Want the Benefits of Faith without Believing in God? Try Hope.

You have to be a little envious of those who have faith—they have a motivational force behind them that is near impossible to beat. What if there was a secular equivalent, wonders philosophy professor Sam Newlands.

Sam Newlands: What’s interesting is that hope in particular seems to have a kind of really low barrier for cognitive consistency.

So as long as I don’t believe something to be impossible, it seems to be an object that’s at least possible for me to hope for. So I don’t think it’s impossible and I don’t think it’s certain; it seems to be a candidate for hope.

And insofar as then my desire for it kicks in and it engages my agency in the right sorts of ways, it seems like I can actually hope for it.

So in the religious tradition there’s a lot of work that’s been done on, of course, hope, and particularly the relation between hope and other so-called theological virtues: faith and love. And one of the things we were interested in has to do with the connection between faith and hope.

So a lot of people think of faith as having a kind of belief commitment that something is going to be certain, or that something is going to be probable that maybe outstrips the evidence. And the interesting thing about hope is that it seems to kind of float free from judgments about the evidence. So you can hope for something even though you really don’t believe it’s likely to come about. And so one of the things we were interested in with this project is, when it comes to the religious context, what sorts of religious practices does mere hoping cultivate?

So, for instance, suppose you were someone who had religious beliefs but for various reasons have come to believe other things. Maybe you’ve become agnostic about the existence of God, say. But nonetheless you still hope that God exists. And if you do hope that God exists, what sorts of practices does that kind of hoping inspire? Is it possible to hopefully pray even though you don’t actually believe that God exists? Can you still pray and hope? Can you participate in religious practices and communities even though you don’t actually endorse the beliefs necessarily anymore? But nonetheless you still hope for an afterlife or you hope for the unity of virtue and happiness in the end. So what sorts of distinctive beliefs and practices can we get if we have hope without faith?

With respect to the religious situation, as long as I don’t believe that the existence of God, say, is logically impossible—and few even adamant atheists would say it’s logically impossible that God exists or that they’re absolutely certain that God doesn’t exist, just like most theists would not say they’re absolutely certain that God exists—so here we are.

We’re between absolute impossibility and certainty. Well that’s the perfect space for hope to operate in. And so, in a way, hope in the religious context doesn’t necessarily involve assessment of the odds or the probability in the way that maybe faith would. And so as long as you can think yes, there’s a consistent narrative in some particular religious tradition, even if I’m not sure that it’s true or I don’t even think it’s likely that it’s true. Nonetheless you might engage in the kind of hope that say the Christian God exists, and in doing so that might actually motivate certain kinds of religious practices.

So I think it’s definitely the case that we can do certain things that put us in the position to have robust, deep, abiding hopes.

And so in that sense I do think hope can be under the volitional control of an agent. It might not be the sort of thing that I can just bootstrap my way into on a dime, and sort of on a snap or something like that, just magically start hoping. But, can I do things that I know if I’m in the right community context, I’m in the right sort of situation it will, in fact, instill in me desires. It will, in fact, instill in me a sense of agency and urgency over the object of my desires. And will help me see the possibility space for those desires being realized. That’s exactly the kind of situation I actually do have control over putting myself in. And insofar as I do that it does seem like I can sort of indirectly put myself in a position to inculcate deep, rich, sustaining hopes.

If faith is what bolsters the believers, could hope be a form of secular prayer? What is the difference between faith and hope, anyway? Philosophy professor Sam Newlands explains that while the two occupy the same categorical space, they are fundamentally different philosophical mindsets. Faith is fueled by a sense of certainty about an outcome, even if that conviction outstrips the evidence. Hope on the other hand can be cognitively inconsistent and still escape scrutiny: you can think something is highly improbable and still hope for it to be true. Here, Newlands discusses the intersection of hope and faith in a religious context: is religion without faith possible? Can hope manifest religious belief?


This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. For more from Sam Newlands, head to samnewlands.com.

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