The Unfundamental Conversion

On Atheism, Religion, and Responsibility

April 3rd, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Faith | History | Philosophy | SE Asia

A few days ago, and actually throughout the last year, we’ve had discussions on my blog about whether a belief in a higher power 1) hinders genuine relationships and 2) takes a way from personal responsibility.

This week the question came up on my blog in context of hell. I had made the comment that when I stopped believing in hell, I was able to just enjoy my friends without the burden of getting them saved. In that sense, it made my relationships more genuine.

The question that naturally followed was does religion take away from all genuine relationships and responsibility. For example, does one who believes in God only love people in order to make God happy?

I think people love hard whether religious or non-religious. But the question of responsibility peaked my curiousity until today when I was reading Sartre. Now I want to argue that I think religion does give us less responsibility, and I am glad for it.

Here’s some quotes from Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism to get us started:

Man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his shoulders. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible for only his own individuality, but he is responsible for all men.” (emphasis mine)

resignation is my will for everyone, and my action is, in consequence, a commitment on behalf of all mankind. Or if, to take a personal case, I decide to marry and have children, even though this decision proceed simply from my situation, from my passion and my desire, I am thereby committing not only myself, but humanity as a whole, to the practice of monogamy. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have to be.

When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility.

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. . . He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but that he wills it. (emphasis mine)

Sartre and my atheist readers are correct. If there is no God, we responsible to the utmost degree for everything good and evil on this planet. Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Christians are still responsible for the mess they create on this earth, but if God exists, he also plays a role. God also has responsibilities too. God and we share responsibilities. If God does not exist, it’s us, and only us.

Furthermore, if God exists, we have a foundation to build on. Sartre talks about how existence precedes essence. In other words, first we are thrown into existence, and then we will ourselves and shape ourselves; we choose who we become. But in Christianity and most other religions, this is not true. We are born already with an essence; we are born with a soul and a plan. We don’t go out and create those things; we learn to find that nature already within us, and then we understand what it means to exist and really be human.

I am obviously partial to the religious answer. I want responsibility, but I want responsibility that fits my abilities as a finite human. I think parenting makes a good example. It is good for my child to be responsible to clean her room and brush her teeth. But we would not say a 5-year-old should be responsible for babysitting the 1-year-old. Or we would not say the 5-year-old is responsible for protecting the 1-year-old from a bad guy. But we might say the government or police has that responsibility.

One of the parts that drew me to Calvinism was that it lessened the responsibility for people’s salvation. Either people are predestined to believe, or they are not, and their salvation is not dependent upon whether I am the best speaker in the world. Yes, we still have some responsibility – we have to share the gospel – but we have a whole, whole lot less than if free will is true.

So I’m going to stick with this. Christians have less responsibility than atheists, but we don’t have no responsibility. We have an appropriate amount. We have to dig in a world that does not make sense; love our neighbor; try to square our life with our identity in Christ; and comfort those who mourn. Quite frankly, we have enough responsibility as it is, and I don’t need to be responsible for the next 2 billion years.

When I wrote my post last night about how I got so burned out helping kids who came out of horrendous situations, I did not mention that there is something freeing about realizing that I can’t solve the sex industry problem in SE Asia. I used to think that I could change the kids’ life around 360%. Is the conscience crushed? No problem. We can say a prayer. Is the will crushed? No, problem. We can say a prayer. Does the kid have schizophrenia? No problem. We can say a prayer.

It got more depressing as time went on because not only were we not making progress at my house, but also I was encountering more and more others in the area who had no help, no rescue, and no therapy. It’s sobering to meet children who I know are sex slaves, and I can’t do a dang thing about it. As my friend said to me, “These kids we work with were rescued after two years. Some of the kids endure the sex industry for 20 years.”

Realizing that it was not up to me to solve the sex industry problem in SE Asia did actually free me. The first two years I was working my life away, not sleeping, caring too much, and I was rude and stern because I wanted to make the kids change. It was simply too much responsibility. I was called into a parent meeting with one of my kid’s teacher; the kid was in 9th grade, and I was 24. That is insane. A year later, I was carrying 5 kids with me in my car; and the stress kept getting worse until we were all splitting.

After I moved, and my kids still went from bad to worse, it dawned on me that we will be picking the kids up each time they fall, and that it’s okay. Our responsibility as people is to pick each other up. It’s not to control the situation.

Realizing that God loves all the children in the world infinitely more than me has helped me gain perspective. I am small, and he is big. He has the greater responsibility. My job is just to pick people up.

But ultimately, Sartre is still right. If there is no God, it all lies in our hands. Every single thing in the world. We are the creators of our destiny. Sartre is right, but I might also remind you that Foucault later came along and had to pick up the pieces of modernity. Our will to master fate had literally resulted in the blood of two world wars. As I have written, in order to progress, people have to come into conformity, and that supresses and hurts those who cannot fit into the box.

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  • It’s interesting what you are saying. I’m Jewish and grew up with a decent religious background but no sense of hell at all. (Jews don’t spend nearly as much attention on the afterlife as Christians, much more focused on this life). Being religious for me is a sense of being grounded in a people and an identity; as I stand on firm ground, I can reach out to others who are different from me and deal with them respectfully because I know who I am. But Jews beleive that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come so I never worried about other people and the afterlife.

    What you said, that you can’t fix the sex industry in Asia but it is worth it to keep trying, that is exactly almost word for word one of my favorite quotes from the Pirke Avot, a collection of moral and ethical sayings from the Jewish religious leaders of about ~100 BCE to ~200 CE. From Rabbi Tarfon: You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to abandon it. Tarfon was talking about studying Torah, that you are not expected to understand everything perfectly or complete the task of learning everything, but what you can do is still worth doing. For progressive/liberal Jews, this phrase is connected with tikkun Olam, reparing the broken cracks in the world. I can’t do everything. I can’t fix everything. But what I can do is still important, and I still have to try as much as I can. What I can do still means something, even if it doesn’t fix everything.

    Lana, you cannot complete the task of reparing the world, or stopping the sex industry in SE Asia (or anywhere else). But you are not expected to do that, and what you can do and what you are doing is important, and it makes a difference.

    • Good to hear from you. It’s also interesting to hear the perspective of a liberal Jew ” Being religious for me is a sense of being grounded in a people and an identity; as I stand on firm ground, I can reach out to others who are different from me and deal with them respectfully because I know who I am.” Yes, this is good

      I agree with you. I htink in the west we are so trained to think that we are going to solve all the problems in the world – that our job is to be the hero. When that does not work out, we take the outlook of do nothing. We see this in so many areas of life. We don’t vote for a third party candidate even if we really, really dislike the other two options. Or we still buy meat from a farmer we know abuses their animals because the problem isn’t going away anyway. But I think we are called to do the right thing even if it isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems.

  • I’m one who hasn’t linked human evil in the world to God, so I don’t understand how is is responsible for it.

    • Yea, that’s kind of the obvious answer, right? Too obvious we sometimes miss it.

      • I think many intentionally miss it, thus use it against religion.

  • Dan McDonald

    Thank you Lana. I am sure that you have discovered an important truth in recognizing that our responsibility is finite. After Easter I will be presenting a blog that I will look forward to seeing you look at it. From my perspective the creation was created liturgically, God spoke and from chaos there emerged matter, light, life, beauty, and order; and it seems to me that hell is existence separated from God’s call so that the rejection of the call leads to a retreat to chaos and the outer darkness. Yet I also am closer than ever before to entertaining the possibility that some of the Church fathers entertained of the possibility of universalism. But I suspect that whatever may be the truth in regards to punishment, the human spirit is not designed to be pleased with an eternity of being mercenary or serving God simply to escape punishment, no for us to throw our whole being into it all we need to know that God is love and truth and beauty that we may hear him and yearn to follow him. Thank you for your thoughts that are always a little bit beyond my understanding, and honestly I enjoy that.

    • Lana Hope

      Yes, please link me to the post when you have it up! There were a couple that were universalists; Ignatious was it? Not sure.

      “hell is existence separated from God’s call so that the rejection of the call leads to a retreat to chaos and the outer darkness” – I look at this similiarly. My sincere hope is that God is able to win everyone over – that no one will stay broken forever. But if we are allowed to stay apart from God, then it will inevitably lead into utter dehumanizing of our souls – it has to. I already see this on earth. The more broken we are, the more we retreat to ourselves and the more bleak life gets. Of course, there are other reasons life is difficult – mental illness, chemical imbalance, hardships, etc, so not all darkness on earth is attributed to personally fleeing from God. But a lot is.

      This is why I believe that every knee must ultimately bow before God. If our ultimate connection to the world must be found in him, then everyone must eventually bow before him. This is why I will cry on the day when we all worship God – it’s not just that God is so big, though that he is, but that we will be finally connected with each other and with God.

      Have you studied the Orthodox church? They have suggested that hell will be experiencing God’s love. For those who want their independence, it will hurt so bad to experience God’s love that it hurts like hell. At first that bothered me because it seems like a violation of our free will, but then I realized that it’s not really possible for God to stop loving people. Now it makes sense to me.

      • Dan McDonald

        I hadn’t studied or heard of that thought. I’d like to consider that concept in your last paragraph more, that is to see what has been taught in that light. The brokenness and the retreat into ourselves this I know all too well. That may be the struggle I battle most. Remember me in your prayers.

        • Lana Hope

          Sure thing, but don’t completely blame yourself. Sometimes life sucks, and some day when the hardships in our lives are gone, maybe it will make trust easier? Side note: if you have not read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, I recommend it.


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