The hopes of an atheist

May 14, 2010 § 16 Comments

I was asked recently by a very good friend of mine “But what gives an atheist a sense of hope?” We were at our 20 year highschool reunion, and it was very noisy, there were far too many distractions for both of us for me to give her an answer worth anything, so I simply said, “I’ll get back to you.” Lets call this friend “A” to protect the innocent.

Well A, this blog is for you.

Let me just preface this idea that people have that “without god or a belief in a higher power there is no hope.” I find it an odd idea, that one needs to believe in a higher power in order to have a hope for life, the future, humanity and for others. Sure hope is irrational, as on its own it achieves nothing. Hope being like a wish or a prayer, is thoughts cast into the void.

But we need hope to want to keep striving forward toward betterment of ourselves, our families, communities, cultures and our world, right? While this is true, hope is a driving factor in our lives. In fact it arrives in a human from our ability to project our situations forward, through the power of foresight and our understanding of cause and effect. We are able to look at a given situation, look at all possible outcomes, and then base our “hopes” on which of these outcomes we desire. This is hope on the simplest form.

The statement “I hope my girlfriend remembered to bring her house keys” is an example of this. I know either she has remembered them and I will be able to get inside out of the rain, or she hasn’t and we’re both going to get soaked while we work out how to get inside.

But I think the kind of hope A was talking about is a much more complex idea of hope, and much harder to pin down. This kind of hope is what makes you not just give up on the world and your life. I too have this kind of hope for the future. My hopes include things like “I hope we as a species can get our shit together and not destroy this planet,” and “I hope that we as a species can one day work together toward a better world.” These are baseless hopes, and stem from my desires now, and looking forward to te desires of all humankind. These, and more personal, smaller hopes are shared by all people worldwide, and yes they are irrational, but they stem from a real inbuilt part of our psychology which is self-preservation.

The difference for an atheist as opposed to one ho gets hope from God, is that this hope is internalised, not asked for from a higher power, not simply wished for, or prayed for. Both kinds of hopes are just as irrational as each other, and mine are the same as a theists, minus the one crucial ingredient. God.

I write this because I think it’s important to note that all humans are basically the same. Individuals may have more of a propensity toward certain character traits, but basically we all want the same thing; to be well and for those around us to also be well.

The absence of any gods in my universe makes no difference to the validity of hope in my life, just that mine comes without doctrine or dogma as ascribed by a religion, and without a divine guiding hand or intervention.

Given this, I think that the hopes I strive for, since I won’t be saved by a god or have some divine touch from above, is more dependent upon the outcomes of the random nature of the universe. All things run their course, actions affect other actions and outcomes, and the result is ultimately unknowable. But my hopes hinge on another hope; and that is the hope that we all as a species can learn to live together without human imposed prejudices and dogmatic boundaries.

I hope this is all clear enough, but I do feel I rambled a bit. Thanks A for making me think about this topic. I will have to elaborate on it.

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§ 16 Responses to The hopes of an atheist

  • Cary says:

    Nice post, and I think it lays out the non-believer’s ‘case’ for hope.

    Any objective assessment of the world gives little or no evidence that there’s any sort of systematic intercession by a higher power. Holders of one set of beliefs are not preferentially killed/impoverished/etc etc over any other; disasters occur in ways we scientifically understand – we don’t get hurricanes in Alaska, nor massive earthquakes hundreds of miles from the nearest fault line.

    To me, as you said for yourself, it’s strange to expect some higher power to intercede given how the natural world operates (which is to say pretty much without regard to the creatures crawling around on its surface) or the human world operates (which is to say that enlightened morality and religiousness do not seem to be correlated).

    Anyhow, enough rehashing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Luke says:

    Hope for a theist holds a hint of contradiction. Consider that their shared belief is a better life after this one. Is the hope they seek from their deities in order to get to heaven (or the variations thereof)? If the ‘afterlife’ is better than the present one, what in this life is it that they’re hoping for? For the atheist who lives in the now, hope is that tomorrow will be better and that you’ve contributed to that betterment.

  • And folks just let me clarify, A is not a bible thumper, just a good friend who wanted to know the answer :D.

  • SnoozyJam says:

    I think my take on what the theist sees as hope is the afterlife. They live their life hoping that god will think enough of their efforts to reward them with life everlasting with him. For us Atheists, this is our only life. But like you said:

    “I write this because I think it’s important to note that all humans are basically the same. Individuals may have more of a propensity toward certain character traits, but basically we all want the same thing; to be well and for those around us to also be well.”

    That is it, plain and simple. Living an honest, giving, loving life gives me hope that each day will enable me to do the same again. We are here for such a short time. I get hope from the things that are always changing in this world. I am satisfied with what life gives me. I can choose to give back. It’s all a balance.

  • dmabus says:

    the writing on the wall…

    for the idiot called *

    f*ck you very much!



    see, you degenerates have last names like first names…

    how about I believe in WHATEVER I want – even in the FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER! – and you have nothing to say!

    let me show you the end results of this particular *ONE-DIMENSIONAL SCIENTIFIC MODE*
    of thinking that is called *CRITICAL THINKING*, which is completely divorced from
    any human objectives…

    this style has been perfected by dawkins, pz, randi and the other *NEW ATHEISTS*
    THE BOOBQUAKE – 911!

    see how we take a term and convert it into its AUTHENTIC POLITICAL DIMENSION – THAT
    OF LIBERATION – not just merely harmless expression…


  • MichelPoisson says:

    The Big Afterlife Promise.

    That’s how the clergy earns its living. And they don’t have to provide any evidence, their explanation is supernatural, which by definition cannot be grasped by natural beings. In fact, they sell insurance and they never have to redeem it.

    As a skeptic, I find hope at the source of all my endeavors. The hope that I’ll find some truth. As a self-aware animal. I hope I’ll find some joy before I’m done.

  • Phil Hart says:

    Perhaps belief in an afterlife is a psychological necessity for some people, as in Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”. While the prospect of one’s own mortality may be less than pleasant, a more powerful human driver could be argued as being John Donne’s “Therefore, send not to know. For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”

  • […] I really, REALLY have to take issue with the conflation of hope and prayer. Atheists have hope. Hope is not prayer. Do not marry the two, because that’s false and disingenuous and implies […]

  • While I appreciate the re-plug, dear Climber, I linked to you because despite your protestations of rambling, you made all kinds of sense yourself. Plus it was pretty timely.


  • Steve says:

    Your ultimate response is this: The thing that makes me not give up on the world and my life hinges upon a hope that we as species can learn to live together without human imposed prejudices and dogmatic boundaries.

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