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Hope, False Hope, and Belief

June 25, 2016

Vjack of the Atheist Revolution blog and twitter just reposted an article from 2015 about hope and false hope. In this article, he discusses that the practicality of things that may be false — such as the practicality of the hope that religiosity can bring to someone who believes that hope to be false. As a snippet:

…is false hope necessarily bad because it is false?

For those of us who want to believe true things and not false ones, the answer may seem obvious. At the same time, I think that one could argue that the sort of comfort, sense of peace, reassurance, or whatever else you want to label it that hope provides might be more important to some people in some circumstances than whether the hope is based in reality. Could false hope provide one with the sort of benefits that might make it worthwhile?

…consider the example of a young Christian father with a critically ill child who is able to sustain the effort required to get out of bed each day and take his child to the many necessary medical appointments based, at least in part, on his faith. On one hand, this is the very definition of false hope. This man has misplaced his faith in something that doesn’t exist. On the other hand, is it so difficult to imagine how this sort of false hope might make a crucial difference for him? I realize it probably wouldn’t cut it for you or I, but can we reasonably insist that it couldn’t be worthwhile for him? Perhaps his false hope motivates his positive actions, persistence, effort like our college student’s legitimate hope. Perhaps his false hope also provides comfort and reassurance in the hard times in much the same way her real hope did.

I am a fan of pragmatism, so my inclination is to say that the practical effects of hope are more important than whether that hope is based in something real or not. The subjective experience and motivation of hope is what is crucial, in other words.

But, one thing that vjack didn’t discuss that I wish he had was the following question: what if someone cannot force themselves to believe in that hope?

It seems to me that for the young Christian father’s faith and hope to work, he has to himself believe in it. When vjack says that “it probably wouldn’t cut it for you or I,” then I think that part of the reason it doesn’t work is because we don’t believe the same sorts of things that the Christian father does.

My religious past features anxiety and despair — but it’s not really the anxiety or despair of feeling not good enough (although Mormonism does often end up doing that — so I can appreciate the difference between more grace-centric denominations). Rather, it’s the anxiety and despair of being part of a religion that said that I should be able to just choose to believe, and yet, I never could. It was the anxiety and despair of people telling me what they thought the eternities were like, but I just didn’t think it was likely at all, and I struggled with the message — sometimes implicit, and sometimes explicit — that my experience was impossible.

I have heard many people talk about faith as trust, and the evidence of that trust is in actions. In other words, one has “faith” in a bridge’s security and safe construction if one is willing to walk on it.

You can definitely have faith in a bad bridge — if you walk across it and it crumbles.

But what if you doubt the bridge — and so, you just can’t bring yourself to walk across?

old-bridge[1]

You may like what’s on the other side of the bridge. You may like the idea of the bridge and what it enables you to do. But if you can’t personally trust the bridge, then hope really turns to something else.

Maybe it’s true that you can always just walk across the bridge and feel terrified of every moment. But I still don’t see the value of living life in terror when you don’t have to.

I know a lot of people who say they feel liberated by their religious experiences — perhaps it was in recognizing the grace of God and recognizing that God loves them exactly as they are. Maybe without that grace, they had a problem accepting themselves.

But I don’t personally recognize my story as this. For me, I felt liberated by not trying to force the religious narrative any more. In not making it a priority to try to believe. In seeing what would happen if I just did things my own way. I didn’t really have a problem with accepting myself that was resolved by trusting in God. I more had a problem with accepting the vision of myself that people tried to tell me was God’s vision, but that I just couldn’t accept.

Maybe one day that will change. Maybe one day I’ll get the hope — false or not — that religious folks get. But I’m not really worrying too much or racking myself up for not having it — I am more looking at it like a curiosity of how diverse we all can be.

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3 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    The first thing that struck me about this post is, it sounds like vjack is arguing that Christians are able to derive hope from things that they know aren’t true. This of course means that Christians are insane or willfully deluded. But why does he think that Christians are not among “those of us who want to believe true things and not false ones”? Don’t Christians believe what they believe *because* they think that they’re true?

    You are closer to the mark when you say, “part of the reason [Christian faith] doesn’t work [for atheists] is because we don’t believe the same sorts of things that the Christian father does”. Your inability to derive hope from Christianity is not due to your “wanting to believe things that are true”, but to your lack of belief that Christianity is true.

    If all he is saying is that a belief that something hopeful is true, can provide hope, even if it’s actually false, well of course that’s true. If someone told me that I would receive $10,000 next week, that would make me happy to the extent that I thought he was telling the truth, and it would fail to make me happy to the extent that I thought he was BSing me. But vjack seems to say that Christians are capable of being happy over the prospect of the $10,000, even when they know the guy is lying or, at least, without caring whether he’s telling the truth. So again, we’re either insane or willfully deluded.

    If his only basis for believing that Christians are mentally incompetent in this respect, is that we believe things that he thinks are false, then I have to call his critical thinking skills into question, since the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. Or maybe he’s one of those who believes what he wants to believe regardless of the strength of the evidence. : )

    Your part of the post is more sensible and straightforward. You had a bad experience being raised in the Mormon religion. It’s hard to imagine that embracing Christianity could provide you with the kind of relief that many Christians describe: relief from the burden of sin and the sense of the pointlessness of life, since giving up religion is what provided you with a great sense of relief.

    Possibly your mistake is in thinking of “religion” or Christianity generically, rather than the particular kind of religion you were raised with. Then again, how one is raised by one’s parents can enter in to how one perceives his religion as well. I have observed huge differences in how Catholics perceive their faith, depending on how it was imparted to them while growing up. There are also big differences in perception from one child to another within the same family: My mom has 9 siblings, some of whom never left the faith and some of whom became atheists (though some of the latter group later returned to the faith).

    In other words, there are a lot of factors that can enter into one’s receptivity to faith apart from the content of the faith per se. But also, not every faith is the same, not even every Christian faith, and the reasons for having rejecting one might not apply to the others.

    Then again you say you don’t feel any particular need to find faith since your life is fine as it is. I can’t argue with that. I think religion is an objective human need, but I can’t make you feel that need. As you say, perhaps one day you will.

  2. Agellius,

    On the one hand, I want to think that vjack is not arguing that Christians themselves believe/know that Christianity isn’t true. I agree with your accounting.

    And he does in his post say that he doesn’t believe Christians are deluded…but the way he goes about making that case is…not expected:

    Most of the Christians I know are not deluded morons who are blinded by their faith. Their faith is irrelevant to how they live their lives much of the time. They turn to it in times of distress and find it a source of hope when they need hope. It seems to help them cope during these times of distress, and it rarely impairs their ability to function. Yes, their faith is irrational. And yes, it can be harmful at times. For example, it can lead to prayer instead of action. There are times when the fantasy might get in the way. But most of the time, the negative consequences to the individual are hard to spot.

    This reads to me as something like, “Most of the Christians I know aren’t deluded because they don’t actually take their faith seriously.” welp!

    Your part of the post is more sensible and straightforward. You had a bad experience being raised in the Mormon religion. It’s hard to imagine that embracing Christianity could provide you with the kind of relief that many Christians describe: relief from the burden of sin and the sense of the pointlessness of life, since giving up religion is what provided you with a great sense of relief.

    Possibly your mistake is in thinking of “religion” or Christianity generically, rather than the particular kind of religion you were raised with.

    While I recognize more and more the differences between typical Mormon theology and traditional Christian theology, I think that this probably overdetermines the issue. In other words, that my viewpoint of Christianity is so thoroughly tainted by Mormonism that I can’t really tell the two apart.

    But I don’t think that is totally the case. It’s not like I have never engaged with Christians of a variety of non-LDS denominations.

    I’d definitely say that part of things is that it seems I’d just have to be a different kind of person to fit within Christian narratives. I hear the stories Christians tell others about how their lives were before and after Christianity, and I don’t recognize myself in those narratives either. In other words, when it’s hard to imagine that embracing Christianity could provide me with the kind of relief that many Christians describe, I’m referring to stories and narratives from NON-LDS Christians rather than my own personal experiences from Mormonism. Like, you yourself say, “relief from the burden of sin” — but I don’t really recognize the burden of sin. You say, “relief…from the sense of the pointlessness of life” but I have never felt that to be a burden or a problem, and I have certainly never felt that I needed to take someone else’s prescribed “point” (even someone’s claims about what *God* says the “point” is) over going on my own.

    In other words, there are a lot of factors that can enter into one’s receptivity to faith apart from the content of the faith per se. But also, not every faith is the same, not even every Christian faith, and the reasons for having rejecting one might not apply to the others.

    Then again you say you don’t feel any particular need to find faith since your life is fine as it is. I can’t argue with that. I think religion is an objective human need, but I can’t make you feel that need. As you say, perhaps one day you will.

    I agree with this basics you’ve lain out here (although obviously not the objective human need part). I see a lot of diversity, with some people having religion as a need and others not. I see that some people change over time, either to faith or from faith.

    But it seems to me that what will be will be. If conversion happens, it happens. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. No big deal. Roll with the punches.

  3. Agellius permalink

    You’re right, vjack doesn’t say that Christians know Christianity isn’t true. But he apparently does think that Christians are indifferent to whether it’s true. I base this on the sentence of his that I quoted from before, in which he refers to himself and likeminded people as “those of us who want to believe true things and not false ones”. This is apparently in contradistinction to Christians, who are not among those who “want to believe true things and not false ones”.

    He also says, ‘I think that one could argue that the sort of comfort, sense of peace, reassurance, or whatever else you want to label it that hope provides might be more important to some people in some circumstances than whether the hope is based in reality.’ So when Christians weigh whether or not to believe something, on the one hand they ask, “Does it provide comfort?”, and on the other they ask, “Is it true?” If the answer to the first question is ‘yes’, then they will adopt the belief regardless of the answer to the latter.

    But on what does he base these conclusions? It doesn’t follow from the fact that something is false, that those who believe it are indifferent to truth. That’s a false dichotomy. If things were as simple as that, then Republicans would have no choice but to believe that Democrats are indifferent to truth (and therefore either irrational or dishonest), and vice versa. But mature adults are capable of realizing that their political opponents are not insane or wicked, but have simply arrived at different conclusions, for which they might have good reasons.

    Of course, there are a lot of immature adults around nowadays.

    I don’t have any quarrel with what you said on your own behalf.

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