Can I Believe in What I Hope?

Hopefully Believing

  • Philosophy
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • Epistemology

Principal Investigators

Robert Pasnau
Professor of Philosophy
University of Colorado Boulder


Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say in defense of his atheism, if confronted by God in the next life. Russell’s answer is famous: “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!”

Russell’s complaint is characteristically modern. Prior to the late-nineteenth century, it seemed to almost everyone as if there was lots of evidence for God’s existence, in every corner of the physical world. Increasingly, however, even theists are likely to agree that, if we were to judge strictly by the evidence, belief in God would be hard to justify.

Is there anything left that could justify belief in God? This now is, or at least ought to be, the central question in the philosophy of religion. The traditional answer is faith, which is generally understood as a commitment to believe in the absence of sufficient evidence. But this answer raises questions of its own. How can one believe something, if one knows that the evidence in fact supports another conclusion? And even if one can bring oneself to do such a thing, how can that be the right thing to do? This was Russell’s point: that a good and wise creator would want us to follow the evidence.

My project sets out another way of understanding the grounds of religious belief, based not on faith but on hope. Along with faith and charity, hope is one of the three traditional theological virtues. But whereas faith is a cognitive virtue – a matter of firmly believing the tenets of a religion –hope is affective. That is to say that it consists not in belief but in emotional and volitional mental states. In particular, as I understand hope, it is a positive emotional state with regard to some desired outcome, such that one is not depressed or fearful about a bad result’s obtaining. To be hopeful does not necessarily require thinking that an outcome is objectively more likely. Someone can be hopeful and yet quite realistic about the chances of success. To be in such a state is to have hope rather than faith.

To be hopeful about something is not, in itself, a matter of believing that such a thing will happen. And yet hope can lead to belief, because belief itself arises out of emotion. When we cannot believe that a thing is so, it is because we are worried about the alternate possibility. Belief requires confidence, which in turn requires an optimistic lack of fear with respect to failure. Those who hope can therefore believe, because they are not worried about the prospect of being wrong. My project, therefore, is to show how this model of hope offers an attractive way of understanding the nature of modern religious belief. If we are to believe in God, we have to do so in the face of much discouragement and conflicting evidence. There are those who have blind faith. But it is better to recognize the situation honestly, and yet still to be hopeful that there is an ultimate force for the good that gives our lives purpose and direction. This is a way of thinking about the world that is not sufficiently supported by the evidence. But it is a world worth hoping for. And where there is hope there may be belief.