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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.