Illustration for 'Hope Against Hope' by OttoIn the notebook at the back of the chapel I was visiting in rural southern England, I read through visitors’ hand-written requests for prayers from the nuns who gather there six times a day to commune with their God. It is a catalogue of quotidian human anguish: disease, depression, unemployment, financial difficulty, family breakdown. Each request is a desperate grasping for hope in a world that, if we are honest, often provides few grounds for any.

The fact that the hope being offered is ultimately false strikes me as not just wrong but almost cruel. No amount of prayer can remove a tumour and believing that it can just delays coming to terms with reality. But this disapproval conflicts with a simple human compassion that makes it very hard to say that people should do without whatever hope they can find to sustain them. Whether the final outcome is good or not, hope might make the process of getting there more tolerable.

It’s a familiar line of thought. As André Gide put it, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” But, others add, only religion can provide this. As Pope Benedict bluntly put it in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, “A world without God is a world without hope.” Barely a month later, then President Sarkozy caused some consternation in secular France when he said in Rome, “A man who believes is a man who hopes,” adding, “Secular morality always risks exhausting itself because it is not backed up by a hope that fulfils man’s aspiration for the infinite.”

There are two claims at work here. One is that a purely secular worldview cannot provide the same degree of hope that religion can, and that many desire. The second is that we need this kind of hope to live. If both were true, it would be a powerful argument for the necessity of religion, irrespective of its truth.

Most atheists accept that “Hope is essential to life,” as AC Grayling put it to me, “a beautiful, central thing in all our lives.” Philosopher Nigel Warburton, recalling the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” at the entrance of Dante’s Hell, told me, “Hell is not having hope.” But both reject the claim that hope requires religion. “It’s not that atheists don’t have hopes,” says Warburton, “they just have different hopes.” Among these Grayling lists hopes “for the improvement of mankind, for greater justice in society, for more people to love more other people”.

Turning the table on the religious, Grayling says that there is, however, a kind of “insanely unreasonable hope” which is “very destructive because it leads people to bang their heads against a brick wall fruitlessly.” Such is the “one thing that religious people hope for that we don’t hope for”, namely “a posthumous existence”. Because of this, “it may be that atheists are much more likely to hope for better for people in this life than people who have given up on this life and just hope for endless hymn singing after they’re dead.”

I’m not entirely convinced, and not only because few believers think heaven is a church service without end. The promise of a life to come clearly does play a large role in most religions, but it is far from obvious that it is the most important or distinctive hope that the religious hold fast to. The humanitarian charity Christian Aid spoke for many other religious people when it claimed in a memorable advertising slogan, “We believe in life before death.” One of the most preached-about verses in the Gospels is John 10:10, where Jesus proclaims, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Much religious hope is about this world too, not just that God will intervene to cure the sick, but that justice will ultimately prevail, that evil will not be allowed to win, that we might live in communion with the transcendent and in accordance with a divine purpose. All of these I take to be false, but they are all about a richer life, not a life to come.

Even if atheists too have their hopes, these can seem rather meagre compared to those with faith. Warburton, for instance, told me, “My personal hope is for an easy death and, if not, the means to end it myself. That’s what I hope for the end of life. For the life afterwards that other people have, I hope that it works out.” Warburton rejects the idea that immortality is a worthy object of hope anyway, saying it would be “devastating” to discover you had eternal life.

The writer and comedian Natalie Haynes was also in this conversation, the three of us having just taken part in a Festival of Ideas event, and she rejected the idea that it was somehow a loss to restrict ourselves to such apparently modest hopes. “Hoping for small things is a good way to live,” she said. “You can never get the big things so it’s a good idea to wish for something small, and then your hope stands a much better chance of being fulfilled.”

At the same time, it should be recognised that religion has no monopoly on what might be called transcendent hopes, for things that are above and beyond our own mortal lives. The “Buddhist atheist” Stephen Batchelor, for instance, wants to naturalise religion, by transforming what is true and good about it into an entirely natural framework. “The naturalising of religion leads us to a naturalising of hope,” he says. “That doesn’t mean however that we restrict ourselves solely to our lifetime.” Rather, our hopes should be based on becoming more “acutely conscious” of “the future of this planet after our deaths”, in which “devastating environmental and other catastrophes” could unfold. “I feel nowadays that the way we understand history, the way we’re rooted in history, and the way in which we see the future of our own planet – that that has come to replace a belief in either past lives or future lives and it has in a sense secularised hope.”

Hilary Hurd, Professor of Parasitology at Keele University, also sees sources of hope in things that are greater than ourselves, in “the hope that life will continue in exciting, if unfathomable, ways for aeons to come ... This is hope on a wider scale than just the consideration of the future of mankind.” However, she also believes that “evidence suggests that, throughout our history, human beings have eventually gained more knowledge and developed new technologies that, on balance, improve our lot. I am hopeful that this will continue and we will become custodians of life on earth.”

These secularised forms of transcendent hope sound plausible, but John Gray is just one in a long line of thinkers who have argued that such hope rests on an excessively optimistic Enlightenment belief in the capacity of human reason and goodwill to create a fair and just world. We preach hard-nosed rationalism but then end up with a soft-hearted humanism. The philosopher Alex Rosenberg seems to bite this bullet. “Hope is 90 per cent emotion and 10 per cent illusion,” he told me. “It shapes our lives, and even gives them subjective value. Illusions, like placebos, can be good for you. That’s enough for atheism to work with.”

I suspect, however, that most atheists would want to reject outright the charge that secular hope is a kind of placebo. Grayling certainly does. “The Enlightenment project, which Gray thinks of as utopian and therefore doomed to fail, is not a utopian project, it’s a meliorist project, a project about incrementally making different things better, becoming more sensible about them, trying to apply rationality to our problems, recognising that our emotional and aesthetic lives are the thing that are at the very core of a good life.”

There are plenty of concrete examples of such mitigated secular hope in action. Founder of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust Steve Hurd and his wife Hilary started their teaching careers in Uganda in 1970 and saw hopes crushed more than once. “We were there when Idi Amin took over and saw the country gradually falling apart,” he told me. State corporations failed, “riddled with bureaucracy and corruption”.

Nevertheless, Hurd has several sources of hope, including economics, which he believes has moved from being “the Dismal Science of Malthus” to “the discipline of optimism”, which shows how a well-managed and regulated market can help with issues like resource depletion and the environment. Even though “some rural communities are worse off today than they were when we were there in the early 1970s,” he says that “over the years I have seen tremendous progress in Africa. There is a rising middle class in Uganda, the towns are developing fast, people are getting more choices and Africa is already ahead of us in the use of mobile telephony.”

Hurd’s is not an excessively optimistic hope. “I am human, and get depressed from time to time, but I do see great hope. The work in the schools in Africa is one source of hope.” His hope rests on nothing more unrealistic than the possibility that if we “always try to lift people around us”, become “heaters rather than refrigerators”, then “the world will become a little better.”

However, I’m not entirely persuaded that hope is the best way of thinking about these positives. Of course it must be possible to believe in the possibility of improvement. But given the fundamentals of human psychology, the fragility of social institutions and material prosperity upon which peace depends, and the ever-present possibility of natural or anthropogenic disaster, truly rational hope seems to be extremely limited. I find myself with Camus, who said, “He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool.”

This leads to the question of whether hope really is as essential for human life as Grayling and many others contend. Is it not possible to do without hope and base a positive outlook on the future on other things? This seemed to be the message of Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous 1946 lecture “Existentialism Is a Humanism”. The conclusion of that talk sounds like a version of what I see as the standard atheist defence offered by Warburton and Grayling: “It is only by self-deception, by confusing their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.” But before Sartre gets to that point, he does a pretty good job of describing himself as without hope too.

Sartre’s point is “we must act without hope”. What he means by this is that we must act without making any assumption that what we are working for will be achieved. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. We don’t know and never can know, but it doesn’t matter: “One need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” What matters is action, not a mere idea of what one hopes that action will lead to: “It is only reality that counts, not dreams, expectations or hopes.” Sartre’s ambiguity therefore seems to rest on an embrace of a kind of hope without hope: hope without any illusions that we will prevail.

Benjamin Franklin hit upon a similar thought when he said, “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.” The danger that both Sartre and Franklin are pointing to is of a hope that is not just divorced from action but married to inaction. That seems to be an ever-present risk. Hope is unusual because it is a verb that implies no activity. Hope is what you do when there’s nothing you can do, or, more accurately, hope is what you don’t do when there’s nothing you can do. Hence the familiar collocation “All we can do now is hope”, uttered when no more action is possible.

So the suggestion is that we don’t need hope at all. All we need is a purpose for our action, a purpose that need not be conceived of as a hope. When people plan to, try to, aim to, work to, they are taking steps to achieve a desired goal. But when someone says they merely hope to, nine times out of ten what that tells you is that they have not yet set about doing what needs to be done to realise that hope.

Humanist funerals also provide a setting in which we can see how alternatives to the hopes provided by religion might not simply be other, different hopes. Caroline Black is a humanist celebrant, and she does often talk in ceremonies about “hope that comes from the life well lived, so it’s the hope that that person’s life has inspired others to lived well.” Nevertheless, she acknowledges that “there are times when hope is a very difficult thing to conjure, particularly when the circumstances of a death have been so hideous or because someone’s life has been so thinly lived. The fact is that when it comes to dealing with hope for a couple whose baby has died, when everything about their future was imagined forward in the life of that child, that’s really dramatically cut off from them, then there is a sense of hopelessness, because there is no future.”

But when there’s nothing to hope for, there is often nonetheless something to celebrate. And when there’s little or nothing to celebrate, there is something to respect. Sometimes hope just isn’t the thing we should be looking for, but that does not mean in its place has to come despair.

Indeed, Sam Harris suggested to me that without hope we might be more at peace. “Hope and fear are completely natural responses to uncertainty. But they are two sides of the same coin: if we would be free of fear, we must let go of hope. Easier said than done, of course. But it is possible. And being without hope is by no means synonymous with despair. Rather, it is tranquility.”

The idea that we need hope much less, if at all, was confirmed to me in the conversation with Warburton and Haynes, when her mother, who had joined us after our event, volunteered the idea that “Hope surely just is that every day is astonishing in its own right. When you get to my age you do begin to think somewhat about death and what seems to me extraordinary is that I have had life.” I told her that seemed right to me, except that I wouldn’t call that hope. In a way, it’s better than hope. It’s not hope for things that might happen but appreciation for and delight in what you have. Hope is of its nature directed at the future, but often we would do better to focus on a nearer horizon.

Warburton distilled the thought. “There’s something better than hope, which is not to postpone everything but to focus on what’s going on now.” My hope is that thoughts like these can supersede hope.