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Nonbelief and Hope (2013)

Ryan Stringer

1. Introductory Remarks

There are many reasons why people hold on to their beliefs in supernatural things. Many of these reasons, I think, are psychological ones—people hold on to supernatural beliefs because not having them would be psychologically unacceptable in some way (or in many ways). In other words, they have—or think they have—certain psychological needs that could not be met if they did not hold on to some sort of supernatural belief. For instance, my stepmother has told me multiple times that she has to believe in God because she has to believe that she will see her dead parents again. A more extreme example here is the tendency for people to think that, without belief in the supernatural, they would not be able to have any hope whatsoever. Nonbelief, they think, is "a recipe for despair." This view of nonbelief probably stems from the belief that belief in God, or at least belief in some supernatural power, is the source or foundation of hope. For if this is believed, then the rejection of the supernatural amounts to the rejection of the source or foundation of hope, which makes hope impossible and despair the only appropriate reaction.

Those of us interested in disabusing others of belief in the supernatural must try to convince them that nonbelief is psychologically acceptable. But since a full defense of this claim would be quite lengthy, this paper will focus only on dispelling the common idea that nonbelief is a recipe for despair. After a brief discussion of hope itself, I will show that this common idea is mistaken, even if it is motivated by some truth about nonbelief. Contrary to what many people think, living without any supernatural or spiritual beliefs whatsoever not only allows plenty of room for hope, but it can help people to hope in a realistic, psychologically healthy way when it comes to important things in life.

2. The Concept of Hope

Since precise definitions tend to be elusive, I will not try to establish such a definition of hope. Instead, it will be sufficient if I can establish a working definition of hope. Looking first to the dictionary, one definition characterizes hope as "a desire for a certain outcome and having confidence in its fulfillment."[1] Putting this a bit more technically, hope is a complex mental state that consists of the following mental states:

(1) A desire D for a certain outcome O.
(2) The confidence that D will be fulfilled.

But this definition seems to be a bit too strict, as we can hope for something even if we do not have confidence that our expectations will be fulfilled. For example, every baseball fan hopes that his or her favored team will win the World Series, yet it is certainly not the case that they are all confident that this is going to happen—the reasonable fans of the poorly performing teams will probably not have such confidence. But what they do have is the belief in the possibility that it could happen, along with the desire that it will. So perhaps hope is a complex mental state that consists of the following mental states:

(1) A desire D for a certain outcome O.
(3) The belief that D can be fulfilled.

Of course, we can have confidence that what we hope for will actually come to pass, but such confidence is not a necessary condition of hope—it is instead something that can (and often does) accompany hope.

But even if (1) and (3) were sufficient conditions of hope, this hope would not be the kind that we need to make room for. For even if we can live with this kind of thin hope when it comes to our poorly performing baseball teams, it would not amount to much in terms of making nonbelief more psychologically palatable if it only allowed for this kind of hope in all areas of life. In general, we need hope that is more substantial—we cannot subsist only on desires for things combined with the belief that these desires could be fulfilled. What we need instead are confident hopes and fairly reasonable hopes. Confident hopes are just those accompanied by confidence that the hoped-for outcome will come true—that is, they are mental states that consist of all three of the above conditions. These are the best kind of hopes to have. Fairly reasonable hopes are those accompanied by the knowledge that the thing hoped for is not desperately improbable. These would be mental states consisting of conditions (1), (3), and the following:

(4) The knowledge that D's fulfillment is not desperately improbable.

Though not as good as confident hopes, fairly reasonable ones are the next best thing.

Unfortunately, hope is still not quite captured by the above conditions. For example, let's say that I desire to have the leftover pizza in the fridge for dinner, the belief that this desire can be fulfilled, the confidence that it will be fulfilled, and the knowledge that such fulfillment is not desperately improbable (which would seem to be implied by my confidence here). Even though the above four conditions have been fulfilled in this situation, it does not seem right to say that I hope that I will eat the pizza for dinner. To treat my mental state here as one of hope just does not seem accurate; so there seems to be more to hope than a combination of the above conditions. Luckily, whatever is missing can be set aside for our purposes; we can simply conceive of hope as a complex mental state that consists of, among other things, either: (a) the mental states described in the first and third conditions from above; (b) the mental states described in the first, second, and third conditions; or (c) the mental states described in the first, third, and fourth conditions.[2] (These options of course correspond to thin hopes, confident hopes, and fairly reasonable hopes, respectively.)

3. Nonbelief: A Recipe for Despair?

With this working conception of hope in place, I can now turn to the idea that nonbelief is a recipe for despair. I imagine that this idea is due, at least in part, to the fact that there is indeed no room for certain hopes without some sort of spiritual or supernatural belief to prop them up. For instance, if no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then there can be (a) no immortality of any kind (and thus no evil-free afterlife in Heaven, and no reunion with dead friends or loved ones) and (b) no guarantee that justice will ultimately prevail. If no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then death permanently ends our conscious experience—our own as well as that of our friends and loved ones. So even if we desire to live forever in Heaven or elsewhere, or to see our deceased friends and loved ones again, these are not live possibilities for nonbelievers. And if no belief about spiritual realms or entities is true, then there is also no supernatural figure or power to ensure that justice will ultimately prevail. So although we want to be sure that justice will prevail, this too is simply not a live option for nonbelievers. Consequently, condition (3) cannot be met for any of these desired outcomes, and thus nonbelievers cannot have any kind of hope in regard to them.

Nevertheless, it does not follow that there is no room whatsoever for hope if one holds a naturalistic worldview. For no matter how important the "lost" hopes might be, their exclusion does not entail the exclusion of all hope, just like the exclusion of 18-wheelers from the average residential garage does not entail the exclusion of all motor vehicles. In fact, there is plenty of room for both confident and fairly reasonably hopes on a naturalistic worldview: a nonbeliever can confidently or reasonably hope that he or she will get that dream job, be admitted to a good doctoral program, make a positive impact on the lives of others or the community, recover from setbacks, find true love, live a long and fruitful life, and so on. When it comes to these sorts of things, nonbelievers are just as entitled to confidently or reasonably hope for them as believers in the supernatural are; for such things are definitely not desperately improbable in a naturalistic world and, in many cases, they warrant confidence in their realization. Therefore, it is patently false that nonbelief is a recipe for despair.

A critic could argue that even if nonbelief does leave room for hope, and thus technically is not a recipe for despair, belief in God or some "higher power" is still necessary to provide people with a sufficient level of hope when it comes to facing dire situations—such as when one or a loved one is in the hospital and the prognosis is uncertain or poor. We also sometimes worry about our own safety or that of our loved ones in an unsafe world, and belief in God or some "higher power" is likewise required to have enough hope that nothing terrible will happen. So, the critic might argue, even if nonbelief is not a recipe for despair, and indeed allows people to have just as much hope as believers in the supernatural when it comes to many things, it falters when it comes to these other very important things.

However, this view of nonbelief is also mistaken. While it is true that nonbelievers cannot have strong hopes on the basis of a belief in deities that care for us and our loved ones and are watching over all of us, there is still room for strong hope in the face of dire situations and an unsafe world. Let's start with dire situations. If we are faced with an uncertain prognosis, then there is obviously plenty of room for hope because things are uncertain—for all we know, things will turn out well. Moreover, the general competence and ability of medical professionals, along with the power of modern medical technology, gives us good grounds to hope for the best.

Now things are not quite the same when it comes to a poor prognosis. For uncertain prognoses, the odds do not point in either direction, and this allows much more room for hope. But the odds point against us when it comes to poor prognoses; so it is more difficult to have high hopes here, especially if there is no miracle-performing god or gods watching over everything. However, nonbelievers can still have hope in virtue of (a) the competence and ability of medical professionals and their powerful technological tools and (b) the fact that prognoses are not guaranteed predictions, and therefore allow for the possibility that things will turn out well. Depending on how bad the odds are here, nonbelievers can have either thin hopes or fairly reasonable ones. So when it comes to facing dire situations, nonbelievers can still hope that things will turn out well.

Furthermore, nonbelievers can have a lot of hope in their own safety, as well as that of their loved ones, in an unsafe world. At the most basic level, this parallels facing uncertain prognoses: things could go either way and, for all we know, they will turn out well. But this is actually too simplistic; for once we consider more concrete factors about ourselves and our loved ones, the situation starts to look very favorable for many of us. For starters, we must consider things like where we and our loved ones live and work, and the general level of danger that accompanies this. If we live and work in places that are generally safe, then this provides good grounds for high hopes that things will turn out well. We should also consider recklessness, other relevant behavioral patterns, and personality characteristics. Things like being generally careful, staying home and staying away from potentially dangerous situations or places, and getting along with others are all things that give us good grounds for hoping that things will turn out well. Of course, there is always the possibility that something terrible will happen, but this is perfectly compatible with the odds being strongly in our favor. And even if we or our loved ones are facing dangerous situations (like war) where the odds are not so strong, we can still hope that things will turn out well because they can turn out well and, for all we know, will turn out well. So when it comes to facing the unsafe world in which we live, nonbelievers can hope that nothing terrible will happen to them or their loved ones.

At this point, some believers in the supernatural will probably insist that, even if nonbelief allows hope in all of these important areas of life, it still cannot provide as much hope as belief in God or some sort of "higher power" does. For in addition to the considerations I offered as making room for hope in a naturalistic world, a supernaturalistic world can offer the same considerations plus the fact that God or some "higher power" exists to further tip the scales in our favor. But even though the belief in God or some "higher power" theoretically provides more grounds for hope than nonbelief does, there is ample empirical evidence that trumps these theoretical grounds. For as we all should know from experience, if God or any "higher power" does exist, then he or it has a pretty dismal track record when it comes to helping people out in dire situations, or in keeping them safe in general. And it is beside the point to retort that God or a "higher power" may not help us out because he knows that this is for the best; for this does not change the fact that, if God or a "higher power" exists, then he "helps out" and ensures fortunate results at a rate and distribution that is indistinguishable from the rate and distribution of fortunate results that we could reasonably expect to see in a naturalistic world.[3] As such, belief in the supernatural cannot offer any more reasonable grounds for hope than nonbelief can when it comes to these important areas of life: given the mass of empirical evidence we all have the same grounds for hope regardless of whether we live in an naturalistic or supernaturalistic world. And since these grounds are naturalistic ones, believers in the supernatural should hope as a reasonable nonbeliever would. This would not only be the most reasonable thing to do, but it would be healthiest psychologically, for it would produce an appropriate level of hope instead of an overblown sense of it. With an appropriate level of hope, one is better prepared for the worst and has not set oneself up for severe disappointment, as inevitably happens when one has an overblown sense of hope. So nonbelief not only allows room for hope, but can help us hope in a realistic, psychologically healthy way when it comes to important things in life.

4. Conclusion

While certain hopes are definitely off limits for nonbelievers, it is patently false that nonbelief allows no room for hope whatsoever. Contrary to the common idea, nonbelief is not a recipe for despair. From hoping for a good job to hoping that loved ones will recover from serious injury or illness, nonbelievers can hope for most of the things that people generally hope for. Of course, this will not be enough for some people because the hopes that are off limits are the ones that these people cannot live without (or at least think that they cannot live without). There is probably nothing that can be done to make nonbelief more psychologically acceptable for these individuals. However, correcting the common misconception that "nonbelief is a recipe for despair" is an important step in making nonbelief a live option for others. And once people realize that nonbelief not only allows them to live lives full of hope, but would actually help them to hope in a realistic and psychologically healthy way when it comes to important things in life, nonbelief will become even more acceptable. To be sure, there will always be those who resist nonbelief despite its psychological acceptability, but this should not discourage us from thinking that significant progress can still be made when it comes to disabusing others of belief in the supernatural. I for one will hope for the best.[4]

Notes

[1] This is one of the definitions of "hope" in The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd edition (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997).

[2] The second condition seems to imply both the third and the fourth conditions, and the fourth condition seems to imply the third; so I might be guilty of redundancy here. But even so, this is not really important—accuracy is all that matters, and I am not guilty of this by being redundant.

[3] Some believers in the supernatural might object to this point by asserting that God or a "higher power" really does help us out quite a bit, even if we cannot discern when he does so, because if this world were really a naturalistic one, then we would probably see a much lower rate—or a more unjust distribution—of fortunate results than what we do in fact see. We therefore cannot say that if God or a "higher power" exists, then he helps out and produces fortunate results at a rate and distribution that is indistinguishable from that which we could reasonably expect to see in a naturalistic world. However, there is no good reason to assume that we would probably see a much lower rate—or a more unjust distribution—of fortunate results than what we do in fact see if this world were a naturalistic one.

[4] I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer and Keith Augustine for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


Copyright ©2013 Ryan Stringer. The electronic version is copyright ©2013 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Ryan Stringer. All rights reserved.

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