By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Martin Hagglund is an atheist, or non-theist, who rejects religious theism for its emphasis on the afterlife at the expense of how we live in this life. The Hebrew Bible is the foundational scripture for Jews, Christians and Muslims, and it doesn’t emphasize an afterlife. Instead, it has God reward and punish Jews in this life based on whether they obey or disobey Mosaic Law.
Jesus was a maverick Jew who refuted Mosaic Law as God’s standard of righteousness. Jesus taught love over law, and his teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including our neighbors of other races and religions. It was the church that made life after death in heaven or hell the focus of faith.
Hagglund stated the obvious. We can only love others in this life, not in the next. Loving others is how we love God and help God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus taught that eternal life begins in this life and extends into the next; and that we have the free will to accept or reject it. Atheism doesn’t negate the teachings of Jesus, only those of the church.
The altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love were never popular, so the church subordinated those teachings to exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus to achieve popularity and worldly power. Islam went even further. It made its holy book, the Qur’an, the immutable word of God/Allah, and it emphasizes that all unbelievers are condemned to eternal damnation.
Hagglund describes faith, love and responsibility as the elements of his secular faith. It's remarkably similar to the altruistic and universal moral teachings of Jesus on altruistic love that have been validated by history as a means of reconciliation and peace, as opposed to exclusivist religious beliefs that have created division, hate and violence.
Hagglund’s atheism doesn’t reject a universal spiritual power, only the God described in religious scriptures. In fact, we might even consider Jesus as an atheist Jew since he rejected the legalistic concept of God described in the Hebrew Bible. Likewise, many thoughtful believers consider Jesus a great prophet of God’s truth, but not as a surrogate Christian God.
Alan Wolfe is also a self-proclaimed atheist; but unlike Hagglund, Wolfe argues that religions have an important role to play in a secular world, and that secular norms can change religions for the better. Arnold M. Eisen, an authority on American Judaism, has noted “religions will have to cross boundaries as never before to remain credible and relevant in this new era.”
Hagglund, Wolfe and Eisner all reject religious limits on living life to the full. We cannot live abundantly without the transforming power of God’s love, and Jesus taught that it must be given in order to be received. God’s love transcends all religions, and it can reconcile all humanity as brothers and sisters in the universal family of God.
Believers can find common ground with Hagglund and Wolfe if they consider God as a universal spiritual power of love (see I John 4:16) that can transform us in this life, rather than a supreme being who judges whether we experience eternity in heaven or hell in the afterlife based on our religious beliefs.
The greatest commandment is found at Mark 12:28-33, Matthew 22:34-40 and at Luke 10:25-37, which includes the story of the good Samaritan. The equivalent moral imperative in John’s gospel is the new command at John 13:34.
God’s love is reciprocal. Jesus said, “Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. (Luke 6:17-18).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke as the good shepherd and the word of God (the Logos) when he said: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
The altruistic teachings of Jesus on salvation were universal and not limited to those of any exclusivist religious beliefs. He taught that all who did God’s will were his spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God. (see Mark 3:35)
James Wood has reviewed Martin Hagglund’s book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (Pantheon Books, New York, 2019) and summarized it as “the idea [that] eternity destroys meaning and value” by “subordinating the finite (the knowledge that life will end) to the eternal (‘the sure and certain hope that we will be released from pain and suffering and mortality into the peace of everlasting life). Wood notes that Hagglund “is quiet about Judaism, whose practices are sensibly grounded in the here and now, and which lacks the intense emphasis on the afterlife characteristics of Islam and Christianity.” Hagglund defines religious faith as “any form of belief in an eternal being or an eternity beyond being, either in a timeless repose (such as nirvana) a transcendent God, or an imminent, divine Nature.” Hagglund explains that “the problem with eternity is not that it doesn’t exist but that it is undesirable and incoherent; it kills meaning and collapses value.” Wood notes that Hagglund doesn’t try to disprove religion, “so that [his secular faith] incorporates many of the elements traditionally thought of as religious.” Citing Hegel (as Hagglund reads him), “a religious institution is just a community that has come together to ennoble ‘a governing set of norms--a shared understanding of what counts as good and just. The object of devotion is just the community itself. ‘God’ is just the name we give the self-legislated communal norms (the principles to which the congregation holds itself), and ‘Christ’ the name we give to the beloved agent who animates these norms.” See The Time of Your Life at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/05/20/if-god-is-dead-your-time-is-everything.
Alan Wolfe, like Hagglund, is a self-proclaimed atheist and scholar; but unlike Hagglund Wolfe has acknowledged the relevance of religion to politics and has been optimistic that secular forces of progress and modernity were leading religions toward reconciliation. “Breathless warnings about rising religious fervor and conflicts to come ignore two basic facts. First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously showed that it would be irrational to bet against the existence of God. It would be equally foolish, in the long run, to bet against the power of the Enlightenment. The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.
...Until relatively recently, most social theorists, from Marx to Freud to Weber, believed that as societies became more modern, religion would lose its capacity to inspire. ...However one defined modernity, it always seemed likely to involve societies focused on this world rather than on some other. But intellectual fashions are fickle, and the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. ...A hundred years ago, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber quoted the great evangelical John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church: ‘I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.’
...It appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud. But one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.
...Places with a free religious marketplace witness entrepreneurs of the spirit compete to save souls, honing their messages and modulating many of their beliefs so as to appeal to the consumer. With more options to choose from, more consumers find something they like, and the ranks of the religious grow.
The key precondition for the marketplace of religion is the presence of rudimentary secular values. This may sound odd, since the secular has long been thought the opposite of the religious; but secularism is not the opposite of belief; nonbelief is. Indeed, secularism has religious, specifically Christian, roots; it renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, while leaving to God what properly belongs in his realm.
Does the pattern hold outside America? Various versions of the prosperity movement are attracting followers in developing countries, as well as in poorer areas of the United States, precisely because they value success in this world as much as holiness in another. ...Their goal is not to question the modern world’s riches but to bring them within the reach of more people. And once this dynamic is set in motion, it tends to gather momentum. As Eliza Griswold points out, the success of the Pentecostal Gospel of Prosperity in Nigeria has prompted the creation of a new Islamic organization focused on economic empowerment, which already has 1.2 million members in Nigeria alone.
...Those who worry about religious revivals in the world today usually pose an either/or choice between religion and secularism. In reality, the two can work together.
Religious peace will be the single most important consequence of the secular underpinning of today’s religious growth. All religions tend to be protective of their traditions and rituals, but all religions also change depending upon the cultural practices of the societies in which they are based. Protestantism and secularism have always had close ties: as noted, Locke was drawing on a specifically Protestant sensibility when he wrote in defense of secular ideals.” See
On Arnold Eisen’s views that God has a lot to answer for the pandemic, see https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/18/opinions/religion-faith-coronavrius-covid-19-eisen/index.html.