how to have hope when you don’t have a god

sagrada familia, barcelona

If you have no god, does it mean you have no hope?

Religion gives you comfort in the bad times, and hope that they’re not forever. Hope that when you die, it’s not the end. Hope that whatever you go through during your life on earth, there’s something better when it’s all over.

But what do you do when you don’t buy into any of that? What gives you hope for the future, comfort in the present – or do you just have to give up on the idea of having hope?

In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you I’m a Christian. But I have lots of non-Christian friends, and I’m constantly thinking through my faith and the reasons why I believe in God. So I was thrilled to hear the editor of New Humanist magazine, Caspar Melville, talking charmingly and non-threateningly to a group of mainly Christians at Greenbelt. As I said before, yay for friendly atheists.

So what kind of hope is available to someone who hasn’t signed up to a religion? How about science? There are many, many people out there who think that science holds all the answers that religion promises, and that therefore religion is an unnecessary distraction. It almost seems plausible until you think through the implications…

Belief in science: just another kind of religion?

New Scientist‘s 50th anniversary edition a few years ago asked several prominent scientists in various fields what they thought the next 50 years would hold for science. One replied that he did think science would answer all our questions about the universe within the next 50 years; but added a caveat that his faith in this occurring was not unlike religious faith. It seems that he’s not the only one – the ‘superstar philosopher’ (why has no one ever told me this was available as a job description?) Bruno Latour argues this very point: that believing that science can answer all our questions without any need for religion is just swapping one kind of belief for another.

(Then you come across someone like Iain Banks, who remarked that ‘In these trying, troubled times, I think it’s even more important to keep on making a proper fuss about refusing to buy into all this “religion” bollocks.’)

Photo: Wikipedia

Iain Banks: Not a fan of religious bollocks (ahem)

Are we better people than our great-great-great-great-grandparents were?

Somewhat more persuasive, to my mind, is the idea of ‘moral progress’ – that humanity is getting better, kinder, less prone to wandering around killing and/or torturing each other horribly. Which means that although you yourself might have a sad, painful life, you can take comfort in the idea that in general, humanity is happier. That’s the theory, anyway. But I think it takes a particular kind of person (ie, not me) to be able to be genuinely comforted by the thought of ‘the greater good’ in the midst of your own grief, misery, or heart-bursting depression.

A while ago I read ‘The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories’ by Christopher Booker. It’s not a new idea, that there are only a set number of basic plots that underpin every story ever told. But Booker argues that there is a particular purpose behind this, and that is to educate future generations about the way things do and should happen. When you tell a story where someone goes through a life-changing experience and becomes a better person for it, the person hearing the story picks up on that lesson.

But it seems to me that this wouldn’t be necessary if ‘moral progress’ really existed. If we really are ‘better people’ in each generation, why would we still need stories to tell us how to become better people? We seem to be all just as jealous and selfish and vicious and violent as were our ancestors. Despite thousands of years of thinking about it, each individual must start again, think these same thoughts again, come to the same conclusions; and for what? This knowledge can’t be transferred to the next generation, so that they could begin their lives with a head start in wisdom and philosophy. No, they too will be petty and self-centred, until they learn what we have also had to learn.

Happiness and hope from volleyball, coffee and oranges

Maybe we should just be content to admire individuals’ achievements in their own lives, without worrying about a bigger picture. After all, there’s some pretty impressive stuff out there. On Wednesday, before the Paralympics opening ceremony, I watched the story of Martine Wright. She lost her legs in the London 7/7 bombings, and now she plays sitting volleyball for Great Britain. In her emotional interview on Wednesday, she told the interviewer that she felt perhaps she was meant to have gone through everything she did, just so that she could be here and do what she’s doing now. She almost broke down, and kept repeating, ‘I’m so lucky. I’m so lucky.’

There’s so much inspiration out there – and it doesn’t even have to be the big things. Sometimes it’s just seeing someone perform a simple act of kindness for someone else. Something they didn’t have to do, but they did it because they wanted to. Sometimes it’s seeing an elderly couple walking down the street holding hands. Sometimes it’s the uncomplicated pleasure of making delicious food for someone you care about.

In ‘The Sea, The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch, the narrator rhapsodises for a couple of pages about the the joy to be found in eating a ripe orange or drinking fresh coffee. Then he says something like ‘Happiness consists of a series of small pleasures, and if these are cheap and easily obtained, so much the better.’

If I didn’t have my faith, would I be content to find all the hope I need in the small joys of each day, and the inspiration of others around me? I can’t say for sure. But those things add so much to the sum total of my happiness, and I wouldn’t want to be without them – religion or no religion.


just add coffee 

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6 responses to “how to have hope when you don’t have a god

  1. Was just thinking about this quote this morning:

    “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.” (Willa Cather -one of my all time faves – from One of Ours)

    • oh I really like that – thanks for sharing 🙂

      but there are some people who are happy to think that life doesn’t need a background or anything to hold it together – that it’s just a ride. not my view, but each to their own..

      • I think Cather was trying to say that religion/faith could be just one of those things that holds it together – in that particular book the background could be nature, a devotion to the land, socialism/political beliefs, social improvement, a cause, or even other people… Judging from her writing I think she had very strong humanist tendencies. I agree with you but wonder if those people are really honest with themselves, as I’m not sure it’s possible to live a life purely just for the ride, that is to say without any meaning/background at all, whether it’s any of the above or something else altogether. And now I’m getting into nihilism – happy weekend :)!!

  2. Great post – having read it back to back with this article I think i’ll take a break from the debate for the weekend in order to recover – phew

    • awesome article and very quotable.

      this>> ‘Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.’

      I’m wading through the comments and they make me feel like taking a break too..

  3. Reblogged this on Iceberg Ahoy! and commented:
    This is a brilliant blog (I also happen to LOVE the title of the blog and the images!). I’d like to quote Patricia E. Deegan: ” But one day, something changed in us. A tiny, fragile spark of hope appeared and promised that there could be something more than all this darkness…..This is the mystery. This is the grace. This is the birth of hope called forth by the possibility of being loved.” I think we can have hope without having a god. But eternal hope and eternal never-ending love is in God.

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