element of atheist thinking. Atheists realize we have only one shot at this life. We get one chance. As a result, most atheists tend to think very actively about her or his existence, the relationship this singular existence has to other people, and the impact it will have in the long run. Most atheists want to do something adding to the collective good. A great many atheists think about the future quite a lot and regularly in constructive ways.

The promise of hope requires action. Thus, a proactive life begins with hope. It is mired in hope. It oozes hope. Atheists tend to concern themselves with ideas of how to make the here and now better, and how to make certain it does not detract from the collective good of future generations. There is a belief, a hope if you will, that if we act properly today with forethought, then tomorrow will be better and brighter. Atheists cannot wait for divine intervention to make things right. There is no hiding behind some mystery plan waiting to unfold: life demands action in the present moment. It requires concerned, good people to make it happen.

Atheism tends to free people from the shackles of fear placed on them by religion. Once free of fear, something moves into takes its place. More often than not, it is hope that wins and not despair or a sense of futility. Existence takes on a dynamic realism with a need to live and experience life. The mind awakens and begins to see that life can and should be different… better. Realization of the difference demands a mindset that seeks solutions. Living for the here and now does not equate to hedonism: it routinely equates to a call to action. Life without action is stagnant. Atheists are far from stagnant.

The most interesting and spectacular part of atheist hope is that it includes everyone. Theists are not left out in the cold. This is not a coddling or mothering demeanor, but one of real inclusion. We tend not to discriminate. We want everyone to be happy, almost regardless of their beliefs. Atheists, in the end, have hope enough for everyone.

- Derrick

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)


 

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45 responses to “An Atheist Case for Hope

  1. I appreciate you tackling this topic, surely a topic that most of us thinking atheists have asked. I’ve asked it many times, thought and thought, and I’ve come to a peace about it, but it seems a bit different from where you’ve landed. That peace came in acceptance, of letting go of the very idea of hope.
    Here is what I really think: No one has any reason for “hope”. Not atheists. Not theists. No one. Christians have stories that may give them the illusion of hope. Doesn’t change the reality that we all come to the same undignified end.
    There’s nothing in human history to give me one good reason to have hope.
    We are careening toward self-annihilation, and I think we deserve just that. We are a small, warmongering, short-sighted species that doesn’t deserve to survive.
    On an individual basis, the best one can do is make it through without doing too much harm to everyone else, with some modicum of dignity.
    But on a species level, I see nothing to hope for. We are doomed.
    Might as well embrace that hard reality instead of writing namby pamby atheistic apologetics.

    • @Jason M Wester Robert Heinlein once wrote, “The supreme irony of life is that no one gets out of it alive.” However, just because we happen to know we are going to die does not negate hope. One can look at the term of human history, short as it is considering the age of the planet, and wonder if our species is worthwhile. However, who is making that ultimate judgment and why? We evolve by fits and starts, and often it seems to slow to me. Sometimes I have to force myself to take the long view, or else I would completely share your sentiment. When I am in that frame of mind, I ask myself I am willing to take on the responsibility of consigning the entire species to the dustbin simply because it is not meeting my schedule or need. No, I am not. Rather, I hope things will improve over time regardless if I am here or not.

      • Again, I see absolutely no reason to be optimistic about our chances of not destroying ourselves and our planet in the process. In the long term, we are extinct. That is a veritable certainty. I see nothing to hope for other than the two things I mentioned above. I appreciate your optimism, I just don’t see it as warranted.

  2. Derrick – great post.
    Jason – Are you American? If so, I can see why you are feeling we are doomed. There are too many members of Congress eagerly anticipating (some even trying to actively bring about) the apocalypse. People who don’t believe we have a future should not be making policy for the U.S. government. On the other hand, every species is doomed, even the good ones. Evolution teaches us that nothing lasts forever. I like your comment, “On an individual basis, the best one can do is make it through without doing too much harm to everyone else, with some modicum of dignity.” Trying to minimize harm and maximize dignity is hopeful on some level. In behaving thus, we allow others a chance at having a decent life. As an atheist, I don’t hope to live forever. I simply hope to live well. And I don’t begrudge Christians or any other person of faith their hope. I do, however, begrudge them their doom. Some Americans seek to implode the world economy and to ruin the world’s climate because they have lost hope. They impose their doom on the rest of us and expect to be rewarded in heaven for doing so.

    • @Patti OSullivan Thanks!

      • I loved reading your post Derrick. Your thoughts are something I can easily agree on. For some odd reason (popularity I’d guess) the theists have hijacked hope and we haven’t gotten our voices heard.

        I liked your idea of inclusivity – after all we are just one deity ahead of (most) believers in atheism.

    • Love what you said here, Patti: “As an atheist, I don’t hope to live forever. I simply hope to live well.”

      I also don’t see what is so “hopeful” about expecting to live forever as a disembodied “spirit” (whatever the hell that is). Why is existing forever and ever in some sort of permanent fish bowl, where we have no senses, something to look forward to and hope for? Seems to me that a lifelong sleep, a rest after a life lived full of great moments and not-so-great moments, would be much better!

      • @Debbie I’ve said this before, but the entire concept of immortality scares the absolute crap out of me. I personally think it is one of the worst things to impose on a conscious mind. Wholly Jeebus but the conversations would get boring by the end of a billion years.

      • @Deborah, I agree with you and @Derrick that living eternally as a disembodied spirit doesn’t sound appealing. Do you think that maybe theists can’t fathom/accept nothingness at the time of death, so grab onto “eternal life” as the alternative? Maybe they don’t really find the proposition attractive either, but just can’t bear the idea of not being conscious in some form? I admit some days the idea that I’ll lose my consciousness is unnerving and the rest of the time I realize I just won’t care so it’ll be fine.

  3. Great post Derrick! I have always been confused by the Theist perception of Atheists. It’s as if they see us as just poor souls lost at sea.

    • @Lea Thanks, and I think both sides tend to do one another a disservice. I know I am guilty of constantly thinking theists are a bit deranged for their beliefs… insomuch as they think I am nuts for not sharing their faith.

      However, I cannot let it stand when they say atheists lives are without hope. There is too much evidence to the contrary.

  4. Hi Derrick. Thanks for writing such an insightful essay. I’ve always felt that humans have such inflated egos to think they deserve any more “hope” than the cricket I saw in my driveway this morning. I’m an atheist who was a fundamentalist Christian in the early part of my life. As an atheist, I feel such freedom every single day! It’s a tangible feeling and causes me to make the very most of each day, being positive and helping others. I always have a smile and a light step. I’m so happy. I made a choice not to waste life living in fear, and when I die I’ll do it with honor. It will simply and quietly be over for me, and there’s something really beautiful about that.

    • I used to be a fundamentalist Christian too. And I too have experienced such freedom, joy, & hope since leaving that all behind. It’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it?

      • Hi rlcarterrn, it IS an amazing feeling. Do you know the same feeling I have? What I mean is that when something is really just right and perfect, I can feel it in my mind and body. It’s like a knowing at the cell level. I don’t even have to reason it any more. That’s what I feel about leaving Christian Fundamentalism behind. I had to work so hard mentally to stay in it, but after decades I started questioning why I was doing something that took so much work to simply accept. So I quit accepting and since that moment a wave of peace, freedom, liberation, and “rightness” has flooded my every day. I like that you describe it as amazing. I agree!

    • @Andy Thanks!

      I personally think most theists don’t realize they are living in a type of meta-fear: a conceptual emotion that controls part of what they think. The fear mongering that goes on in a lot of religions I see as one of the worst sins against humanity. Fear paralyzes people and stops them from acting in more construction ways. In stead, they find themselves constantly reacting.

      Thus, that is why I say the release from fear requires supplanting it with something else. I chose hope.

    • I really love your comment…and feel exactly the same way! Living a happy, positive, helpful life is the best. Atheism is so freeing, isn’t it?

      • Amy, please see my response to rlcarterrn just above. Someone else in this thread referenced the “weight” of theism. That’s so appropriate. Believing in god felt like I had an unbreakable framework around my body at all times, like a cage, and it was never going away. If anything, it grew smaller with me inside. Once I said “no more,” it disappeared! Now I can run and explore in any direction my heart takes me. My heart and brain are my guides and I feel no apology for that. I think it takes so much courage to stop believing in god. It’s like taking a stand to reject human-created dogma and do good for others, animals, and earth just because we want to. How beautiful is that?

  5. I love the idea of oozing with hope. Thank you for this post. It’s funny to me that this myth exists. You are completely correct; most non-believers I know work for positive change in the world and are very hopeful.

    • @Amy Thanks!

      Theists see atheists as a threat, so there is a need on their part to spread misinformation. That’s about the only logical explanation I can come up with at this point.

  6. Once I left religion I felt freer and lighter than ever before and absolutely revel in my humanity…the good, the bad, and the ugly. I am ever more hopeful and optimistic as well. You are right that we have to live in the here and now…work with what we have and see. Not forsake this life for something better that we can’t see and may not even be there. Thanks for the uplifting post.

    • @b-town girl Thanks. I think you bring up a good point about the “weight” religion can impose on people. When chains and manacles are removed, it does feel lighter.

      Nice insight!

  7. Heaven helps those that help themselves!

  8. I love this post! I so agree that I am tired of hearing that there can be no hope w/o God or religion. Of course there is still hope. And thank you for pointing out that so much of what theists see as hope is really fear. It is a strange irony for sure.

    • @rlcarterrn Thank you!

      Sometimes I can hear theists saying, “I hope the lord finds me worthy!” It’s a that point when I begin to wonder about that kind of hope. It’s not what they think it is.

  9. The notion that we have no hope or moral compass (or that we’re angry, bitter, resentful, etc.) I think is just a copout to dismiss us without bothering to give the topic any thought. This is especially amusing when you consider the position of Calvinists, who believe that God selected the saved and the damned before time began (very carefully, I’m sure), relegating us to a life of desperate fear that we will not be among His elect. Any hope that stems from that situation, as you rightly point out, is based on fear and psychological manipulation.

    Well written piece. I agree that atheists are the ones with genuine hope, because we know that it’s up to us – and within our ability – to make the world a better place.

    • @Senator Jason Thanks! And thank you for mentioning determinism. This was something I wanted to address as well, but I also wanted to keep the post as short as possible.

      Determinism is a huge part of the theists mental framework. Every time I hear “God works in mysterious ways!” or “God has plan for you.” I want to cough up my breakfast. The entire notion that one’s terrible life may be part of some invisible sky-pal’s plan I find utterly terrifying. It means there is no escape and nothing one does can make it better. God is a caprcious dick. Just look at Job.

      Really, thanks for bringing this up!

  10. @Derrick,

    Thanks for the article. I am uncertain with hope, one day it’s so profound, the next day I connect much more with feelings similar to those in Jason’s comment above.

    As a former conservative, republican, southern Baptist, Pentecostal, pro-life, anti-gay, evangelical, fundamental, Zionist Christian, I fell hard for the false hope religion teased me with the lure of heaven. Then I really examined the idea of heaven. This is how it works, an oppressive god keeps a believer under his big ass thumb while he exists on the soil of this earth. Everything is done out of His commandments and His people’s influence. A believer denies himself the likes of Lava Flows, good sex, tasty wine, intellectual discourse and controversial literature while drowning his or her life with prayer, God worship, the Bible and other God believers. Then when said Christian dies he comes into the bosom of God through heaven. There he or she is encompassed with many others including hateful church gossips, war mongers, homophobes and his or her former mental, physical and sexual tormenters. However, no worries, we don’t remember that shit in heaven because all the memories of our time on earth are washed away. This is so God and abusive people who asked Jesus to forgive them may not be accountable for violence, natural disasters, rape and death that they somehow had a hand in or allowed to happen. So, this God who made our lives on earth hell gives us a break in heaven by having us hang out with our earthly abusers and doing nothing but worshipping the Almighty FOREVER. WHAT A SADIST!

    Derrick, I think hope is difficult for me sometimes because the residue of religion lingers in my mouth. For me, religion is like a horrible cold that you just can’t kick. By the time it’s finally over your back aches, your stomach is sore from all the coughing and the mouth is dry and gross with yuck. Though religion, like a cold, has finally left, rehabilitation takes time and cannot be rushed. Feelings, hurts, pain, and brain washing need to all be dealt with like an onion, one layer at a time. Maybe once I am more than 18 months into my deconversion, I will be a bit more of a confident atheist and hope will be much more common place for me. I just have to allow the healing and deprogramming to happen in due time. I am also constantly aware of my surroundings here in west Tennessee. I live in an area obsessed with Jesus, God and Holy Spirit. It’s a reality that I face often and it does affect my state of hope.

    • @chope: I cannot even begin to guess how much your life’s changed since you discarded those adjectives from defining who you are. I am vanilla ice cream in a society of vanilla with chocolate chips if you like. Telling myself that I’m an atheist changed basically nothing on the outside but being honest to myself felt good nevertheless.

      It has been a priviledge getting to “know” you people – we might be worlds apart but somehow connected still.

      • @Konsta,
        I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone. I think some of the hopelessness that I feel is the fact that four decades of my life were eaten up by religion. As relieved as I am that my children will NOT go through what I’ve been through, there is a part of me that longs for the childhood and teen years that I missed because of my extremely religious and abusive parents and the “coming of age” that I missed throughout my twenties because of Christianity’s influence in my life. It sucked dry my thirties as well and affected who I was as a person, wife and mom.
        I think of religion as a house of mirrors with distorted reflections. You can’t really see who you are and after a while, you actually believe that’s what you look like. It never dawns on you that you don’t have to be stuck and stay in the house because you were born there and it’s all you’ve ever known.

    • @CHope First, thanks for the compliment. I am glad you got something from the post.

      Second, I would encourage you to re-read the dictionary definition of hope. Hidden in the definition is a process of identifying what one wants and then embarking on making it so. You’ve already taken the big step, so now it is just a matter of nailing down the process. As you gain distance from certain parts of your past and ease into new patterns of thinking, hope becomes more readily accessible as you begin to see the results of the changes you instituted.

      More important than anything else is the realization that you are not alone. One of the biggest problems facing an atheist, especially one in the bible belt, is the feeling of isolation. You need to find others of a similar mind. We are a social creature, after all. This blog may be a great start, but you really need to find others in your area. Try Craig’s List or Meet Up to see if there are any groups in your area.

    • CHope, your post is quite dense, meaning there is so much in there I relate to and enjoy thinking about. I’m in Chattanooga (east Tennessee) and everyone here is probably like in your area. It’s just a given that everyone fears god and goes to church. I’m like a fish out of water for that reason and a couple of others. This makes it hard to make physical friends. I have more online friends, actually. That’s fine with me. Just know that you aren’t alone.

      • @Andy Staab

        I’m sorry that I didn’t see your comment until now. Yeah, I had lived in Nashville for a couple of years and even wrote about it on my blog. I attended the most abusive church I have ever been apart of as an adult while I lived there (I would compare it to my legalistic Bible College that I attended as a young adult). That should have been a “sign” to me about Tennessee, especially since this particular church saw itself as somewhat modern. My family and I moved to the county north of Memphis (from southern San Diego) years ago due to my husband transferring to the Naval base out here. I know people like to believe that Westboro is different from other Christian Churches, but in all honesty, it all looks the same out here. They say the same shit about sex education, gays and Obama.

        I know Derrick means well about meet ups, but that’s not for me. There are two that are both 30 miles from me. One of them is all about books and lectures and it meets right before my kids get out of school, that’s not going to work. The other one strikes me as a group of mostly singles, or at least couples with no kids. They tend to get together late at night, drink, eat and watch movies. I’ve looked into two Unitarian Churches, one is 30 miles away and the other is 20 miles away. I’ve looked at their web sites and see that there is much emphasis placed on God and hymns at both. Yeah, homey don’t play that. I’ve attempted to seek counseling through Recovering from Religion and the closest non religious (including non New Agey) counselor they had for me was about three hours away one way. There is a huge need for deconverted families to make connections with other families who don’t believe. I think that’s why there’s been a few atheist churches established (not here though). Personally, I had many, many horrible experiences in Christian Churches, why the hell would I want to carry that over into my atheism? I basically see such “Churches” as having problems with money, power and social downfalls like their Christian predecessors. All that will do is turn people back to Christian Churches, no thank you.

        The truth of the matter is this, I may have to be the one to start play dates with other non believing families or even dinners or times of coffee, talks and studies. I don’t see that happening though because I live in a town of 10,000 that’s completely surrounded by other small towns. It took us at least a year to find a family that we thought were leaning towards agnostic, but they’re not. Recently, they began to attend a Southern Baptist Church that we had attended two different periods of time while we were still Christians. My husband works for Methodist hospital and he’s very careful about talking to co workers about his lack of religious faith. Like you, I am grateful for this amazing group of loving and considerate non believers on line, but as a person, woman, wife and mom, I need something more once in a while. I need real in flesh friends that I can see and speak with, even if it’s just a few times a year.

        In the mean time, I do all I can to enjoy my family and work on my marriage. We all like to spend time on education, enjoying music, movies, zoos, museums and restaurants, especially during Church times. I continue to stay connected to my on line community of heathens who have so much more love than any Christian I have ever known in my family, in my neighborhood, at church or on Facebook. (Christians were ultimately why I shut down that account three years ago.)

  11. We would be a lot safer if the Government would take its money out of science and put it into astrology and the reading of palms. Only in superstition is there hope. If you want to become a friend of civilization, then become an enemy of the truth and a fanatic for harmless balderdash. ~ Kurt Vonnegut

    Glob, I hope that’s not true.

  12. Standing O, Derrick. I agree, “This is not hope: this is fear.” I suspect most believers believe out of fear — fear of eternal damnation if they don’t believe. It’s a sad way to live, fearing the wrath of some invisible sky daddy, some Big Brother who knows every move you make, every thought you have.

    • @PiedType Thanks for the comment, and you are right on the money. In some of the heated debates I’ve had in the past, one of the universal truism I find with theists is their deep-seated fear of going to hell and trying to keep their god happy. You are most correct when you state, “It’s a sad way to live….”

  13. Life is meaningless if you don’t get to live forever only if you see your own happiness as the only goal in not just your life, but everyone else’s too. It is an egomaniacal way to look at the world and fortunately most people only believe it intuitively because they have not seriously thought about it and don’t consciously think this way, otherwise the world would be a terrifying place to live.

  14. “I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides”

    ― Carl Sagan

    Btw, great job, Derrick.

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