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Nonreligious Thoughts on Hope

Updated: May 24

Content warning: mental illness, religious upbringing, hopelessness

nonreligious hope | spiritual direction | denver colorado

When I was in the thick of my religious upbringing, I remember feeling very apathetic about hope. It felt like a "pie in the sky" carrot dangled in front of me; a cheap response to the problem of suffering. I felt like the god of my Evangelical Protestant education was saying, "I know I hold all of the cards, and I could either fix everything now or show you the grand plan that will make all of the universe's hardships make complete sense, but I will do neither of those things. I will, however, give you a brain developed enough that you will want both of those things. But here', hope! Go ahead and hope your little heart out that I've got everything under control. Those systemic forms of oppression that could be fixed by both human action and divine intervention? Sprinkle some hope on it! Confronting the entirely excruciating and life-altering reality of death and grief? Fingers crossed it'll feel better after you're dead! Good luck, love you, mean it girlfriend *kiss kiss*!" As someone who neither had the strength of faith to find comfort in this attitude nor the ability to make peace with the problem of evil (more on this here), I was never particularly moved by hope.

1 Corinthians 13, while an unmitigated banger, did not do much to sway me. In verse 13 it is written, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." Steeped in Evangelical Protestant doctrine, I understood the importance of faith and love. Faith was the magic word you had to utter in order to gain access to the exclusive heaven club, and love felt like an inherently worthwhile enterprise. Hope though? Hope seemed like a less certain version of faith, but perhaps a more honest one. Faith seemed like the surer face one would wear to address the public. If your factory was on fire, and you said to your employees, "We have faith that this will never happen again," that hits differently than, "We hope this doesn't happen again." Faith felt like a more transcendent, spiritual knowing, and hope felt like a gentle consolation. And in Evangelical Protestant Land, calling your spiritual practice a mere consolation and not Truth™ is an unforgivable sin.

As was true about many aspects of Christianity, I was only able to appreciate the value of hope once I had some distance from Christianity. So, for your enjoyment, I have compiled my nonreligious thoughts on hope. I welcome your thoughts.

What is Hope?

  1. Biological Survival Hope is the drive that keeps a species alive. It is our sustained push to continue being, despite our undulating moods. Cheetahs have hope that they will catch prey (and the prey has hope that it can escape or hide). Parents have hope that they can successfully have and raise a child. Sunflowers have hope that if they face the sun they will receive nourishment. I have hope that if I eat lunch it will give me energy. When I experience symptoms of mental illness, I have hope that I will eventually feel better. Without the pressure of an overarching ontological narrative, it can be easier to see and receive hope as a morally-neutral tool that serves a function. This understanding of hope is comparable to that of desire found in the book of Genesis and as understood by Jesuit theology (more on this here).

  2. Sometimes Rooted in Capital "B" Belief, but Not Necessarily Another freedom of a nonreligious approach to hope is that you get to choose what is helpful and discard what is not. In certain belief systems, wherein believing the correct things is more important than virtuous outcomes, hope is nonnegotiable. Moving into a more religiously-nebulous space, however, allows for the freedom to choose between what I will call Absolute Beliefs and functional beliefs. With an Absolute Belief, whatever interaction you have with that belief must be based in the conviction that it is definitely true, and any thought to the contrary dismantles the whole thing. With functional beliefs, there is more room to look at a belief and openly say to it, "Believing in you is helpful and serves a purpose, and if you end up not being true, the benefits will still be there, and that is enough."

  3. Hope Can Hurt Hope can fuel our survival, and survival can pave the way for our flourishing. However, when the object of our hope is proven false or futile, it can be disastrous. While hope can serve a function whether or not the specific hope is realized, this is not always the case. This frequently occurs in the form of a faith crisis, broken trust, or disillusionment with a government, organization, community, cultural norm, or even yourself. When our hope eggs are placed all in one basket (often through no fault of our own), and these things fail us, the results can be devastating.

  4. An Idea for Functional Hope So if you take a functional approach to hope, how do you cultivate hope in a way that feels genuine? In the face of the heat death of the universe, what good does hope do? Is hopefulness a neutral trait or a virtue? Does maintaining hope cultivate individual and communal morality, or does it just make coping with oblivion easier? Perhaps the key to finding a sustainable object of hope is to find an amendable object of hope. Finding an amendable object of hope could mean finding an object of hope that you respect enough to let it be what it is without forcing it to become something that it is not. This can be tricky for those of us that are used to Absolute objects of Hope, because if we cannot trust our hope object to remain unchanging, how do we have hope in it? And if all our objects of hope are constructed, does this not quickly plunge us into nihilism? Maybe. But even nihilism makes space for joy and life-affirming, lovingly-created meaning. Even hope. So selecting in what to have hope could be just as--if not more--important as having hope at all. But also maybe not.

  5. When Hope is Not Necessary If there is value in having a living, breathing hope that is open to change and recalibration, perhaps there is value in having more things in which to have hope besides, well, hope. Humanist author Julian Baggini writes: "...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."

So I think hope is always available to us. And if not, there's still hope.

Thank you for chewing on this with me. I'd love to hear your thoughts on hope in the comments. If you're interested in exploring these questions in a spiritual direction context, schedule a free session here. What's spiritual direction? Find out here.



  1. Baggini, Julian. “Hope against Hope.” New Humanist, July 2, 2012.

March 19, 2024 | Denver, Colorado

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