A Skeptic’s Hope

As both a cynic and a skeptic, I find hope a particularly challenging commodity to find, especially in recent months. As an atheist I don’t have faith to fall back on or to justify hope. But I do find hope, against my cynicism and despite my skepticism, not because history teaches me that we are inevitably moving toward justice, not because I have faith in a divine being who will ensure it despite human failings, but because the alternative is despair, and we deserve better. My work developing a social justice major, my writing about the problem of evil, and recent events in our country have me thinking about hope a lot lately—searching for hope, really. This essay is a reflection of my thoughts on how I came to choose to hope.

My deep concerns about justice and the abundance of unnecessary suffering makes finding hope very challenging. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” is of little comfort to me because the arc of the moral universe doesn’t appear to bend toward justice on its own. It is the mighty efforts of people who refuse to give in to injustice that bend it in that direction.

King’s quote is a rephrasing of a sermon given by Theodore Parker, a 19th-century Unitarian minister and abolitionist. The fuller version of his idea, which inspired King, goes like this:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.

Theodore Parker

Parker’s quote reflects a humility in the face of the moral universe that I find more appealing than the certainty that King evokes. But my cynicism will not allow me to see the arc of history bending toward justice. My skepticism reminds me of the ups and downs of human efforts—even our desires—to do good. By my calculation, there is no clear benevolent arc, but unpredictable swerves, twists, and turns. 

To read more about the origins and afterlife of this quote see Mychal Denzel Smith’s “The Truth about the ‘Arc of the Moral Universe'” (January 2018).  

In my private moments of personal meaning making, in this peculiar historical moment as our nation faces multiple crises, and in the face of a long history of human suffering, what, I ask myself, is the antidote for despair? 

One possibility I considered—admittedly from the perspective of a cynic and skeptic—was hope. The etymology of antidote goes back to the Greek, literally to ‘give back’ or ‘or ‘give against.’ To hope against the harsh realities of history is to give hope against despair. Reflecting on suffering and hope, led me to this line of thought: 

Hope is childish. It is groundless and naïve. It is childish in its ignorance of reality. It is groundless in that is springs from nothing and nowhere. It is naïve in its defiance of real suffering.

Think about it: Evil is gratuitous suffering, meaningless pain, unnecessary adversity, unjustified suffering. 

Hope too is gratuitous, in that it is unwarranted. It is meaningless, in that it does not purport to explain anything. It is unnecessary, in that it serves no practical purpose. It is unjustified, in that history plainly shows our continued failure to eliminate evil. Nevertheless, hope may be the only antidote to Evil.

Hope is gratuitous in another way, in that it arises without expectation of repayment. It is meaningless in that it refutes meanings deployed to foster hate and fear. It is unnecessary in that rather than imposing ideological necessities it reveals alternative possibilities. It is unjustified in that it requires no justification and rejects rationalization. 

Hope is gratuitous joy, meaningless pleasure, unnecessary peace, unjustified blessings. 

Hope is to despair as anti-matter is to matter. It’s like reversing the polarity in a bad sci-fi movie. It is anti-despair, anti-evil. 

The naïve positivism of the Enlightenment, which saw reason as the cure to humanity’s ills, came crashing to the ground in the reckless, unbridled violence of the religious wars of the nineteenth century, and in the atrocities seen throughout the World Wars. If anything, the state of humanity’s contempt for humanity has reached a fevered pitch in the last few decades. If you truly understand human history, there is no warrant for any hope about humanity’s future.

To hope, however, is to aspire—not to give in to illusion or fantasy. Our past shapes our future but doesn’t determine it. To hope is to aspire to change the past. For a cynic and a skeptic like me, to hope is to create as if ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Doubt is inevitable in this confusing world; to believe is to continually recreate your faith in every moment. So it is for those who chose to have hope—and it is a choice for those unable to deny the reality of suffering and unable to accept easy answers—who choose to commit to continually recreating and renewing hope in order to move forward. Because I cannot commit to creating my better self, or fighting injustice, or helping to create a better world without hope, despite my cynicism and skepticism, I chose hope. 

But hope itself is not enough, just as King and Parker’s vision of a moral arc to the universe is not enough. Hope doesn’t feed the hungry; people do. Hope doesn’t fix the past; it allows us to envision a new one. Hope is not justified, but it is necessary. Hope enables us to see beyond fear and despair and all it requires is a trust in our capacity to fight suffering and despair. It requires that we work every day toward making our aspirations real. “Against” fear, despair, and suffering we must “give” hope.

For further reading: See Esteban Loustaunau’s “Hope As the Will to Turn Things Upside Down“; Jason Stevens’ “Hope, History, and the Redress of Vocation” and “When Hope and History Rhyme: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation”; and “Optimism vs. Hope” by Rachel Mikva.

Matthew Sayers is Professor of Religion teaching in the Social Justice and Civic Engagement Program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (Oxford, 2013). Matt’s essay, “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation” appeared in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019). To read Matt’s other posts on this blog, click here.

Leave a Reply