This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

Martin Hägglund

Book cover

I unfortunately had to read this at a bit of a faster pace than I would have preferred, because I got it from the Brooklyn Public Library shortly before moving out of the city. I did finish it on time though!

From the first time I read about TL, I felt a deep-seated need to read it–the integration of reflections on atheism, socialism, and literature sounded really attractive. (Also, it is blurbed by Yanis Varoufakis, which is bizarre but awesome.) I was raised by divorced parents, one of whom was religious and the other of whom was a “reluctant atheist”–someone who doesn’t believe in god but kind of wished they did. I guess more of the latter rubbed off on me. Since leaving college, I attended a church for a few years but now consider myself an atheist. I am interested in more than the rejection of religion, though. I’ve read a lot of Stoic writing and have probably found that to resonate the most of any system of beliefs, so it was interesting for me to read Hagglund, who is fairly critical of Stoic philosophy for similar reasons as he is critical of religion.

MH is a professor of comparative literature and humanities, and the style of this book reminded me a lot of one of my very favorite non-fiction authors, Martha Nussbaum: like MN, he makes extensive reference to both literature and philosophy to make his arguments. (However, I think MN is a better writer in that she is much more concise–this is a long book and I think a better editor could have reduced the length by a couple of hundred pages without losing the core messages–MH repeats himself a lot.) Among other things, reading this book made me interested to read Knausgard’s “My Struggle,” which I hadn’t really felt interested or bothered to learn much about before, based on MH’s extensive discussion of it.

The heart of MH’s argument is his distinction between “secular faith” and “religious faith.” Despite the terms, each can be found in evidence in nominally secular and religious settings alike. To paraphrase, “religious faith” is the belief in, and striving toward, some desired transcendent and permanent/eternal state. This most obviously includes belief in an eternal afterlife, but also includes the Buddhist concept of Nirvana (permanent escape from the cycle of death and rebirth) and even the state of the ideal Stoic “sage,” who is impervious to the vicissitudes of the mortal world through perfection of judgment. On the other hand, “secular faith” is the commitment to finite projects in full awareness of their fragility, contingency, and finitude. This includes commitments to political and social causes, committed human relationships, and basically everything that doesn’t involve trying to reach a “permanent win condition” (my terminology, not Hagglund’s). This category encompasses most activities of “normal life” and, importantly, Hagglund argues that it also encompasses many aspects of religion (feeding the poor, loving your neighbors, etc.), and the book’s last section is an extended discussion of MLK through the lens of secular faith.

Hagglund argues that the absence of a “permanent win condition” in the universe (which he takes as given) should not be lamented by the non-religious, but rather, rightly understood, this very lack is the necessary grounds for everything that we intuitively recognize as good–identity, personal growth, and commitments, among other things. He lays out a fairly persuasive argument for this, mainly from the standpoint that an eternal or perfected existence precludes basic building blocks of ourselves, including prioritization and commitment. He illustrates this very touchingly with extended readings of CS Lewis and of Augustine, both of whom struggle with actually subordinating their earthly commitments to their faith (MH would say, wrongly so). I appreciated this part of the argument very much, because I definitely fall into the camp of “atheist who regrets his conclusion.” I was glad it was not a facile argument of the “no light without darkness” sort, which I feel like is all I have really seen before. I will have to think about the argument a lot more, but it seemed fairly plausible to me. (I’ll note that, throughout this book, I found it fairly easy to nitpick Hagglund’s arguments, which are not nearly as airtight as an analytical philosopher’s would be. For example, he argues that an eternal being would have no reason to prioritize one activity over another, but what if that being was eternal yet had some time-indexed characteristics? However, in this example and most others, I did not find the nits to undermine the overall argument, which I generally agreed with.)

I also very much appreciated the latter sections of the book, where he turns to the implications of his argument for social, political, and economic organization. My main problem with a lot of non-religious philosophy, definitely including Stoicism, is that it fails to connect its prescriptions for personal conduct with social organization. Again, I felt that I agreed with the broad thrust of Hagglund’s argument while finding lots of small things to disagree with. This section mostly focuses on a reading of Marx, and while I have not read Marx extensively, I disagreed with a lot of individual assertions in Hagglund’s reading of him. I do agree with the general argument that the measurement of value under capitalism is incomplete, in ways that we are learning are literally catastrophic. I think his re-orientation toward valuing socially available free time is a reasonable one, and I agree with the general prescription for introducing democratically intentional prioritization into more spheres of life is a good one. I do think Hagglund is extremely optimistic about how people’s individual values will change under a democratic socialist system, for example in their willingness to do socially necessary but unpleasant work–and this allows him to avoid making any really difficult prescriptions (he basically assumes away the need for any kind of coerced work), but I don’t really hold that against him–he is trying to do enough in this book as it is, without expecting him to also fully lay out a working socialist society. (Note also that he correctly argues that laying out a full blueprint in advance would directly contradict the ideals of democratic decision-making that he is holding up.)

It’s been really interesting for me to read this close in time to Octavia Butler’s “Earthseed” books, as I think Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed religion/philosophy is a prime example of secular faith in action. Unlike Hagglund, Butler is under no illusions about the difficulties a community would face in trying to birth such a way of life into our own world.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars