Review: This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
3 stars
Humanism for Believers

According to the Oxford dictionary, faith is the “complete trust or confidence in someone or something” or the “strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” According to philosopher Martin Hägglund, we should all have it—but we should base it in a belief in this world, not in an afterlife.

The core argument of This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is that eternity is overrated. In fact, Hägglund claims, the religious idea of eternal life is indistinguishable from death. It is only because our lives are finite, because we may suffer horrible losses, that we can set meaningful goals for ourselves in this life.

We are striving creatures that must maintain ourselves, and our lives are only intelligible (to pick one of Hägglund’s favorite terms) with our finitude in mind, not as a limitation, but as a fundamental condition of the things we value:

The possibility of being touched is inseparable from the perils of being wounded, and exposure to loss is part of the experience of rapture. (p. 89-90, emphasis original)

All morality, in Hägglund’s view, must be grounded in our care for one another in this life. When we seek our grounding in religious promises of salvation, we implicitly place this promise above those promises that we make to each other:

If your care for another person is based on religious faith, you will cease to care about her if you lose your religious faith and thereby reveal that you never cared about her as an end in herself. (p. 10)

Hägglund engages with the theology of Augustine of Hippo, especially to bolster the critique of “eternal life” (Augustine’s eternity does indeed sound quite a lot like oblivion). He also comments at length on the biblical Binding of Isaac, and on Søren Kierkegaard’s interpretation of that story. Where Kierkegaard sees exemplary faith, Hägglund sees the dangers of fanaticism. Buddhism is not spared—nirvana is just another word for oblivion.

In This Life, we still need faith, because we must invest ourselves in people and causes whose outcome is never certain. It is this kind of commitment without certainty that Hägglund describes as secular faith.

If we are committed to this life, Hägglund says we also must commit ourselves to increasing what he calls our spiritual freedom—essentially the time freely available for any self-expression that matters to us, through work, art, or otherwise. No such commitment is valued in a capitalist economy, which places human ingenuity in the service of profit, not in the service of shared human goals. That’s why the robots take our jobs instead of improving our lives.

In his critique of capitalism, Hägglund relies heavily on Karl Marx. While affirming democracy as an essential core of any new political order, Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism goes well beyond redistribution of wealth—he argues for sharing in the means of production, and remaking our society to maximize our freedom.

Hägglund criticizes any view of individual freedom that treats it as if it could be separated from the society in which we live:

Freedom cannot be reduced to an individual achievement since both how much free time we have and what we are able to do with our free time depends on how we organize our society. (p. 315)

In Hägglund’s view, a true commitment to (and faith in) our life together gives a critique of religion its real potency:

If we merely criticized religious beliefs as Illusions without being committed to overcoming forms of social injustice that motivate these Illusions a critique of religion would be empty and patronizing. (p. 330)

The Verdict

Hägglund’s book left me with three frustrations:

  • While I found the argument persuasive that religious promises of eternity are indistinguishable from oblivion, I also found it repetitive and tedious. Hägglund says the same thing—that our lives can only be understood in light of their finite nature—many times over.

    The cosmos is more interesting than Hägglund gives it credit for. How does consciousness arise, and what defines a being—their consciousness or their memory? If an eternal being forgets its experience in whole or in part, is it still eternal? If we live in a multiverse with an infinite number of universes, how can we relate our successes and failures, our victories and losses, to these infinite possibilities? These are the kinds of questions This Life does not grapple with.

    As a secular humanist and atheist, I have no faith in any promises of an afterlife, and I appreciate Hägglund’s willingness to engage in a radical critique of such promises. But I also try to retain a sense of wonder about the infinite and the very, very vast. Moreover, I believe such wonder can make us more resilient when we are faced with tragic loss.

  • Hägglund’s critique of capitalism feels similarly unimaginative. He primarily re-frames Marx’s 19th century analysis in his own philosophical terms, but other than repeatedly emphasizing the importance of democracy, he does not make a cogent argument how past catastrophic failures of communism can be avoided in future.

    Hägglund lays out three principles for democratic socialism, one of which is “that the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit.” But what is required in practice to uphold such a principle? What happens to the first person in this democratic society who starts keeping the “means of production” for themselves?

    I am more persuaded by the more modern arguments in favor of transforming capitalism towards a solidarity economy, where cooperation is rewarded through structures and incentives. See, for example, the book “Humanizing the Economy”, which examines such examples—you won’t find them in Hägglund’s book.

    I agree with Hägglund that redistribution of wealth is not enough. But a democratic socialism fit for the 21st century needs to be a bit more responsive to what we’ve learned since the 19th.

  • Finally, I see very little reason for reframing secular humanism in terms of “secular faith” or living a “spiritual life”. These terms may appeal to a certain audience, but for those who have explicitly rejected faith, they hold little value.

    When Hägglund talks about “keeping faith” with our commitments (a marriage, a friendship, a purpose), he is using religious language where non-religious language will do just fine. It is true that we face uncertainty in all our life commitments. It is also true that we continuously re-examine those life commitments based on our lived experience.

    We abandon projects that are failing. We end marriages that don’t work. We lose friendships because our lives drift apart. When a commitment doesn’t make sense anymore, we should end it—and that kind of responsiveness to evidence is the opposite of faith.

This Life may help broaden the appeal of secular humanism, but it diminishes it by re-framing it in religious terms. It offers a useful critique of capitalism, but it fails to advance the discussion of how to replace it. It is not afraid to challenge ideas of holy oblivion, but it does not recognize the hope and inspiration we can take from the cosmos we find ourselves in.

The journey This Life takes the reader on is an important one. I’m just not sold on the destination.