What hope can the atheist have? This question, often intended to be rhetorical, has long been a favorite of theists and apologists seeking to emphasize the importance of a life lived by faith. Christian apologist William Lane Craig lists it as one of three reasons for why the existence of god makes a difference. “If God does not exist,” he contends, “then we must ultimately live without hope. If there is no God, then there is ultimately no hope for deliverance from the shortcomings of our finite existence.”1 These shortcomings Craig identifies as evil, aging, disease, and death, and because there is no afterlife within atheism, it is labeled “a philosophy without hope.”
Hopelessness is undoubtedly one of the most bitter and devastating feelings known to humankind. It has driven many a man, woman, and child, to take drastic and tragic actions. Psychologically – perhaps biologically – we seem to depend on hope to carry on a healthy, normal life. Does atheism require us to adopt a hopeless perspective? Does it trivialize the hopes we may have for this life? For this article, we will explore the practicality of finding hope in a godless world.
I. Realistic Expectations
I have hope that I will live another day. I have hope that my friends and family will continue to love me. I hope that I will not be laid off from my job. I also have hope that my car will not cost me a fortune in repairs. These are all realistic expectations, even though some of them, like the last one, may not always be met. It is well within the scope of probability that I will live to see tomorrow, that my friends and family will go on loving me, and so forth. Yet if I get into an unfortunate accident that ends my life, I would not have been unjustified in hoping for another day. Even if I am dying in a hospital of a debilitating disease, will it be unreasonable for me to hope that I fall within that 5% of patients who survive?
As long as the outcome is uncertain, and our expectations are realistic, we are justified in hoping for the improbable. Experience alone can tell me that I am likely to live another day. A thief may break into my house at night and murder me, but since such an event is rare compared to the experience of falling asleep and waking unharmed the next morning, my death would not invalidate the hope I had for living. The shortcomings mentioned by Craig are not all hopeless to an atheist. Medical science has made many once fatal diseases into mere discomforts that can now be treated by immunization, or even by swallowing a pill. Technology has given us better ways to keep some kinds of evil out of our lives, like alarm systems to deter criminals, and it has also increased the odds of catching evil-doers to bring them to justice.
Of course, these measures are not absolute, and so they cannot offer complete hope of health and safety. This margin for error is the region from which theists point their fingers at atheism. Craig uses the word “ultimately” to include this caveat. Sure, you can postpone death, but we all still die. What hope can atheism offer against that? None. I will freely and readily admit that atheism does not promise to prevent death, to reverse it, to make it less painful, or to balance it out afterwards with an eternity of bliss. Atheism is simply the absence of theism, or the lack of belief in god(s), and as such it cannot provide any basis for the hope of overcoming death.
However, I don’t believe the hope offered by religion is realistic or necessary to our well-being. Few of us would claim to have experienced the afterlife posited by religion (near-death experiences are addressed in my article, What Happens After We Die?), and the sources that promise a life after death are typically riddled with historical and scientific inaccuracies, meaning that they are not exactly trustworthy. Additionally, there are thousands upon thousands of people who do not believe in an afterlife and yet feel no deep despair or compulsion toward self-destruction. Studies have found that high rates of atheism correlate to high levels of social health and prosperity, while high rates of religious belief correlate to high levels of oppression, poverty, and despair.2 Apparently we can carry on just fine without the grand cosmic hopes afforded by religion.
II. A Religious Solution to a Religious Problem
Neither the Christian, Muslim, Mormon, or Jew, has any better hope for living another day than the atheist. Their god does not give them a set number of years upon the earth that he reveals to them. For all they know, god could choose to take them in their sleep. The hope that theists usually claim atheists are unable to find is not the realistic kind like living another day, having loving relationships, or keeping a job. These are not granted to the believer under most religious teachings. The sects and groups that do teach these things are part of the “prosperity movement” that is widely condemned by most believers.3 Rather, the kind of hope stressed by these critics of atheism is a religious solution to a religious problem.
Occasionally it’s been asked: if god doesn’t exist, then who created the universe? The way this question is phrased, it still assumes the theistic worldview. If god doesn’t exist, then there probably is no “who” that created the universe. A similar question I’ve encountered is: if there is no god, then how can we be saved from sin? Here the reality of sin is assumed, as well as the possibility of, and need for, salvation. Both of these questions are poorly phrased because they still operate under the assumptions of Christian theism. I use them as examples to illustrate how a seemingly puzzling challenge may only be puzzling because it hasn’t been taken to its logical extent.
If there is no god, do we need hope for an afterlife? Hope for salvation? Hope against evil? It would be nice to live for an eternity after death, to see loved ones again, and to be free of suffering, but to pretend that this is a hope atheism must provide in order to be on par with theism is just nonsense. It is the hopeless portrait of humanity painted by religion that has produced these grand cosmic hopes. We are all horrid sinners helpless to save ourselves. We don’t just do wrong against our fellow human beings, we do evil that offends god himself and deserves no less than death, followed by eternal torture. Without these assumptions, there is no reason we should need hope for salvation or hope against supernatural evil.
Perhaps it’s unnecessary to hope for an afterlife, too. Science may one day get us to immortality, but even if not, do we really need to hope for everlasting life to enjoy our time on Earth? Who could honestly argue that the years spent with beloved friends and family become meaningless if death is truly the end? It would be like saying there is no value in listening to the works of J.S. Bach because his compositions all last for a limited length of time. We often say we want more of something, then when we are given it, we find it less and less appealing, even to the point of boredom in certain cases. Though theists probably don’t believe this could happen in heaven, the point is that the desire for an afterlife may arise out of this misguided wish to have more.
Surely, most theists will agree that not all hopes we have are good. It’s not good to hope that your neighbor dies so you can have his wife. It’s not good to hope that your annoying co-worker comes down with a severe case of untreatable cancer. We ought to ask if these hopes proposed by religion are good ones to have, especially if they are false or unrealistic hopes. It is definitely not evident that even the hope for an afterlife is a good thing to have, since some people have taken that hope as a grounds for killing others. There is the example of Kelli Lynn Murphy, who murdered her two children believing that she was sparing them from suffering by sending them to heaven.4
III. The Hope of the Atheist
I will concede that some people may not find hope in atheism. As I have already mentioned, religion makes promises that atheism cannot accommodate. This doesn’t mean atheism leaves people without hope, nor does it mean the hopes provided by religion are good or true. Unfortunately, religious belief has been so dominant in our history that it’s difficult for the average person to imagine life without it. But if one is able to break free of the shackles of faith and – more importantly – able to rethink their worldview beyond theistic assumptions, then it isn’t so certain that they will retain their sense of despair about the prospect of an atheist universe.
The other side of this coin is that some people do not find hope in theism. Speaking as a former Christian, I can recall times I felt trapped by my faith, times when I experienced despair and self-hatred. I felt helpless to save my loved ones from an eternity of horrible pain. I sometimes felt alone and confused, wondering why the god I believed in seemed so distant and so uncaring. I worried about the security of my destination after death. Though I would often talk about the hope I had in Christ, I knew deep down inside that it was more of a desperate sort of wishful thinking than any empowering or meaningful sense of hope. What I’ve heard from other ex-believers has led me to understand that I am far from the only person who has felt this way.
Atheism can offer hope that theism can’t. It gives hope to our actions. We need not petition a deity to make a change in the world, and we need not fret over how our behavior might or might not fit into its “plan.” Atheism provides hope for peace after death. No hell or heaven to plague our minds with the wildest of concerns. Atheists find hope in an impartial universe, where no cosmic entity is working against us or tipping the odds in either direction. Where every earthquake, every hurricane, every tornado, and every tsunami is a product of blind natural forces controllable by no almighty being. Atheism gives us hope against all the horrendous doctrines of religion and the troubling implications of theism.
Atheism does not prevent us from hoping for tomorrow, hoping for loving relationships, hoping that we keep our job, etc. There is nothing inconsistent or irrational about having realistic aspirations while disbelieving in gods. Apologists like William Lane Craig have so immersed themselves in their own religion that they may as well be incapable of picturing life without it. Yet this does not justify them to make such ridiculous conclusions about the hopeless state of it all if there is no god. At best, it only reveals the mental gymnastics or cognitive roadblocks of these individuals. I may not hope for your heaven, but I can easily hope for a well-lived life here on Earth, and I can work to achieve that goal without the fear of any supernatural interruption. Our lives are our own, and they are the only ones we have, making our hopes for the here and now all the more important.
1. William Lane Craig, Does God Exist? ReasonableFaith.org.
2. Phil Zuckerman, Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns, Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007).
3. Simon Coleman, The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity (Cambrige University Press, 2000).
4. Daily Mail, ‘They’re in heaven’: Mother ‘murdered children in their beds...’ Mail Online (May 24, 2011). Retrieved Aug. 8, 2012.