I was doing some spring cleaning the other day, and while rummaging through a bunch of dust covered boxes I found an old Obama “Hope” sticker from his 2008 election campaign. I’m sure you remember those. It has a picture of his face in red and blue colors with the words “hope” in all capital letters. For just a moment, I was reminded of the fervor of that election year, a fervor that I myself bought into. I went to see him speak during a Democratic rally held at a local area high school football field. He talked about how he was going to turn the economy around, how he was going to create new jobs and help the suffering middle class. He said he was going to end our foreign wars and favor diplomacy over aggression. He was saying all the things I so desperately wanted to hear and I found myself completely hooked. The “hope” sticker went up on my refrigerator that very night.
Clearly, I was not alone. He won the election in a landslide, and just about everyone I knew did indeed place their hopes in him. People seemed to think he would change the world and right all wrongs. But what happened as a result of our hopes? Our economy is in shambles, the middle class is being eviscerated, unemployment is rampant, and we always seem to be teetering on the brink of some new conflict. A survey says only 30% of the population feels our country is headed in the right direction. In short, our hopes were dashed. My “hope” sticker went from its prominent place on the refrigerator to a forgotten about box stuffed in a closet. To me, this is just another indictment of the false hopes of humanism; that world leaders and governments always have our best interests in mind and will fundamentally change the world and change lives for the better.
I cannot help but contrast the hope of humanism with the hope of my Christian faith. This past Sunday was Easter, and this year my church did things a little differently. Several people from our congregation went up front, one after the other, and talked about how Jesus Christ had transformed their lives and given them hope. In the United Methodist Church, we call this “faith sharing.” This was not the first time I’ve heard such testimonies. I’ve heard countless people talk about how they were freed from addictions, depression, abusive parents or relationships and all manner of bondage. I’ve even heard people talk about how they were healed of various physical afflictions and ailments. Skeptics of Christianity and religion often say that our faith is pie in the sky; but they ignore the transformative power of faith in our daily lives. Our lives have been transformed by hope.
I have asked these same skeptics a question; “what does the atheist hope in?” As of yet, I do not believe I have found a satisfactory answer. This matter is an easy one for me to probe, because I was once an atheist myself. Long before people jumped on the God Delusion bandwagon, I was reading the great atheist philosophers of old. The works of Nietzsche, Hume, Sartre, Camus and Schopenhauer once lined my bookshelves. Many of their views were not near as rosy as the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others.
Russell once wrote “that man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
Sartre, whose “Being and Nothingness” was one of my favorite books when I was an atheist, echoed this when in his final interview he said: “With this third world war, which is going to break out one day, with this miserable ensemble that our planet is, despair returns to tempt me again. The idea that we will not ever finish it, that there is not any goal, that there are only individual goals for which people struggle. People start small revolutions, but there is not a goal for humanity, there is nothing that interests mankind, there are only disruptions”.
For Sartre and Camus, atheist “hope” boiled down to one thing; “authenticity.” Sartre argued that we live in an “absurd universe”, the total of which is “ridiculous.” All we can do, then, is to authenticate ourselves by an act of will. It doesn’t matter which direction you go; if you find a wallet on the ground you can either return it or steal it, because either way, you will have “authenticated yourself.” Such was the “hope” of the ‘old guard’ of the atheist philosophers that I was once so heavily influenced by; a kind of blind existentialism.
But now there has been a distinct paradigm shift in atheistic philosophy. With the explosion of the New Atheists onto the philosophical scene, we have moved from a naturalist despair or a subjective existentialism to a more broad sense of utopian idealism. These harsh critics of religion have put new clothes on the old guard to make it appear more attractive for pop culture consumption. Indeed, the New Atheists have become evangelists in their own right. We have gone from the bleak writings of a Sartre to “Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have and it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move. And that’s a pretty big hope.” Substitute pessimism for a repackaged utopian ideal and you have the New Atheism. Open the windows; the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming; spring has come to atheism at last, after a long, long winter!!
It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as being irrational; are themselves guilty of irrationality. It is ironic that those who would accuse followers of religion as having a blind faith; are themselves guilty of having a blind faith. They say that we can “end all wars” and have “world peace” (especially if we get rid of religion!). They say we can “end poverty” and “end world hunger”. They say we can bring about better economic conditions for all of mankind. They say we will go out to the infinite stars. They say that secular morality will replace the need for a god. And while these things (with the exception of that last one) are certainly what we should always be striving for; they are at the same time unrealistic expectations in their totality. It is nothing more than a repackaged utopian philosophy brought into the 21st century. The writer of Ecclesiastes said “there is nothing new under the sun”, and indeed there isn’t. I wish I could say that we have the power to end all wars, for example, but there have always been wars and there will always be wars. Because the desire for selfish gain has always been and will always be rooted deeply in the human heart; the utopian world that these New Atheists tout in their books and in their lectures is simply impossible. They advocate reason over faith; but this is not reason, this is faith of an altogether different kind, and is thus a flight from reason. Perhaps the ‘old guard’ would have seen this as well. They are guilty of the same non-rational leap that they accuse theists of taking.
And like the utopian philosophers of old and the “hope” stickers of the present day, these ‘hopes’ will ultimately be dashed by reality. When we take off the rose tinted glasses of the New Atheism, we see the hope of humanism for what it really is. As Bertrand Russell put it, “Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on in its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest tomorrow, himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”
So what does the Christian hope in? I will be examining that in the second and final part of this series. Regardless of where you stand on these issues, thank you for coming with me on this journey and please stay tuned……