03 August 2012

Hope is nothing special

Here's the most recent tripe at our local Baptist church.  I unfortunately drive by the place quite often, and this one just kept getting under my skin....  I had to write about it.

First off, it's a bit of a non-sequitur, because the antecedent ("endless hope") says nothing about the condition of the consequent (an "end").  That is, having endless hope does nothing to necessarily prevent an end, hopeless or otherwise.  So this gets a solid F for composition.

Next, there is the insulting nature of the message: non-Christians are doomed to terminal despair simply because of their choice to worship a non-Christian god or no gods at all.  They may as well have just announced that non-Christians will burn in hell.  The sanctimonious arrogance of these people, who think that they have a fast track to a delusional ever-lasting life, shows such contempt for human life that it turns my stomach.  So in the category of empathy and respect for others, this gets another F.

Next: the use of the word "Christian."  Baptists aren't Protestants because they disagree with Protestant doctrine.  By definition, Baptists think that their way is the only right way, or they wouldn't have felt the need to form a new religion.  This necessarily means a good and proper Baptist must believe that non-Baptists are heathen, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Pastafarian, or Jedi.  (Of course, the exact same argument can be levelled at every other sect of Christianity and, indeed, all religions.)  So why are they clumping all Christians together in their signage?  Personally, I think it's because they would rather put up with a Catholic than a Muslim or - horror of horrors - an atheist.  I think that many believers of the more insignificant religions, like Baptists, figure that there's strength in numbers, and so are willing to band together with other Christians to combat their perceived common enemies.  Religiously, they're Baptists; but politically, they're Christians.

Whatever the reason, the point remains: to comment on Christians as a whole runs entirely counter to their very existence.  (Not to mention it speaks on the behalf of those from whom consent was not granted.)  So, the scope of their argument is entirely wrong, and deserves an F.

Here's another problem with this statement: it's factually wrong.  Of course, facts have never been known to influence the religulous, so I am not surprised that these Baptists are simply cherry-picking the evidence to support their trite delusions.  There are, in fact, all kinds of people who live wonderful, fulfilling, happy, meaningful lives without religion and without god.  They die in peace and without regret.  That such people exist entirely undermines the claim the Baptists make.  So, for fact-checking: F.

Now let's consider hope itself.  Hope is "the emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one's life." (source)  If you don't like Wikipedia, then use this more academic definition: "Hope is...the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways." (source)

Furthermore, in religious parlance, hope is almost always about entering heaven.  Let's run with that for a moment.

Once you die, in typical Christian belief systems, there's nothing more you can do to affect the odds of your getting into heaven or hell.  Depending on the sect to which you belong, you may or may not have to wait till Armageddon/Judgement-Day/Rapture/whatever to actually get anywhere, but as of your mortal death, you're ticket is stamped, your fate sealed, your gig utterly and completely up.  Given either of the definitions of hope that I provided, you simply don't need any hope when you die.  Hope is about events and goals in one's life.  Death is the final event, and once you're dead, you're also completely out of agency to achieve goals.  Your god's decision regarding your ultimate fate doesn't depend on anything after your death.  The decision is in essence made when you die.

Hope, in the religious sense, is pointless at one's death, and irrelevant thereafter.  Therefore, it makes sense that everyone, even the religulous, should meet a hopeless end!  Clearly, these Baptists were more concerned with creating a good sound bite - something, dare I say, tweetable - than with offering an accurate statement.  So, in the category of depth of analysis, they get a resounding F.

Now let's look at hope more broadly.  Clearly, hope is just belief and not knowledge.  Whether it's about "positive outcomes" or about reaching "desired goals," hope is really about desire.  Hope is about wanting things to turn out.  We don't hope that things go badly.  We don't hope that terrible things happen to others (unless of course such terrible things result in "good" feelings in us, like vengeance, in which case we're really just hoping to feel good).

Unless one is mentally ill, the things one wants, the things one hopes for, are "good" things.  We hope for health, wealth, happiness, security, safety, etc.  And this is, as I see it, the key to understanding hope.  We have evolved to seek situations with the least stress.  A stressed organism will not produce as many offspring, and what offspring are produced will tend to be weaker and sicklier than those of organisms that are not stressed.  Stresses come from sources that organisms cannot control - their environments.  Stress serves the purpose of warning the organism of impending danger, so it is useful, but only to a point.  Organisms that learned how to adapt to stress produced more, healthier offspring, and so eventually overwhelmed organisms unable to adapt to stress.  Since the environment is always changing, there are always new kinds of stress, so those organisms that can adapt the best, the most often, and the most quickly, will eventually out-reproduce other organisms. And so, eventually, all organisms will have an innate drive to seek out low-stress situations (or, alternatively, to avoid situations of high stress).

For a very long time, organisms were insufficiently complex to reflect, to have self-image, to reason about time, and to build mental models of their world with themselves in the models.  Humans are one of the few organisms that can do these things.  Once you can reason about your own mental models, you can start to imagine possible future worlds.  You will naturally prefer those possible worlds in which you believe you will have less stress than you do in the actual, current world.  Those are precisely the worlds that we hope for.

We call it hope, rather than just rational preference, because it isn't rational; it isn't the result of careful and conscious thought processes.  It is the hardwired instinct to avoid stress that hands us our preferred worlds.  It is cognition, but not conscious cognition.  It's stuff the brain does without bothering to tell us.  Instead, the results of that cognition alone are shown to our conscious minds.  The result is that we perceive these preferences appearing as if from nowhere, popping fully formed into consciousness.  It's not rational thought, but it is something that presses on us, exerts its influence on us directly and powerfully.

Hope is something humans have been doing for a very long time - far longer than we have been thinking rationally.  It stands to reason that this feeling would have been captured and packaged into a concept ingrained in every human culture.  It also stands to reason that its universal applicability to direct us toward outcomes that make us literally "feel better" will have made it a magic incantation of any organization seeking to give relief or to control others.

And what hope could possibly be more powerful than that of a kind of existence that is utterly stress-free?  That's what heaven is: the ultimate stress-free environment.

But that doesn't make hope anything special.  It's an tool in our evolutionary tool-belt, a neat trick that our brains have learned to do over the eons.  It helped us make choices more likely to result in our survival and the propagation of our genetic material when we were too primitive to make decisions rationally.  We know better know.

Don't get me wrong: hope is still useful, exactly because it lowers stress and therefore improves our overall health.  And it feels good.  But it has no superior force, it is no guiding light, it represents no true way to fulfilment.

And hope does carry costs.

Since hope works at the instinctual, visceral level, there's no way to know if hope's object is reasonable.  What if the positive outcome or desired goal of a hope is ludicrous or impossible?

There is such a thing as "false hope" - hope in the impossible or even just highly unlikely.  Such hope is false because hope itself is not enough to make the positive outcome occur or reach the desired goal.  This is important: hope is not enough.  When our hopes are not realized, because they were false, we often suffer emotionally and mentally if not physically.  The greater the false hope, the potentially greater the catastrophe that follows its destruction.  For instance, I cannot imagine the psychological pain suffered by parents who deny their child medical treatment on religious grounds, only to have the child die; it must be excruciating.

Not only that, but false hope leads one to action, like laws permitting parents to make choices regarding their children's medical care that substantively increases the odds of suffering and death.  False hope can permeate a society like a drug addiction, giving one temporary solace or even joy, but doing irreparable harm in the long term.

And all this derives because some people refuse to acknowledge that their hope is just instinctive and not necessarily correct.

So, here's what I say: hope may be fine as a default, when no other, better, rational information is available; but aside from that, hope is useless.

Suggested Reading:


  1. My friend... DudeMan... AtheistOmatikk... whatever you wanna be called, be it known there is a God above vs. a Devil below who's name's Satan. Whetha you wanna believe me or not is fine, however, you'll find-out at death's hour. But, alas, by then, it'll be too dang late: you must give your finite existence to Jesus NOW, not after death when you can see the 2 eternities... and 1 of 'em ain't too cool --- HEAR YE! O HEAR YE!! You know, of course, 1-outta-1 croaks, so why don’t you follow us Home to Heaven Above? We’ll have a BIG-ol, kick-ass, party-hardy celebrating our resurrection for many eons. Heaven totally kicks-ass, totally rrrocks-our-socks. God bless you. _thewarningsecondcoming.com_

    1. Thanks for making my case for me. Clearly you're off your meds and, like all the other religulous fundiots, need to be locked away.

      I published your comment just so all the other rational, sane people around here can laugh at you. No further posts of yours will be published here.