The Grim, Grinchy Hopes of Atheism

The Grim, Grinchy Hopes of Atheism

Hope is a remarkable phenomenon.  Hope gives meaning and direction to our lives, and nothing is worse than to live without it. This is graphically conveyed in the most famous line in Dante’s Inferno, the inscription that is written over the gate to hell:  “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”


And yet, hope is a two edged sword.  To express hope is to concede that all is not well.  Hope signals discontent, it acknowledges a palpable absence and beckons something not yet here.  To sing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” is to feel the cut of the sword.

And that raises one of the most fundamental of all questions: for what can we rationally hope?  What kinds and degrees of happiness and fulfillment are possible?  Can our deepest and largest longings for love, for joy, for peace, for justice ever be met?  Or must we cut the size of our hopes down to small and medium?

Christianity, of course, is a religion of soaring hope. It urges us to enlarge our hopes, it promises happiness and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams.  Reality is far greater than we can imagine, more beautiful than we can conceive.

By glaring contrast, I was recently struck by these lines:

The conflict between scientific naturalism and various forms of antireductionism is a staple of recent philosophy.  On one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology.  On the other side are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought,and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level of physical facts—facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.

These lines come from Thomas Nagel’s remarkable little book Mind and Cosmos, a book that challenges the reigning orthodoxy of scientific naturalism and reductionism.  Nagel himself is a committed atheist, but he is highly dubious of the dogma that all of reality can be explained in terms of the physical sciences.  Indeed, the aspects of reality that are the most interesting and immediately accessible to us are the very features of reality that resist scientific explanation, things like consciousness, reason, and objective moral truths.

But here is what struck me.  Notice in particular this line: “…there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences…”

When I read this line I want to cry out, “why would anyone HOPE this?”

Let me be clear. I can, at one level, understand regretful atheism.  I can empathize with those who reluctantly come to the conclusion that God does not exist, that it’s all matter and energy, determined by mindless, heartless laws of nature, that the same laws of nature that somehow generated human life will eventually destroy all of us as the stars burn out and the physical remains of the universe go on expanding and disintegrating forever.

But what I cannot understand is why anyone would celebrate this vision of reality.  To regretfully come to this conclusion is one thing, to enthusiastically embrace it is another thing altogether.  To celebrate it with a sort of triumph makes no rational sense.  Indeed, it is perverse.

It is one thing to believe your wife has a brain, but not a soul.  It is another thing to be glad about it. It is one thing to think her most heartfelt, loving thoughts toward you are ultimately reducible to chemical events in her brain, but it is quite another thing to savor that “thought.”  It is one thing to believe death is stronger than love, and will get the last word.  It is another thing altogether to relish this prospect as a matter of hope.

And here is another thing.  Atheists have for centuries deployed the problem of evil as their main argument against the existence of God.  Again, I respect the force of this problem, and understand those who find it hard to believe in God in the face of devastating evil.  But it is another matter altogether to wield the problem of evil like an axe with a sense of sneering triumph.  Those who do this seem often to lose sight of the tragic implications of their claims for the very victims of suffering and evil on whose behalf they profess to speak.

When I encounter this sort of disdainful atheism, I am always reminded of an argument Richard Creel advanced several years ago that we have a moral obligation at least to hope that God exists.  Why hope that God exists? Creel asks.  Precisely because of compassion for those who suffer.  If it is even possible to retain the hope that God exists, he argues, then it is possible to hope that the terrible suffering in our world can be redeemed.   If there is no God, there is no hope for those who have suffered terrible evil and injustice, whose lives were cut painfully short.

To hope that atheistic naturalism is true is to embrace a vision of ultimate reality that consigns to oblivion those who have suffered horrible and unspeakable evil.  It is to write them off as monuments to the tragic absurdity of life.

I will not write them off.

O Come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel. [i]

[i] It is important to emphasize that from a biblical perspective, hope is not a desperate last resort, a matter of “hoping against hope,” but rather, a grounded confidence.  For more on this, see my essay “The Wisdom of Hope in a Despairing World” in The Wisdom of the Christian Faith, eds Paul K. Moser and Michael T. McFall, Cambridge University Press, 2012.

9 responses

  1. Alternatively, any truth well-earned is a thing worth celebrating. One may dispute atheist claims to have found the truth, but to insist that they must feel regret about it is hardly reasonable.

    As to the bit about consigning those who have suffered to oblivion, I rather think that is the point. there is no justice but that which occurs in this life, and to be comforted by false hopes is in the case of such people to betray them. We help them now, or not at all. No God will square the deal on any other day.

    • It is unclear how any truth could be considered “well-earned” within either a subjective or materialistic framework. It would further require what a “poorly earned” truth might be, which leads to the further difficulty of explaining why a “well-earned” truth would be more meritorious than one a “poorly-earned” one and worthy of such celebration.

      If a person, properly earns the truth that Jews are inferior and ought to be exterminated for the common good, should be support or encourage the celebration of that truth? If our deserving truth-seeker finds all life to be meaningless, are we to shout for joy? If the same seeker discovers the truth that he is dying of a slow and excruciating cancer, would the proper response be celebration? We might respect and celebrate this person’s response to this horrific discovery, but it is entirely reasonable to find the discovery regrettable.

      Put simply, the manner of obtaining truth, does not necessary inform whether the truth obtained is worthy of celebration. A horrific truth, however, “well-earned” might be accepted, but I agree that delighting that truth seems perverse. I have empathy for those who have honestly, openly, thoroughly, rationally and consistently pursued truth and believe there is no God, that love, beauty, and compassion are illusions generated by energy acting on matter in the brain, that life beyond our temporal state does not exist. I may even respect their method. But to rejoice in such conclusions is another matter and it is this position, Dr. Walls critiques.

      As to the assertion that justice must be now rather than waiting on God to some day “square the deal”, I believe this is a false dilemma. Christians have long held, as Scripture clearly demands, that not only justice, but compassion must be a present concern. To believe that ultimate justice, compassion and reality lie in God does not dismiss present concerns over them. The Christian belief in eternity does not burden justice or compassion with procrastination. It immeasurably increases the urgency for them. For the Christian each injustice, each act of compassion has eternal ramifications for all the instigator and recipient alike.

  2. I’ve brought some of these points up with atheists. They will say that if it’s not true then why believe it, and emphasize that we are masters at self-deception. They just dismiss it all as “pie-in-the-sky” wishful thinking, and often will say something like, “well I am happy you have this as a comfort your life”. Seems a bit paternalistic, even condescending, but this is the response I often get.

  3. Excellent! Brings to mind that one of the Huxley’s commented to this effect, “I wanted there to be no meaning so I could live as I wish.” Seems perverse as well and yet an unspoken reason for the ‘hope’ you were addressing?

  4. Pingback: The Grim, Grinchy Hopes of Atheism | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM

  5. Pingback: The Grim, Grinchy Hopes of Atheism | A disciple's study

  6. Atheist here. I think you’re projecting attitudes that may not exist.

    I fully understand the challenge of nihilism, which accompanies a universe without a divine guide. I understand the tragedy of a mechanistic universe, the loss of hope and poetry and justice. I think you are right that these are grave matters.

    But no one said, and Nagel wasn’t claiming that anyone said, “we hope life is meaningless, and there is no justice or redemption.” Instead, the hope expressed was that science can explain everything. This is a hope that our knowledge can continue to expand. Since there is no God, we have to make decisions ourselves, and it would be nice to know that we can continue to gain knowledge to use in decision making. As long as there are gaps in our knowledge, it provides opportunity for charlatans to invent pernicious nonsense. There may be no universal hope, but the false hope of religion leads nowhere. At least science helps us live longer, be more comfortable, communicate better, and learn and develop. This may not have universal meaning, or any meaning at all when we are extinct, but now, for the concrete people alive today, I don’t think it is unreasonable to hope we can understand everything. It certainly isn’t Grinchy.

    I think it is as much of a distortion of the atheist position to suggest that atheists “hope” for nihilism by hoping for knowledge, as for me to suggest that your position is that you wish for eternal ignorance so that church leaders can continue to fill their coffers by telling fairytales to plug the holes in our knowledge.

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