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What could be bad about hope?

November 22, 2009

From my religious discussion group, one time (it might’ve been two weeks ago, but I just haven’t gotten around to discussing it), we started talking about hope. My mentor insisted that in this religious harmony thing we’ve been trying to broker, believing in God and having a religion must be “better” than not beleiving or not having a religion. As I’ve written previously, however, if his or anyone else’s idea of religious harmony simply scapegoats atheists, then it isn’t very harmonious at all.

Anyway, I treid to tease from him (and some of the others) why he would believe that. And he said, “I just don’t see any reason for atheism. It seems like a waste. To believe in nothing. There is no hope.”

While of course, I made sure to point out that atheism isn’t believing in nothing…rather, it is not believing in gods and divinity…but I thought about his point. What is it about hope?

To him, hope automatically triumphs over non-hope. And yet, I’m not so certain.

Hope, in my opinion, leads to an expectation. This expectation can be unwarranted, undue. If we hope for something that isn’t true, then when we discover it isn’t true, then we are left in a state feeling worse than if we never hoped at all.

From making this bold statement, I had to wade carefully. One of the discussion group members pointed out, “But then what’s bad about hoping for an afterlife…if we are wrong, then it’s not like there will be any great disappointment.” Fortunately, she didn’t take the argument a step or two further and recreate Pascal’s wager. But still, I certainly had to think.

I asked, “Do you live for the afterlife?”

Really…do you live for hope of an afterlife. Do you judge your religion by what you hope it will bring you in the life to come?

I argued that she didn’t. I argued that even with an afterlife in the loop, the religion was trusted based on what it brought to this life.

This proved to be trickier. The other discussion member said, “But from reading the Bible, I know not to expect a completely serene life. I know that a life lived in Christ will be a tough one. It will involve sacrifice.” And so on.

This was tricky.

And then two of the group members raised Job.

I had to halt things here. Do religious people voluntarily wish to live lives like Job? Sure, they accept sacrifice and suffering, but is that what they sign up for? If that is the case, then shouldn’t they be able to see that some people — completely rationally and reasonably — wouldn’t be appealed by that?

Fortunately, the other members of the discussion gave me something to work with. “Well, Christ fulfills me. Even if this isn’t a guarantee of happiness on a day-to-day basis or of a lack of trial or tribulation, I am fulfilled.” The Muslim in our group made similar statements about what he experienced when he finally became serious about submitting to Allah.

So, I raised…then what happens when someone submits…or someone converts…and someone becomes a disciple…and yet they aren’t fulfilled. So not only are they unhappy…but they are miserable…they are unfulfilled.

I sensed hesitation from the others. It would be impossible for someone who truly was a disciple to be unfulfilled. But, I pressed, wasn’t this an presumptious and arrogant accusation…a rejection of an individual? To say that it is impossible that someone who truy was or is a disciple can be unfulfilled is to say that an unfulfilled individual was never a disciple. It is to denounce the individual and his life as a lie from a liar.

But I pressed on…let’s say you have this individual who, for whatever reason, is not a disciple…even though he thinks he is doing what he needs to do to be a disciple. But you say he cannot be one because he is not fulfilled, so let’s say he is not. Would it be reasonable if this individual concluded he didn’t want to continue this path in his life? Or would it be reasonable to expect him to live unfulfilled for his whole life?

I asked the Christian, “If you were not fulfilled, would you find the sacrifice and suffering you face reasonable to suffer if you knew you could end it easily?”

I don’t know how effective these questions were.

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11 Comments
  1. FireTag permalink

    People who are truly without hope have to go on suicide watch. The hope certainly doesn’t have to come from a religion. It can come from a desire for your children or friends, a desire for a legacy of remembrance among society, from a drug, or even from a lust for vengence for whoever messed up the world. But consciousness without hope doesn’t survive long. (Which I guess is the goal of existentialism in avoiding angst and despair?)

    So, Andrew, you certainly have permission to find hope outside of religion. But just don’t let yourself become like the Woody Allen character who feels despair over the heat death of the universe.

  2. I don’t think that people without hope have to go on suicide watch. Suicide watch is just one reaction…an admittance that life is “too much” to handle.

    You need not have hope to realize that life is not “too much” to handle.

    Really, the goal is to confront absurdity every day. Confront hopelessness every day. You don’t avoid angst and despair. Avoiding it *is* suicide (whether physical or philosophical).

  3. A great book on this whole hope, purpose of life – Denial of Death ….. I think the Authors last name was Becker

    The other problem I have is with the assumption that Afterlife or some sort of spiritual continuation = God. That is just one of many possible explanations.

  4. FireTag permalink

    This sounds a little like the med ads on TV: “…if you experience suicidal thoughts or actions, call your doctor immediately.”

    When you are truly hopeless you can’t call your doctor or confront anything, Andrew. 😀

    That’s why Woody Allen’s character’s existentialism is ultimately so funny, because it is a (I hope) parody of something that is ITSELF absurd.

  5. re coventryrm:

    The wikipedia page for that looks interesting…I’ll have to add that to my (growing) list of books to read!

    I think the issue with afterlife and God is that generally, the afterlife is on just as “shaky” a ground as God. So, the two don’t necessarily need to be lumped together; it’s just that when one is challenging one (usually God), the challenge usually also applies to a generic, godless afterlife.

    FireTag:

    I still disagree. When you are truly hopeless, there is still no “can’t”. The existentialist angst is not from “can’t.” It’s from “can.” It’s from this overwhelming freedom. It’s from realizing nothing can hold us back.

    Any thing one puts hope in can be lost. And when this thing is lost (or when it is even in a position to be lost), that is despair. So putting hope in children or family is despair, because your children and family can and will die. Society will die, so putting hope in legacy is despair. The key to realize is that one can be in despair without despairing. (You can be *happy* but still be in *despair*. You can be in *despair* and *deaf* to it.)

    The problem with Woody Allen’s character (and I say this only reading a few sites here and there, since I’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie, haha…that probably dates *one* of us) is that he will *not* be existentialist. Rather, he confines his identity (his essence) to the way things are (e.g., universe will die a heat death). On the other hand, an existentialist, nihilist, and absurdist all see the heat death and realize that this cannot be the pillar of their lives (e.g., they despair). From here, the three take different paths…but they cannot rely on hope…because hope will fail. They have to CONFRONT this meaninglessness (e.g., everything will die) by rebelling (doing their homework anyway). We live on, seeking meaning despite the meaninglessness. *That* is the absurdity. Anything else would not be absurd (e.g., committing suicide because of meaninglessness or committing philosophical suicide and trying to abdicate our responsibility and freedom.)

  6. FireTag permalink

    Thanks for the explanation.

    I suppose any references to Hogan’s Heros would be as unknown to you as they were to my daughter.

  7. In short, yes, it would be. 😀

  8. Love that show! Was a regular family and popcorn event in our home.

  9. FireTag permalink

    See, Andrew, there is hope of survival! And talk of absurbity!

  10. FireTag:

    You do not hope to survive. You simply do. Because at any moment, your survival can be stripped away from you.

  11. buddhist punk permalink

    hello, thank you for posting this informative exchange. As I’m sort of pressed for time right now, I don’t have a clue as to how, why and where this occurred, just that I’m happy people can still discuss in a friendly, rational manner, and without leaping into the abyss where faith, belief, and religion are concerned. Keep up your worthwhile efforts. Might jump in soon.

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