Atheism and Hope

There is a tension within atheism (Please notice how I define atheism):
1.  On a personal level, many if not most atheists are generally hopeful people.
2. On a philosophical level, atheism as a worldview cannot sustain hope.
Together, these two ideas lead to the conclusion that:
3. Atheists who choose to be hopeful are making a leap of faith.

Let’s start with statement #1, that, on a personal level, many if not most atheists are generally hopeful people. I don’t think this statement needs much justification. On a quasi-formal level, all of the Humanist Manifestos strike a hopeful and positive stance. On a personal level, I very rarely meet atheists who are despondent about the consequences of their atheism. After all, any atheist who does come to a profound acceptance that atheism leads to hopelessness does not, generally speaking, remain an atheist. So, let’s consider #1 an accepted fact.

The more contentious statement is #2.
First, what is hope? defines it as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.”

We can see, immediately, how it makes sense that many atheists have hope. They want a better job, and then they get it. They hope for a romantic relationship, and then later, they find the person of their dreams. In this kind of way, both hope and its fulfillment are part of nearly everyone’s daily experience.

However, atheism cannot sustain hope because atheism directly implies that our lives are both trivial and short-lived. And to have hope, we must believe that our lives matter and can last beyond death.

In other words, atheists must steadfastly ignore, reject or push away two stubborn facts:
1.     Our triviality and
2.     Our mortality.

Neither of these fundamental, defining components of our lives can be allowed to really intrude upon our consciousness or social experience with the weightiness they merit. If atheism were to “take in” all of reality in this way, it would at the same time destroy the experience of hope. And so atheists are in a bind: remain in a bubble or experience hopelessness. Let’s look at each component in turn: our triviality and our mortality.

First, under atheism, human life is trivial. We must engage in a vigorous imaginative enterprise to behold the world and ourselves as atheism declares it to be, for we are imagining a world that is not like our own (as this world was, in fact, created by a loving God). When we do so, we find that our bodies are terribly inconsequential. Measured by our mass, duration, production of energy, flexibility, or by any other naturalistic measurement, the human organism is absurdly tiny and marginal to the universe. For example, the total mass of the universe is considered to be somewhere around 3.35×1054 kgs. That’s 54 zeroes after the 10: 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. By contrast, the average human body weighs, perhaps, 80.0 kgs. In the context of the cosmos, we are like far, far less than the random spray of ocean waves. Wherever each drop lands, and however soft its landing may be, is of no great importance. Neither do we have any physical reason for thinking our bodies, or what happens to them, are of any importance. These tiny bags of chemicals we call “humans” are so small and unimportant that, even if the entire earth disappeared in a moment, the universe itself would hardly be any different.

Second, under atheism, human life is temporary. The universe is something like 13,000,000,000 to 20,000,000,000 years old (that’s billions of years). By contrast, humans live for something like 70 or 80 years. In terms of time, our lives are fleetingly short, and nearly all of us will be forgotten soon. Aside from professional historians, very few people can name even all of the former presidents of the United States. And even those whose names we do remember are still dead. Their ongoing name recognition is useless to them, because their bodies have rotted away, and they no longer exist. Name the greatest and most inspiring leaders of history, and you are still only naming a collection of dead people. What’s more, everyone whose lives they changed are also dead, or will be soon. Once your body ceases to function, it no longer matters what happened to you or by you in your life, and every single person is headed for the graveyard. At some point in the future, every human being will be dead, because the universe will have expanded to the point where there is not enough energy to sustain any life. Let’s be blunt: everyone dies. You will die and I will die. We all die. This consideration also extinguishes our hope. Whatever difference your life makes, death will undo your work.

There is no way to imagine the world and yourself as a trivial and temporary, accidental composite of matter and energy, and still have hope. If we persist in saying, “yes, but I still desire that we ‘lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity’ then we are continuing to ignore our triviality and our temporality. On atheism, it doesn’t matter what happens to the mass of humans in the first place, and even if it did, it won’t matter in the near future when we are all dead.

Given these two features of our existence, to continue in hope is to take an atheistic leap of faith.