Religion as a Form of Hope: Reflections by a Lifelong Agnostic

Religion as a Form of Hope: Reflections by a Lifelong Agnostic

It is a difficult time for a rational defense of religion. Because for most of my life I thought of myself as an atheist (and in certain moods still do), I never imagined that I would find myself a defender. The prevalence of fundamentalism in various forms, particularly in its fanatical and murderous manifestations both in the developed and the developing worlds, would seem to be a caution against the embrace of religion. What has provoked me as an agnostic to defend the existence of religion (without embracing it)? First is its legacy in literature and the arts and, second, the tone deafness of neo-Darwinians who see nothing in the religious life except superstition and fanaticism. They are of course incapable of seeing the fanatical motes in their own eyes.

I begin with Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment from Democracy in America: Alone among all the beings, man shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense desire to exist: he scorns life and fears nothingness. These different instincts constantly drive his soul toward contemplation of another world, and it is religion that guides it there. Religion therefore is only a particular form of hope itself. Only by a kind of aberration of the intellect and with the aid of a sort of moral violence exercised on their own nature do men stray from religious beliefs; an invincible inclination leads them back to them. Disbelief is an accident; faith alone is the permanent state of humanity.

The evidence of Tocqueville’s life does not make him out to be much of a believer. Would he say that he had committed “a sort of moral violence” upon himself?

I am not a believer, and I do not think of my disbelief as a result “of moral violence exercised on [my] own nature.” Yet I find this passage from Tocqueville compelling. The first sentence reads like an anticipation of existentialism—with its confrontation with the abyss (“a natural disgust for existence”) and its drive to transcend it. For the godless existentialist (there are also religious existentialists), transcendence means a kind of self-creation, which from a religious perspective is blasphemy or heresy. As conditioned beings, we can only hope to modify and reshape conditions, but not recreate ourselves ex nihilo (out of the abyss). Tocqueville did not know existentialism, but he did know the Enlightenment and its animus against institutional religion. Of course, many of the philosophes were deists, but their deism conflated creation with the creator, and whatever hope they felt was directed toward the possibility of establishing an earthly paradise. Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophy reminds us that the Enlightenment did not so much reject religious feeling as displace it to the earthly realm. Utopia is a secular paradise, which, as Tocqueville knew from his knowledge of history and human nature, turns into dystopia (not his word).

Can one live contented...