One of the things I keep seeing in popular fundagelical culture is how atheists can’t offer hope to anyone. The thinking is that a promise of an afterlife and a magically divine purpose to spread an idea while living through a miserable existence is way better than taking reality at face value. In fact, it’s with a kind of sickening glee that amputees, children with cancer, and parents who lose children are trotted out with the demand, “Make them feel better! Oh wait, you CAN’T!”
First off, it’s very inappropriate to capitalize on human suffering just to insult someone else.
And yeah, this is exactly what it is. Offering solace to people by rights is an act of compassion meant to mitigate a real person’s troubles in dealing with very scary realities. At no point in my former faith did I consider the implications of turning compassion into a pissing contest simply to dig at people who believe differently than I did. Although I didn’t partake in it myself, this was a constant source of unidentified friction when I did believe.
Now that I’m an atheist, I’ve been able to get a little perspective on the matter. By all means, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be nice or compassionate to each other. What I’m saying is that nobody should be gloating over the inconsolable misfortune of others.
But do secular people who don’t believe in deities have hope?
The answer – at least that I’ve found – is kind of. But it’s not the same hope that religious people offer. Some of it is unsubstantiated, like when we would like to see certain scientific breakthroughs tackle really tough issues like aging, terminal illnesses, and improving quality of life for everyone. Scientific advance is by its nature a very methodical process, usually going by specific steps rather than leaps and bounds. But there have been terrific discoveries in the past (like penicillin), so it’s understandable that one might look to those for other issues that concern us.
That’s where the similarities end. Whatever else “hope” that secularists can offer might be, it’s based on confidence and determination. When people have been losing limbs to tragic accidents, researchers have been creating better limbs to replace them. With any medical tragedy religions would like to point out, there’s usually a hospital and labs right there to assist with actually dealing with whatever problem arises. They might not be perfect at curing what ails us, but it’s a damn far sight better than one, two, or even five centuries ago.
The difference, then, is between “Let’s investigate” and “Think about something else.”
While thinking about something else has its own brand of relief (such as with mental illness and developing coping strategies), it is by no means the sole domain of relief. Even early humans got fed up with the weather and decided to hang out in caves because the sun can get hot and rain is wet. Improving our lives is something humans have been doing ever since we’ve been walking upright.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with the perspective of people who don’t believe in deities, it’s okay to ask atheists what we believe without having to make stuff up. Many of us do not lose hope or become misanthropic internet curmudgeons simply because we don’t believe in deities. Robbing people of hope is not something inherent to being an atheist. All we do is put it in things we can see rather than what we can’t prove.
7 thoughts on “Religion Doesn’t Have a Monopoly on Hope”
Let me guess, this post was inspired by John Branyan?
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Admittedly, I did see some of it in his comments on his monk post. However, I went looking on the atheism tags again, and I saw a couple other bloggers doing similar things. That, and complaining about burdens of proof.
At any rate, I noticed a few peculiar things in my conversation with him on his post. You might want to read it. He conceptually justifies the argument against claiming atheism is a system of beliefs. I was proud of that, even if he didn’t go all the way with the thought.
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I have been reading your comments there. Have been debating him today (if you can even call it that) on his most recent post which is actually about me and Tildeb and Allalt.
Good post. What inspires hope in one person may not in another. An eternity kissing the feet of a deity, literally forever, does not inspire me. Learning new things. Exploring, taking delight in the people I love are things that inspire me. That we have a finite time to do this makes it more urgent to do these things, which I find to be a type of inspiration.
One thing that has surprised me most about losing faith is the way I have become less selfish. And this certainly includes hope. Once upon a time I wanted to live for an eternity with those I loved most, and that eternity would be bliss that was beyond my understanding. No sorrow or pain and all that…. Everything our hearts desire without compromise, right? I guess that’s what it’s supposed to feel like in the presence of God, but I don’t know why I was ever so sure of it.
Salvation was a free gift, but a gift all the same. And it calmed the fear of not only death, but of anything that crossed my mind if I needed it to. But without faith I know there is no Jesus band-aid for me to offer. I have to do better. The knowledge that this is all we have makes it matter more when people suffer, and my reaction has changed accordingly. I am a better person for that.
My hope still lies somewhere in the idea that I am part of something bigger than myself; but unlike being a part of the “body of Christ” where I will find a perfect reward in the end– I am part of the human race as it strives toward some great unknown. I will never know where this ends up, but I still find meaning in being a part of it. And I am now forced to love and give of myself without hope of being paid back. Which is good, because that kind of hope is empty.
I am so glad I figured it out before it was too late 🙂
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Well I should hope not… uh… I mean…
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There are many forms of comfort and hope. I have hope for a lot of things and im an atheist. I can spread hope and share my own. Not to mention atheists can believe in afterlives, fate, reincarnation, among other things.
There’s a quote from the movie “The Ledge” In which strong christian theist asks an atheist if he would have told a dying kid that god wasn’t real,
The Atheist replies–
No.I probably would have told him exactly the same lie you did. But, Joe, I’ll tell you one thing I damned sure wouldn’t have said, and that’s, “I’m sorry kid. You’re going to hell if you haven’t been baptized.”
I’m against the whole “who’s right” argument but this quote has always stuck resonated with me.
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