This is a review of This Life/Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Hagglund.
Two stars for a reasonably well stated vision of reality in the introduction. I can’t recommend the book otherwise. It is repetitive; it rests on counterintuitive definitions for words and phrases, except when definitions are entirely absent; and it doesn’t fulfill its promises, for example that of showing how collectivism makes us more free.
The author sets out to “demonstrate[e] that our commitment to freedom and democracy should lead us beyond both religion and capitalism.” I thought perhaps this was hyperbole to draw the reader in, but no. “Secular faith,” a weird phrase borrowing a concept absent from his worldview, is defined as meaning derived from finitude, especially the absence of life after death or a spiritual realm. It “is necessary for motivating ethical, political, and filial commitments.” Your conscience and your sense of purpose comes from this finitude, this awareness of your own impending death, according to Hagglund.
The author is quite explicit about linking atheism to progressive leftism. “The political project of democratic socialism requires secular faith,” he writes. He explicitly embraces Marxism, including its necessary materialist, atheist element, but says we’ve all been misreading Marx, pay no mind to those pesky atheist-driven wars and genocides and famines of the twentieth century. The author says he will explain how conformity to democracy in its fullest socialist incarnation makes people more free. He never makes good on this promise, but I think he thinks he has, because he expects readers to accept his a priori conclusion to the effect that freedom inheres in greater connection to the collective.
Hagglund believes the difference between theists and atheists is that atheists are reconciled to the finite, by which he means (1) that life is finite and then it just ends; and (2) our lives are bounded by dependence each on the other; i.e., collectivism is essential to what we are. Theists, he believes, stake belief in eternity on consolation; that is, our disappointments now are mitigated or palliated by belief in an obscure post-natural-life reality. All Christians, therefore, believe in God and His heaven because it seems to lessen the harshness of finitude of this life. But what if the driver to Christian belief is not consolation that people die, but rather an instinct born of the felt significance of ourselves as distinct moral agents, with individual, not corporate, responsibility for what we do?
He’s trying to make his central point through the writings of Augustine, Kierkegaard, and, of all people, Karl Ove Knausgard. I take the book to be weirdly reductive, taking the sense of significance we all feel and attempting to dismantle our intuition of transcendent Source for it. The fact of death means to most people that life is meaningless unless there a transcendent source surpassing death; which means a life everlasting; which means there is a God. Haggland unsuccessfully attempts to argue the very opposite: that death provides a tension and therefore a sense of meaning and purpose deriving only from the desire to “live on” in others or in our work, rather than resting in a timeless peace with God. Hagglund links his twisted notion of meaning to collectivism, including the “social justice” that puts us at war with each other.
In sum, this book is bleak, flat, gray, and hard. Hagglund finds significance in atheism because death (or “finitude”) supplies it, whereas religion exists only to console us in our finitude. His entire point of view requires that you have decided in advance the Christian story is a fable created only as an elaborate way to mitigate fear of death. His “secular faith” is rooted in existentialism in that it finds significance in personal commitment to things like “social justice” as a means to live on in others. This is a prospect almost too depressing to read, even as only theory. It is a failed effort to bootstrap meaning from the absence of meaning.