The Grim, Grinchy Hopes of Atheism

by Jerry Walls

Hope is a remarkable phenomenon.  Hope gives meaning and direction to our lives, and nothing is worse than to live without it. This is graphically conveyed in the most famous line in Dante’s Inferno, the inscription that is written over the gate to hell:  “Abandon every hope, who enter here.”

And yet, hope is a two edged sword.  To express hope is to concede that all is not well.  Hope signals discontent, it acknowledges a palpable absence and beckons something not yet here.  To sing “O Come, O Come Immanuel” is to feel the cut of the sword.

And that raises one of the most fundamental of all questions: for what can we rationally hope?  What kinds and degrees of happiness and fulfillment are possible?  Can our deepest and largest longings for love, for joy, for peace, for justice ever be met?  Or must we cut the size of our hopes down to small and medium?

Christianity, of course, is a religion of soaring hope. It urges us to enlarge our hopes, it promises happiness and fulfillment beyond our wildest dreams.  Reality is far greater than we can imagine, more beautiful than we can conceive.

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By glaring contrast, I was recently struck by these lines:

The conflict between scientific naturalism and various forms of antireductionism is a staple of recent philosophy.  On one side there is the hope that everything can be accounted for at the most basic level by the physical sciences, extended to include biology.  On the other side are doubts about whether the reality of such features of our world as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought,and value can be accommodated in a universe consisting at the most basic level of physical facts—facts, however sophisticated, of the kind revealed by the physical sciences.

These lines come from Thomas Nagel’s remarkable little book Mind and Cosmos, a book that challenges the reigning orthodoxy of scientific naturalism and reductionism.  Nagel himself is a committed atheist, but he is highly dubious of the dogma that all of reality can be explained in terms of the physical sciences.  Indeed, the aspects of reality that are the most interesting and immediately accessible to us are the very features of reality that resist scientific explanation, things like consciousness, reason, and objective moral truths.

But here is what struck me…

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