Hope and False Hope

Faith, Hope and Charity
Faith, Hope and Charity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today's "sermon" deals with the important and often neglected topic of hope. It strikes me as one of many topics about which one hears a great deal from religious believers and not nearly enough from atheists. I'm not sure why that is. After all, many atheists are quite optimistic and hopeful. Perhaps hope is something we should address more often.

When a Christian tells me that he or she has found a sense of hope in Jesus, I'm inclined to believe it. No, I'm not saying I'm inclined to believe in Jesus. What I'm saying is that I am usually content to take the Christian's word for it when I am told that he or she has derived a sense of hope from his or her belief in Jesus. Just because I never found any sort of enduring hope in Jesus or any other aspects of the Christian faith does not mean that others cannot do so.

The version of Christian heaven about which I was taught all those years ago in Sunday school sounded pretty damn good. I can easily see how it would instill a sense of hope among those who could maintain a belief in it. Who wouldn't find the prospect of a better existence appealing? Grief sucks, and the idea of being reunited with all of one's lost loved ones is one I found appealing as a child. I find it even more appealing now that I have lost some people I would love to see again. If the version of Christian heaven I was told about was real, my long-deceased grandparents would probably be there. It would be great to see them again.

As long as one does not think too deeply about sin and salvation (e.g., why is it necessary for this god to kill itself to save us from its divine punishment?), the Jesus character can be seen as a positive thing. He cares for us, hears our prayers, guides our actions when we seek guidance, and so on. In times of turmoil, we pray and are somehow strengthened in the process. Again, I'm not saying I believe any of this. I'm saying that it does not take much of a stretch for me to see how those who do believe it could find a measure of hope through such beliefs.

Many atheists are quick to condemn Christian heaven and a personal Jesus as mere fantasy, and I can't say I disagree. I don't believe this either. When atheists point to the hope aroused by belief in Jesus and heaven and refer to "false hope," they have a point. But is false hope necessarily bad because it is false?

For those of us who want to believe true things and not false ones, the answer may seem obvious. At the same time, I think that one could argue that the sort of comfort, sense of peace, reassurance, or whatever else you want to label it that hope provides might be more important to some people in some circumstances than whether the hope is based in reality. Could false hope provide one with the sort of benefits that might make it worthwhile?

Suppose that someone attending college is able to sustain the effort required to perform well there based, at least in part, on her hope that the experience and resulting degree will improve the quality of her life. Most of us would probably agree that this is a reasonable sort of hope, and we'd be unlikely to consider this a false hope. It seems like what is valuable about this sort of hope is that it motivates positive action, persistence, effort, and may provide a measure of comfort and reassurance when things get tough. Our student may struggle and encounter setbacks; she perseveres in the face of adversity because of her hope. In this sense, it sustains her through some difficult periods.

Now consider the example of a young Christian father with a critically ill child who is able to sustain the effort required to get out of bed each day and take his child to the many necessary medical appointments based, at least in part, on his faith. On one hand, this is the very definition of false hope. This man has misplaced his faith in something that doesn't exist. On the other hand, is it so difficult to imagine how this sort of false hope might make a crucial difference for him? I realize it probably wouldn't cut it for you or I, but can we reasonably insist that it couldn't be worthwhile for him? Perhaps his false hope motivates his positive actions, persistence, or effort like our college student's legitimate hope. Perhaps his false hope also provides comfort and reassurance in the hard times in much the same way her real hope did.

I am familiar with the common atheist response about how many find solace in alcohol or drugs, as I've used it myself. Somehow, this is supposed to convince the religious that their faith is not a positive just because it provides solace. "People might find comfort in prayer, but one can find comfort in a bottle too." Fair enough. But for this comparison to have much of an impact, one would have to be able to demonstrate that faith is as harmful to the individual believer as alcohol or drugs would be to the person who relies on them. This is easy in some cases; however, I doubt whether it makes much sense in the majority of cases. Most religious believers do not use prayer in the same way someone with a substance use disorder uses alcohol or drugs.

Most of the Christians I know are not deluded morons who are blinded by their faith. Their faith is irrelevant to how they live their lives much of the time. They turn to it in times of distress and find it a source of hope when they need hope. It seems to help them cope during these times of distress, and it rarely impairs their ability to function. Yes, their faith is irrational. And yes, it can be harmful at times. For example, it can lead to prayer instead of action. There are times when the fantasy might get in the way. But most of the time, the negative consequences to the individual are hard to spot.

It seems to me that there might be circumstances where the most important thing is that someone has hope and that this hope performs a positive function. Whether the hope is based on something real and true or whether it is based on something non-existent and false might sometimes be less important. We are all going to face times in our lives when we desperately need hope. We may find what we need outside of religious belief, and I hope we do. At the same time, we should be so quick to condemn those who find theirs in their faith. It can be problematic for some people in some situations, but I'm not sure it necessarily has to be.

I recently saw a discussion among atheists on Twitter in response to the question of how one would respond to the request of a close friend or family member to pray with him or her in a time of crisis (e.g., at one's deathbed, over the hospital bed of a sick child). Responses were mixed. Some atheists said they would absolutely join in the prayer even though they didn't believe there was anything on the receiving end; others said they would refuse the request and lecture the requester on the false hope of faith. I think I'd probably join in the prayer. Sometimes even false hope might be better than no hope.