July 6, 2012

An Atheistic Take On Living Without Hope

In “Hope Against Hope” (New Humanist, July/August 2012), British philosopher and atheist Julian Baggini offers,

Indeed, Sam Harris suggested to me that without hope we might be more at peace. “Hope and fear are completely natural responses to uncertainty. But they are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope. Easier said than done, of course. But it is possible. And being without hope is by no means synonymous with despair. Rather, it is tranquility.”

The idea that we need hope much less, if at all, was confirmed to me in the conversation with Warburton and Haynes, when her mother, who had joined us after our event, volunteered the idea that “Hope surely just is that every day is astonishing in its own right. When you get to my age you do begin to think somewhat about death and what seems to me extraordinary is that I have had life.” I told her that seemed right to me, except that I wouldn’t call that hope. In a way, it’s better than hope. It’s not hope for things that might happen but appreciation for and delight in what you have. Hope is of its nature directed at the future, but often we would do better to focus on a nearer horizon.

Warburton distilled the thought. “There’s something better than hope, which is not to postpone everything but to focus on what’s going on now.” My hope is that thoughts like these can supersede hope.

This could maybe work if one is well off and filled with pleasant distractions in life - be it wealth, health, family, career, etc. But most people, through no fault of their own, have lives that don’t bear thinking about in the present day without hope. Jesus Himself acknowledged the difficulty of one well off and filled with distractions to embrace hope and meaning beyond what we can create for ourselves:

"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'" - Matthew 19:23-24

And St. Paul advises:

"Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." - 1 Timothy 6:17-19