The hopelessness of religion

Consider this an extension of my post from yesterday about hopelessness and atheism. I’d like to explore this idea and even be so bold as to suggest that the opposite is in fact true: the hopelessness lies in religion (at least certain interpretations of it).

Let’s start with the familiar claims. I’m sure that we atheists, at one point or another, have heard something similar to this: “If there is no God, there is no purpose, everything is meaningless, and atheism is devoid of hope and joy.” You can find this kind of statement in many places:

  • “If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.”  (David Link)
  • “If God does not exist, then we must ultimately live without hope. If there is no God, then there is ultimately no hope for deliverance from the shortcomings of our finite existence.” (William Craig)
  • And this slide from what I can only assume is the most fire and brimstone PowerPoint ever conceived:


Well that’s one way of looking at it, I guess. But is it accurate? No, of course not.

The true hopelessness in this argument is to be found on the religious side. You control nothing. Your actions in this life amount to nothing. You’re incapable of being anything but a wicked sinner. You cannot create solutions to any of your problems, but must rely upon god to solve them for you. With religion, you’re essentially an invalid subject to a path that God has created for you without a say in anything. That seems pretty hopeless to me.

Now contrast that with the atheist position. There is a solution to every problem (science) and YOU are capable of creating it. There are random events that occur in the universe, but YOU are capable of reacting to them. You’re in control of your life, of what happens to you. With atheism you have unlimited potential. Atheism acknowledges and highlights the good in human beings: our ability to reason, to imagine, to be curious, to explore, to cherish our limited time and by logical extension to make the most and best of it. To be an atheist is to be filled with hope: hope that we can clear any obstacle, that we have the power to make a difference, that we can be better than we are.

With religion, you’re always a wretch in need of saving. Where is the hope in that?

The hope is essentially, as the quotes from Link and Craig allude to, justice. Craig talks about “the shortcomings of finite existence” being made up for in the eternal afterlife, and Link talks about “sufferings [being] ultimately pointless” and dignity, among other things. It gets back to the age old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

To hear some Christians talk, one answer to that is that there is no such thing as a good person. We were all created in sin, and therefore we’re all bad. So then wouldn’t it make sense that bad things happen to “good” people, or rather people who are trying to be good? Suffering and shortcoming are just the lot of your very existence in that case, so why lament it?

It’s the idea that everything has to be made up for, that everything has to be fair in the end. That we’re subjected to suffering and torture as a punishment, and it is to be endured in order to be rewarded later on. God is often portrayed in a paternal context, “God the heavenly father,” or “the father, son, and holy spirit.” Just imagine for a moment if a human parent behaved as God does.

Imagine if a child committed some transgression because it didn’t know any better, and so that parent inflicted some kind of suffering on that child–let’s say starved them–in order to instill character and values. And once that character and those values were instilled, they’d be free to go and eat whatever they want. That parent would be locked up faster than you can say “Adam and Eve” and the key immediately thrown away. We humans don’t tolerate such behavior toward our own children–yet we tolerate it in a supreme being that created morality, apparently.

Because that’s essentially what God’s done, isn’t it? God, the father, creates mankind in Adam and Eve. He creates them innocent and naive of evil and wrong, and then punishes them for committing a transgression that requires knowing what wrong and evil are in order to avoid committing it. And then going a step further, God decides to commit infanticide by killing everyone on the planet (except Noah and his family)–all because he’s a creator with strong morals. Or so it’s claimed. Christians love to talk about how without God there is no morality. Seems to me that God loves to straight up murder people if they don’t please him, which doesn’t exactly seem moral.

It’s the ultimate abusive relationship. God does something heinous and hideous to essentially helpless human beings, and then says, “Oh, come on baby, you know it ain’t like that. Come back and I promise I’ll make it up you and it’ll never happen again.” Such an abusive relationship seems utterly devoid of hope to me.


29 thoughts on “The hopelessness of religion

  1. “There is a solution to every problem (science)…”
    What’s the scientific solution to the problematic question, “Should I kill myself?”

      1. I guess that would have to be up to the individual weighing the costs, since we all inhabit different situations under different circumstances and we all place different values on different things and experiences.

      2. Well, before recently I probably would have argued that there is no relativism in science, but it seems clear to me now that a lot of people will use scientific methodology to support unscientific ideas and decisions. I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean that scientific truths are relative–but rather that the scientific process can be applied in pretty subjective ways.

      3. As a cooperative species I think it’s safe to say to we can trust no one scientist. We are fraught with biases and it is very hard to eliminate those from our thinking completely. Thus the collective is necessary to keep science progressing. If we depended on one source of authority for the progression of science we’d be just as lost as any other attempt at explaining the universe that comes from authority. The scientific method is self correcting. So if someone does not find the same results as someone else, the hypothesis must be adjusted.

      4. RE: relativism in science — there’s a danger of a “no true scotsman” here, isn’t there? Is there any way to determine what is ‘objective science’ and what is ‘science tainted by subjectivity’?
        In either case, however, it would seem that there may be answers which cannot be supplied scientifically. That does not, of course, prove any particular theological proposition but it does suggest that the perspective you’re proposing is more complicated than it seems …

      5. I’d say objective science is that which stands up to repeated scrutiny. If something is “true” then anyone, anywhere should be able to replicate the results or demonstrate the principle, regardless of their philosophical beliefs.

        I guess that there may very well be answers which science cannot supply, but that conclusion cannot be reached until we’ve tried to find the answers scientifically.

      6. That is correct. We can be sure science is a better way of knowing, simply because it works. And it demands that it’s findings are repeatable with stand the constant skepticism that scientists have to arrive at a coherent answer about how the universe works. Even though whole groups of scientist get stuck in paradigms, eventually such paradigms are broken as new evidence is found for which existing theories do not apply.

    1. But in general, the question doesn’t seem problematic or vexing to those who commit suicide. In fact, suicide itself isn’t “problematic” unless you define it as such. To many people, there is no “problem” about choosing to end one’s life. It only becomes “problematic” in the context of a personal God.

      1. Sorry, I’m not following this one. Are you saying that only the context of a personal God gives one reason to find the contemplation of suicide problematic and that, otherwise, it’s like choosing between flavors of ice cream or…?

      2. I’m not trying to make light of the choice, no. All I’m trying to convey is that the choice can be made using a rational, logical framework.

        Most reasonable people would argue that ending your own life because you didn’t get a particular job is irrational–there are plenty of other jobs out there.

        However, many reasonable people would find the prospect of ending one’s life because of terminal illness and the pain associated with it to be a rational position.

        Suicide takes on a markedly more moral quality if there is a person deity involved, particularly one who decrees such choices as sinful. A belief in such a deity would make ending a life with a painful, terminal illness–which many people find to be the rational choice–the “wrong” choice.

      3. “Most reasonable people” and “many reasonable people”… in my experience, neither ‘most’ nor ‘many’ people are particularly reasonable in the first place, so I wonder how small this population sample you’re referencing is…
        As to making the decision on a rational basis, I think you’re right because I think Camus and Schopenhauer both did fairly solid jobs of it. They both, however, realize a necessary “hopelessness” in coming to that conclusion so I’m wondering if that doesn’t throw a monkey wrench into your original post… or do you have an alternative?
        [btw, my investment here isn’t actually in pushing the perspective of a religious tradition but, rather, of existentialism as the logically entailed conclusion of any thorough atheism; mostly because I never found a way around it and I’m kind of curious if anyone else has]

      4. No worries. I try not to assume philosophical bent.

        As to the first half on your comment, I would say this: all people are capable of acting irrationally, but few people are completely and totally irrational.

        As to the bit about hopelessness, I suppose my answer is that hopelessness is simply part of the human condition. Anyone can feel hopeless–even the devoutly religious. I suppose hopelessness is unavoidable to certain degree, because there wil always be things we can’t control. But I wouldn’t say that atheism is more hopeless than any other belief system.

      5. And on this last take on hopelessness, I think we find a common ground. I’d agree that overcoming hopelessness (either by finding a source of hope or by ‘rebellion’ as Camus calls it) shapes the behavior and beliefs (consciously or unconsciously) of us all. And, if the question is taken seriously and thoughtfully, no worldview truly offers an easier way through than any other–however much proponents of one view or another claim otherwise.
        I am thankful for the support offered by the community and tradition that I’ve recently found myself embracing but I do not regret the years spent overcoming in solitude, would not counsel others to abandon that path without their own subjective cause, and, quite frankly, think many within my adoptive community would do well to spend some real time on that path… But that’s a completely different conversation.
        Thanks for the discussion. I hope you continue to find the wonder of investigating the world, and yourself, more than enough to make the effort worthwhile.

    2. If you can agree to base morality on well-being, then science can then be used to determine how we should behave in order to maximize well-being. For this example, suicide would usually be immoral because it eliminates your own well-being and also causes anyone who cares about you to suffer. However, there could be a few specific exceptions where suicide would be the moral choice, such as in a situation where sacrificing your own life would save the lives of others. You could say that a firefighter potentially kills himself every time he runs into a burning building, but it’s moral because the goal is to save others lives? Is that helpful? If you want to read some more on this topic, Sam Harris has a great book called The Moral Landscape.

      1. How do you define “well-being”? Why is self-sacrifice ‘moral’ under this definition? Is the ‘goal’ the determinant of moral status or the motivation or the act itself?
        Meanwhile, when Sam Harris’ publishes refutations of Kant, Russell, Freud, Nietzsche, Camus, and Sartre, I’ll take a look.

      2. Concerned thinkers point is spot on. He didn’t say suicide is moral, he was saying that if we look at an act that causes harm as immoral, then suicide would be immoral simply based on the fact that it ends your own existence. We can determine morals quite easily through scientific means, in fact we’ve been doing it throughout human history. Morality has clearly progressed over the course of civilization if we look at the globe on average. Just take a look at something like slavery which was common place and acceptable in many places just a few hundred years ago, while not eradicated now is seen as a highly immoral act now. We can observe the harm to society and action causes and adjust our behavior and morality to make a better society.

      3. CT didn’t say suicide was moral but she or he said that self-sacrificing acts could be. That’s part of what I was addressing.
        As to your points: How are you determining and measuring “harm”? What evidence is there that any “harm” is incurred in termination of one’s life? And in comparison to what objective, universally applicable standard are you asserting that social morality has “progressed”? What is the ‘perfect’ society against which you measure whether a given society is better or worse?
        I’ll grant that it has changed but change is not the same as progress. It may well be the case, as Nietzsche suggested, that our moral “progress” is a kind of decadence in that it seems beneficial to us but is actually leading towards our destruction… which may be for the best, depending on your perspective.

    3. Perhaps it’s not a problem. And I don’t say that to be glib either. But if every human was prone to committing suicide then I would say it is a problem. But clearly suicide is rare enough that it in no way endangers the existence of the species. Sure we have a survival instinct but we also have a lot of variability in strengths and weakness and it is likely that some people have a stronger survival instinct than others. Or that certain chemicals that cause depression in our body are in greater amounts in one person than another. Or there is the influence of a drug. Whatever the case may it could simply be that some people are more probe to suicide than others. And of course it is well known that many teenagers at one point will contemplate suicide. In that period of puberty and growth, emotional instability can be high. I contemplated it as well, and feel no shame or worry now that I did so. It seems natural to think of it as a possible way of dealing with pain that you don’t feel capable of bearing. In a way we do try to rationally look at the consequences and costs of killing ourselves when we have these thoughts.

      But of course understanding why people commit suicide is absolutely a scientific problem that can be studied, which is why we are able to help people both through therapy and possibly through medication in extreme cases.

  2. Interesting post Ryan. Definitely a great thing to contemplate. I don’t think that religion or science has any particular claim on providing hope, but I do think that science gives greater potential for hope simply because it allows for change, and the world is dynamic not static. The odd thing is that religion would like to give you the illusion that the world is static along with itself, but clearly what are considered good Christian values change with time and location. The same is true for other religions as well of course. Furthermore, false hope is not necessarily healthy. For instance the central tenets of Christianity as you pointed out is that we are all born with sin and need to be redeemed. So they implant a false problem that is completely untrue and unproveable and then offer the solution of taking Jesus Christ as your savior. Inventing problems and then inventing the solutions is not giving you hope, it’s just giving you a fantasy.

    1. An apt summary. I especially like the part about static values in a dynamic world. Religion must change to survive, and I think we’re starting to see that shift with the new pope. It’ll be interesting to see how or if religion can adapt to the new discoveries that science brings weekly.

      1. Well, for the record, the Pope isn’t actually doing anything particularly novel on this front. Catholic doctrine has long held that understanding (and the social values informed thereby) is dynamic and progressive (cf. CCC 66). Pope Francis hasn’t actually said much of anything that wasn’t already articulated by the previous five or more Popes, he just doesn’t hedge his language as thoroughly and gets more press. If anything, he’s only revolutionary insofar as he’s forcing some Catholics to realize that what they’ve been calling Catholicism isn’t.

      2. Well, saying that gays and atheists can get into heaven and that income inequality is a moral issue seems rather progressive for the church.

      3. (Don’t seem to be able to reply to your last comment directly. This is re: seemingly progressive statements by the Pope.)
        You would think but, oddly enough, not really. The income inequality thing is clearly spelled out and doctrinally grounded in the Compendium of Social Teaching and the Catechism, and the idea that salvation or damnation is an issue that is between God and the individual is even longer-lived (though, to his credit [and to the consternation of many], Pope Francis is much more direct and unguarded when making statements about what is entailed by doctrine).
        Now, whether or not your average American Catholic is aware of these points of doctrine in their tradition is a different problem (and it is a problem). Nevertheless, the proclaimed positions of the Catholic Church are far removed from its portrayal in popular culture.

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