This life is all you’ve got, so make the most of it

There are two main arguments about religious beliefs.  One is about whether they are factually true—whether you really will go to Heaven or Hell, or to a reincarnated new life, when you die, for example. The other is about whether religious faith is a good thing regardless of whether it is true.  Many lack religious faith and regret the lack.

THIS LIFE: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund (2019) Is aimed at unhappy disbelievers.  He made the case that you can be a better and happier person without religious belief than with it

Hankering for Heaven or Nirvana won’t free you from the pain and risk of life, Hägglund wrote; it is better to face the fact that this life is all you’ve got, and to make the most of it.

Secular faith is the faith that your finite life really is worthwhile, despite its risk and pain.  Spiritual freedom is the power to choose what makes your life meaningful.

Your life’s meaning can be devotion to your loved ones, to a vocation or avocation or to work to make the world a better place.  It evidently goes without saying, because Hägglund doesn’t explicitly say it, that it does not include devotion to money, power or sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

I sometimes talk to people who tell me they’re spiritual, not religious.  I tell them that I myself am not spiritual at all.  They often tell me that actually I am spiritual, even if I don’t know it or won’t admit it.

Hägglund did the same thing in reverse.  He argued that religious people who try to make the world a better place really are more secular than religious, because they care about this world rather than the hypothetical next world.

He began by writing about the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis and his grief for the death of his wife, Joy Davidian.  Lewis confessed in A Grief Observed that his Christian religious faith did not console him or shield him from the pain of the loss of his beloved.

Friends tried to tell Lewis that he and his beloved would meet again in Heaven, but, as he pointed out, there is no support for this idea in Scripture.  The whole point of Heaven is that it would be qualitatively different from Earthly life, not a continuation of it.

Lewis believed that an endless continuation of earthly life would eventually become unbearable.  As he remarked somewhere, all that is necessary for Hell is eternal life, plus human nature as it is.  He thought Heaven must be some sort of timeless transcendent state of being beyond out comprehension.

Hägglund argued that the desire to exist in a timeless transcendent state makes this life meaningless, because nothing in this life would count compared to that.  He said the same is true of use of Buddhist meditation practice or Stoic philosophy to cultivate a serenity that makes you indifferent to the pain of loss.  Hägglund said the price of that is to never care deeply about anything or commit strongly to anything.  He thinks that is an unworthy way to live.

The conflict between this world and a transcendent hope are shown in the life of Saint Augustine, he wrote.  Augustine’s Confessions show his struggle to free himself from caring about things in this world so that he can devote himself exclusively to God.  Augustine even worried about whether church music would cause people to come to church to enjoy the music rather than pray to God.

Hägglund contrasted Augustine with writers such as Marcel Proust and the contemporary Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who treasure and lovingly describe the ordinary details of life.

This conflict also shows up in the works of Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Christian writer who’s considered a father of existentialism.  Kierkegaard’s example of perfect faith was the prophet Abraham, who was willing to take the life of his beloved son Isaac because God commanded him to.

Abraham was spared from having to make the actual sacrifice, but the point is that he was willing to do so, without reservations.  If he had held back, he would have put something else—his love for his son, his belief that murder is wrong—ahead of his faith in God.

I can remember when people who were especially pious were called “God-fearing.”  Jesus, on the other hand, commanded his followers to love God.  I think that fearing God for his power and majesty is different from loving God for his wisdom and goodness.  The believers who fear God are the ones who, like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, are willing to commit atrocities in the name of religion.

But if you say that God cannot be anything but wise and good, then you have a pre-existing idea of wisdom and goodness that is not based on your faith in God.  Instead it is your criterion for believing in God.

I came to the same conclusions 50 years ago.  Reading Kierkegaard freed me of the fear that lack of belief in a religion would lead to moral nihilism, since your moral beliefs are the basis for choosing a religion in the first place.


Martin Hägglund

Hägglund devoted the second half of his book to democratic socialism as a means of providing spiritual freedom for all.  His idea of socialism is a theoretical system which has never existed anywhere, including his native Sweden.

If spiritual freedom consists of choosing how to spend your time, then people lack spiritual freedom if their lives are spent struggling just to survive, especially when the means of survival are subject to the will of some corporate executive or landowner or government official.

This is not well understood by many self-described progressives and socialists.  They talk of the need for “job creation” rather than freedom.  Instead an enlightened society should aim at eliminating BS jobs and guard labor and allowing the greatest feasible amount of leisure.

The promise of 19th century liberalism, he wrote, was that the free market would liberate humanity from the rule of kings, aristocrats and established churches, and leave individuals free to choose their own destiny.  Karl Marx understood that freedom to choose had little value unless you had the means to make use of your freedom—an adequate diet, access to education and so on.

He sees capitalism as Karl Marx did—a machine that both (1) creates an ever-increasing abundance of material goods and (2) subjects workers to ever-increasing exploitation.

This means abolishing capitalism, but taking advantage of the abundance that capitalism made possible.  It should be possible to create a society in which everyone has a guaranteed minimum income adequate for survival, and people are able to freely choose their vocations and life paths.

In such a society, people might still find ways to make themselves and each other unhappy, but the path to happiness would be open to all.

If unnecessary work is eliminated and disagreeable work is automated, there should be only a minimum amount of work that nobody wants to do, and everybody should be willing to pitch in and do their share of that minimum.

Such a sharing community may not be completely unrealistic.  This is in fact how things operate in families, in volunteer organizations and in communities where people have known each other for a long time.  It is interesting to speculate on to what degree a secular faith, or even a religious faith would allow this to be scaled up to cover a whole society.

What I do think is unrealistic is the idea of automatically-increasing material abundance.  The immediate future holds the possibility of general war, the likelihood of another economic crash and the fact of resource exhaustion and catastrophic climate change.  The case against our present corporate and governmental structures is not so much that they are roadblocks on the road to utopia as they are making the present crises worse instead of addressing them.


The last chapter of the book is about the last days of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., how his thinking evolved from opposing racial discrimination to opposing capitalism, and how this fit in with the ideas of Marx and Hegel.  Dr. King’s last actions were organizing a Poor People’s Campaign and supporting a garbage collector’s strike in Memphis, Tennessee. In the last sermon he gave before he was killed, Dr. King said:

It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism.  But ultimately people want some suits and dresses to wear down here.  It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t get three square meals a day.  It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must all about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Memphis, Tennessee.  This is what we have to do.

Hägglund gave this as an example of moving toward secular faith and away from religious faith.  I think you can make such a distinction, but I don’t think most religious believers do.  I think most Christians see Jesus’s commands to love God and love your neighbor as two sides of the same coin, and Jews and Muslims are similar.

He thinks it is possible to create a secular faith that does all the good things that churches do—affirming  righteousness, consoling the sorrowful, engaging in charity, creating community—without religious creeds.  History is not encouraging about such attempts, although we Unitarian Universalists are trying.

I don’t think his book will change the minds of religious believers, but it will reassure the world’s millions of unbelievers that it is worthwhile to lead good lives even though they lack a specific religious faith.

I’m glad I read This Life.  I thank Capt. George Tyger, a Unitarian-Universalist Army chaplain, and my philosopher friend Tim Madigan for recommending it to me.


Reflections on Gandhi by George Orwell (1949).  Hägglund’s argument anticipated.

True to Life: An Interview with Martin Hägglund for Jacobin magazine.  [Added 5/30/2019]

If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything by James Wood for The New Yorker.

The Socialist Journey by Michael A. McCarthy for Jacobin [Added 8/4/2019]

This Life by Matthew Engelke for Public Books.  [Added 10/1/2019]

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6 Responses to “This life is all you’ve got, so make the most of it”

  1. Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

    There are Atheists who have extraordinary levels of faith that there is no God.

    And then there is Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Ancestor Simulation.


    • philebersole Says:

      If you believed you were living in a computer simulation, would your life still be meaningful?


      • Fred (Au Naturel) Says:

        I am of the opinion that the only possible meaning in life is that which you supply yourself. Doesn’t matter if you are atheist, agnostic or a true believer.

        One can say “I think therefor I am.” Beyond that everything is a guess.


  2. silverapplequeen Says:

    Most atheists I know are much happier & much more spiritual than most religious people I know.

    I have always though that the idea that we are “reunited” with our loved ones in heaven is ridiculous. Some people think they are even reunited with their pets in heaven. I guess they are comforted by these ideas but still.

    I remember reading Augustine’s Confessions in college. I still have my copy of the book. I thought he was a VERY disturbed individual & I remember writing a response to that effect … that if he was living in today’s world, he would most likely be diagnosed with some like of schizoaffective disorder & medicated. & he obviously hated children. The fact that he came up with the concept of “original sin” is proof of that. The Catholic Church should have gotten rid of that shit a LONG TIME AGO.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Atheism, in and of itself, is a mere negation. Disbelief in a deity does not commit you to any particular philosophy or moral code.
    Joseph Stalin was an atheist. So was Ayn Rand.

    If you are an atheist, you can be a secular humanist, who believes in doing what you can to promote human flourishing—your own and everyone else’s. Or you can be a social darwinist. who believes the world is a dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, and altruism is for naive fools. Or you can be an unreflective person who just takes life as it come without thinking much about it one way or another—among the many other possibilities.

    Neither does theism, in and of itself, commit you to any particular moral code. You can believe in a loving deity or a sternly just deity or an arbitrarily cruel deity or an incomprehensible transcendent deity or a Santa Claus deity who will grant your every wish if you have sufficient faith. Or you can be an unreflective person who simply takes life as it comes without thinking much about it one way or another—among the many other possibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Nicky D Says:

    This book sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing.


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