Hope, Despair, Dread, and Religion

Ronald A. Lindsay

Secular humanists often assert that they offer something more than critiquing religion, that they have a “positive outlook” and offer affirmative alternatives to religion. When I encounter statements of this sort, I admit I am sometimes puzzled—particularly when what follows these words is some recitation of vague principles to which religious individuals can subscribe as easily as humanists.

How many religious persons, for example, would claim they are against the dignity and worth of every individual—something often cited as a humanist value?

I do believe that humanists have a perspective and a method they can bring to bear on issues other than critical examination of religion, in particular moral issues. However, we humanists need to do a better job in explaining what it is exactly that the humanist perspective and method can contribute to the discussion of such issues. Repeatedly invoking vague principles and values will not suffice.

That is a general observation. Let me turn to some specific points, which relate to humanist alternatives to belief in the afterlife. In a recent insightful editorial (FI, February/March 2010), Paul Kurtz correctly identified the hope for immortality as one of the principal motivations for religious belief. Empirical research seems to confirm this proposition, as some psychological studies show that heightened awareness of one’s vulnerability to death tends to intensify belief in supernatural agents, at least for those who already have some level of belief.

However, I differ with my colleague, both with respect to his explanation for the persistence of hope for an afterlife and his outline of the humanist alterative to false hopes of immortality. It is worth elaborating on these differences because they underscore some of the limitations and strengths of the humanist outlook.

Dr. Kurtz states that people are deluded by the false hope of an afterlife because they “lack the courage to become what they wish.” These individuals fail to appreciate and take advantage of the many opportunities available to us today, which provide “virtually unlimited horizons for enjoyment and satisfaction.” According to Dr. Kurtz, “our hopes are as unlimited as our dreams of a better tomorrow.” Recognizing that opportunities are not the same for everyone in the world, he argues that we need to bring justice and material wealth to all the countries in the world. As he puts it, “The doctrine of divine salvation makes sense only in poor and/or unjust societies where people are hungry, sick, or repressed.”

“Lack of courage” to pursue opportunities does not seem to me to be the best explanation for the persistence of hopes for eternal life. Leaving aside the question of whether religious believers would find such an explanation patronizing, if not insulting, it rings false. I have many religious acquaintances. None of them seems to suffer from a lack of courage to pursue his or her goals and ambitions. Indeed, some of them may be overly ambitious. And I’m not aware of any study that correlates timidity or reluctance to pursue opportunities with belief in an afterlife.

Regarding the notion that material well-being, social justice, and potential for personal achievement will cause people to give up belief in immortality, many scholars have predicted such an effect, including, perhaps, most notably, Karl Marx, who claimed that religion was a means of comforting the oppressed and would whither away once social justice was achieved and material conditions improved for all. However, there does not seem to be a straightforward cause-effect relationship between material well-being combined with agreeable social conditions and lack of religious belief. Granted, some of the more secular countries are also countries with a relative abundance of material goods, a secure social safety net, and a high degree of personal freedom, but there are other explanations for the secularization of these countries. In addition, countries such as the United States remain fairly religious despite material wealth, generally equitable (albeit imperfect) social conditions, and a high degree of personal autonomy. Furthermore, considering individuals as opposed to countries, material wealth, personal security, and expansive horizons do not always correlate with nonbelief. Many wealthy people are religious and believe in an afterlife. The Templeton Foundation was not established by a pauper.

I think we need to look deeper for the roots of the human longing for an afterlife. One can have material abundance, agreeable social conditions, and any number of opportunities for growth and achievement and still have an existential dread about death and other forms of irretrievable loss, such as permanent disability. This dread is triggered not only by concern over events that may affect one directly but also by the misfortunes that may befall one’s loved ones. A father with religious tendencies who is watching a child slip away inexorably into death is not going to be dissuaded from embracing a hope to see his child again by being told to have the “courage to become what he wishes.”

Dread is anticipatory. For losses that have already occurred, “despair” better describes the state of mind of those overcome by them. The same logic applies. For a mother with religious tendencies, a million dollars in annual income, multiple homes, and a richly rewarding career will not substitute for a child who was born disabled, suffered, and then died. In her despair, that mother may well turn to God and the hope of seeing her child again, and if she is religiously inclined already, reflection on the supposedly “unlimited horizons for enjoyment and satisfaction” available in the secular world will do little to persuade her to abandon that hope.

We need to accept the limits of the humanist outlook. Most of those who are religiously inclined and terrified of their own impending death or the death of a loved one will not stop yearning for an afterlife when they are reminded they have a virtually endless list of things to do. Or once had such a list. Or that they can take up eupraxsophy.

Does this mean we have nothing to offer those religious who believe in immortality? No, but we need to be clear about what it is we offer them and, importantly, when our offer should be made. The perceptive reader will note that throughout my discussion of religiously based hopes, I have emphasized the allure of such hopes to those who are already religious or have religious tendencies at the time of crisis. Atheists don’t (usually) turn to God or pray for survival of their soul when confronted with their mortality. There are atheists in foxholes—but, on the other hand, one typically doesn’t become an atheist while in a foxhole.

In other words, there is little chance that those who are religious will spurn religious “solutions” when they are experiencing dread or despair. They are not susceptible to persuasion at that point in time. To forestall people from turning to God in a crisis, they need to be persuaded before the crisis hits that immortality is an illusion and provides only the thin consolation of a false hope.

And how do we persuade people that religious promises of immortality offer only a false hope? Religion is a complex phenomenon and religious belief has many causes, which may differ from individual to individual. Surely, however, critical examination of beliefs in immortality and the evidence offered in support of such beliefs have contributed to increased skepticism. As indicated in my opening paragraph, criticism of religion is often labeled “negative” and contrasted with the so-called positive aspects of the humanist outlook. This is a false dichotomy based on semantics and word play. Eliminating false hopes and helping ensure that a person’s beliefs reflect reality is as “positive” an activity as anything els
e. Moreover, critical examination of religion is an indispensable element of the humanist outlook. One cannot begin to develop a naturalistic perspective on life until all illusions relating to the supernatural are stripped away.

Humanist hope is grounded in reality. That is both its limitation and its strength. We cannot wish away the finality of death or other irretrievable losses. Nor can we provide acceptable answers to those who demand wish fulfillment. But if we have achieved the understanding that religion and belief in immortality are illusions, we can resist the temptation to yield to wishful thinking at times of crisis. With our gaze firmly fixed on the facts of reality, we can appreciate what life can and cannot offer—and that will be true whether we have the limitless horizons of a Faust or the more prosaic opportunities of an ordinary individual.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


Secular humanists often assert that they offer something more than critiquing religion, that they have a “positive outlook” and offer affirmative alternatives to religion. When I encounter statements of this sort, I admit I am sometimes puzzled—particularly when what follows these words is some recitation of vague principles to which religious individuals can subscribe as …

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