The Center for Inquiry, one of (if not the) leading non-religious advocacy group in the United States, has begun a new campaign, ‘Living Without Religion’. Have a look at this clip, aimed at simply stating their mission in this campaign and the overarching idea of living without a god, in general.
It’s simple, coherent and is not threatening. My only quibble is with the word ‘hope’. What do they mean by ‘hope’?
Here are some definitions from Oxford.
As a noun:
- a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen
- grounds for believing that something good may happen
- a feeling of trust
And as a verb:
- want something to happen or be the case
- intend if possible to do something
As a group that is firmly about humans taking charge of their lives without reliance from ‘beyond’ <cue spooky music> or ‘above’ <cue choral, Hans Zimmer soundtrack>, any weirdly optimistic piffling should be discarded. Hope too often is used in the sense of wanting ‘something to happen or be the case’ or, worse, ‘a feeling of expectation… for a particular thing to happen’.
It seems to me this definition appears almost contradictory to one defined as ‘grounds for believing something good may happen’. We should not focus or talk about what we really wish would happen, but instead what can reasonably be done, given the evidence, circumstances and resources available to achieve our goals.
My main problem for the last few years has been that people tend to focus, and therefore public policy tends to focus, only on good things we hope will happen — even if the evidence tells us otherwise. Some suffering is exclusively maintained because of our inability to look at the evidence that might counter our ‘hopeful’ outlook: for example, we hope every human life will be a fulfilling and happy one, but this is not the case at all.
Yet we operate on such assumptions when hospitals spend a large amount of resources keeping anencephalic infants alive that are better off dead, forcing these children on parents who are unable and unwilling to look after them (and for many of the children they die soon, anyway); or keeping people alive who have expressly stated their wish to end their terminal and painful condition. Hope keeps the blades away from wrists, to the point where we restrain suicides because our hope becomes belief and therefore we act upon it. We base these quite backward views of life on, what Schopenhauer calls, delusions of optimism.
The world does not operate according to our desires and wishes, a theme that is recognisably in tune with much of the Center’s views. To think otherwise is to be deluded, like thinking we matter cosmically — something as yet unproven and dangerous. Countering this view, however, cannot be done by claiming hope is a property worth wanting: I see it as no different from ‘faith’.
People use ‘faith’ in all sorts of ways, sometimes it is synonymous with ‘hope’. And, sure, we can say ‘we don’t mean religious faith, but trust’. Then, I ask, why not just say ‘trust’?
In times when we are publicly conscious of these terms and their impact, why use them? There are either better words to use (‘trust’ instead of ‘faith’) or better reasons not to use the words at all (‘hope’ for example). I don’t like the word because, aside from its religious undertones, it serves no purpose for me as a nonbeliever. When would I use it?
Perhaps a trivial example: “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow, because I have to walk to university”. But something like this can be verified, so my hope is useless. All it indicates is my desire, which is, even conversationally, not very interesting.
Perhaps, “I hope to be a published writer one day” tells you my goals and aspirations — but, did you notice? I used alternative words which better serve my purpose.
The other problem is how easily hope often ties in with frustrations that things haven’t worked out as they ‘should’ve’. The same way people claim they ‘hope’ things happen, they express outrage that something ‘should not’ have happened this way. When a tragedy occurs, people often say ‘this should not have happened’. But according to who? This purpose-filled idea of events in the world is highly problematic and shows the other side of the coin of ‘hope’: our frustration when our desires are not met. We are surprised and disappointed that the world doesn’t operate according to our wants and wishes.
Hope is, well, hopeless. We don’t need to use it. It makes decent campaigns like the CFI’s too Oprah-esque and hints at the idea that desires have some sort of spooky influence on the world (in a way they do, in terms of beliefs and actions, but I don’t mean in such a way). All the hope in the world isn’t going to change its shape, the wars, poverty, economic strife, and suffering — unless we actually think, act and work rationally, scientifically; and according to evidence, structure and critical engagement. ‘Hope’ might be a catalyst but, as I indicated, better words would serve as a better foundation, since this clarifies to all exactly how you’re using the term and, therefore, how you’re thinking. The less tawdry metaphysical appeals, the better.