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Radical Hope and the Atheist’s Dilemma June 21, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Ethics, Philosophy.

Radical Hope is the ability to maintain hope in a meaningful existence even when one’s existence has lost all meaning. It is hope that goes beyond one’s ability to formulate an idea of what one hopes for.

In his new book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, philosopher Jonathan Lear uses the idea of radical hope to explain how human beings confront the cataclysmic loss of traditional ways of life. The subject of this case study is the Crow nation, a migratory tribe dependent on hunting buffalo and defending their hunting grounds who, when the buffalo disappeared from the plains, lost not only their means of material support but their entire conception of how to live a meaningful life.

The leader of the Crow nation, Plenty Coups, told his biographer: “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened.” On Lear’s interpretation, this statement “After this, nothing happened” means that actions that define who and what one is were no longer possible so “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.” As Charles Taylor points out in his review of the book, “There are no alternative careers waiting for an ex-warrior; he probably has a wife and children, but what does it mean to be a father if you can’t hand on the skills of a warrior?” Nothing could happen because no way forward could be concretely envisioned.

Yet, Plenty Coups was able to conceptualize and communicate an ideal of personal courage that would enable the Crow to respond to almost any possible future. Plenty Coups had dreamed of an apocalyptic future for his people, but in that dream his people were promised a future so long as they emulated the Chickadee-person, an iconic figure in Crow mythology whose key attribute is the ability to listen to others and learn from them. Plenty Coups was able to communicate this new ideal of courage in the face of the unknown exemplified by the Chickadee-person, and it would give the Crow the flexibility to create new definitions of a meaningful life despite their inability to conceptualize their future. Something would bring about the fulfillment of the prophecy in the dream though they knew not what. This is radical hope.

Lear’s book is interesting because it contains a deep understanding of courage. To confront the unknown with intelligence and openness without lashing out in anger or engaging in consoling illusions is a kind of courage too often ignored. Lear contrasts Plenty Coups’ actions with those of the Sioux Nation under Sitting Bull, who rested their hopes on a savior who would punish white people and enable them to return to their old ways. Unlike the Crow, the Sioux turned away from the future in favor of a past that could never return.

Lear’s book is interesting also because it casts light on the origins and persistence of religion. Most human beings throughout most of history have either faced circumstances such as those that confronted the Crow nation, or have seen themselves as vulnerable to such devastating loss. Most human beings, I imagine, have felt intensely the need for radical hope and have turned to religion to supply it.Of course, most religions attempt to fill in the unknown with particular doctrines and conceptions of God. To the extent these doctrines become formulae for belief and consoling illusions, their adherents fail to exhibit the courage that radical hope demands of us.  Yet, many religious folks are quite aware of the radical uncertainty of their beliefs and persistently acknowledge this uncertainty in their lives. The motive of religious belief is radical hope, even if in practice the hope often devolves into ordinary special pleading.

In recent years, books pointing out the irrationality of religious belief, by writers such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have received a great deal of deserved attention. These are important books that prosecute compelling arguments for atheism. However, these arguments miss this important dimension of radical hope. Radical hope is irrational because it cannot rest on evidence. But its irrationality is beside the point, because it expresses the human need to confront uncertainty with courage. It is not obvious that atheism offers anything like radical hope. Atheism demands that we be rational but then cannot articulate a crucial human capacity that is beyond reason.  Until it is able to encourage the motives that enable radical hope and the courage such hope demands of us, atheism is likely to remain a minority taste.



1. Sharon Crasnow - June 26, 2007

I agree with you point about religion. I think it is extremely unfortunate the so many philosophers and other contemporary, non-religious thinkers dismiss religion without seeking to understand what needs it is that it fulfills for humans. This is surely one of those needs. I think that there is something more positive that can be said about atheism however. There are many sorts of false hopes (such as the Sioux hope that Lear identifies according to your account about). Atheism may be a way of rejecting what many people see as the false hopes offered by religion and so may be at least a step towards a meaningful radical hope. As to whether it can articulate a human capacity beyond reason, well, I think this depends. If it is coupled with a claim that reason is all that there is or should be to guide human life AND the notion of human reason is construed narrowly (and in dichtomy with emotion), then no. However, if the atheism is rejecting religious belief because reason (more broadly construed) reveals that religion does not provide the path to human flourishing (or, in the face of the sort of scenario the Crow face, human survival), then atheism does point us towards something more than an rejection of God.

2. Nina Rosenstand - June 28, 2007

I’ll comment off the cuff—no access to resources where I’m vacationing. But it occurred to me that one atheist who displays a similar courage is Bertrand Russell. I am no Russell aficionado, or connoisseur, but I have a fairly clear memory of his essay “A Free Man’s Worship.” Russell calls for the courage to face the indifference of the universe, the accidental nature of life on earth, and the objective insignificance of each human life, and to create a meaning for oneself, free of the shackles of religion and superstition. This is not the nihilism usually associated with atheism, but precisely a courage to refuse the help and comfort of faith, and construct a secular universe of human freedom. I’m not sure whether the term “radical hope” can be meaningfully applied here, because hope has to have a goal, an object beyond itself, and Russell’s courage concept seems to be self-sufficient. But this is by no means an atheism without vision.
Another issue is that of the false hope. If believing in the Easter Bunny gives stamina to face the challenges of life, is it still a worthless belief? And when does it become a radical hope? Henrik Ibsen calls it the Lie of Life (Livsløgnen), but he also says that without it we perish…

3. Michael Mussachia - July 10, 2007

Atheism cannot emotionally compete with the comforting ideas of a caring god and an afterlife, but it can help free us from a type of illusion that, along with those of tribal and racial superiority, has done much harm throughout the course of history, i.e., sectarianism. As pointed out above, it requires great courage to recognize the uncaring nature of the physical world and the fragility of life. Even for the religious, chance trumps faith as good and bad “chance” things (accidents, disease, natural disasters, etc.) happen throughout life pretty equally to both good and bad people. On the upside, atheism recognizes the need to create our own meaning, values and goals. And unlike most religions, atheism does not belittle the value of life on earth with the belief in a more highly-valued non-physical soul and the promise of eternal bliss in an afterlife. Whatever the semantics, I suggest that at least thoughtful atheism requires a radical hope that we can have a better future and we can be more rational, loving and moral without religion than with it.

4. Huan - September 2, 2007

It seems to me that even the radical hope that religion appeals to a lot of times are simply metaphors for radical hopes that an atheist can possess. For the given example of the Chickadee-person, his trait isn’t something that cannot be conceived without aid of religion. It seems to me that religious preachings often draw upon existing human traits that aren’t necessarily religious in nature. However like you all have said, religion gives extra comfort through the belief of a transcendent being. In my opinion this can weaken human will and create great dependency.

5. Pasi Koistinen - March 19, 2013

Courage, the ability to observe one’s own demise without fear should be considered an intrinsic value because all the lesser values can be derived from that perception.

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