This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
Martin Hägglund
Pantheon, $29.95 (cloth)

Religious zealots are no longer the only ones to prophesy the apocalypse. Secular scientists and experts regularly warn us that the skies will fall, that plagues will overwhelm us, and that the seas will cover our cities—all of it well-deserved punishment for our sins. We live in an era in which traditionally sacred questions about the nature and end of our world have become political. The old firewall between faith and politics, so lovingly crafted in the eighteenth century to solve problems that are no longer ours, will likely come down whether we like it or not.

Hägglund is not interested in whether God exists. He prefers to root out the belief that it would be a good thing if God existed.

Martin Hägglund, a philosopher and literary critic at Yale, has published a book for this moment. This Life is an audacious, ambitious, and often maddening tour de force that argues that major existential questions—about the world and our place in it—must once again inflame our politics. What’s more, he presumes to answer those questions, providing an ambitious defense of secularism and a provocative attempt to link a secular worldview with a robust politics. To fully abandon God, Hägglund proposes, is to become a democratic socialist.

Few have tried harder than Hägglund to consider secularism’s political and ethical consequences. In a world in which Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand seem to have a stranglehold on the theme, this is a crucially important case to make, and to a crucially important audience. In the United States, and globally too, the number of religiously unaffiliated people grows by the year. This Life asks secular readers to take their own secularism seriously, reminding them that their worldview can and ought to influence their politics as fully as it might for religious believers. He is not, to be clear, making an empirical claim that secularists are, in fact, the light of the world, but rather a normative argument that, if they understand themselves correctly, they should be. This aspect of Hägglund’s book is convincing, even if his kindred attempt to convince the religious among us to actually become secularists is less successful. Regardless, his project is to be applauded. Its iconoclasm and sweep provide an example of what intellectual activity can and should look like in an era of emergency.

Hägglund offers a robust vision of democratic socialism in which time, and not just capital, serves as a resource to be cherished and distributed.

This Life opens with an attack on religion, but of a novel sort. Hägglund is not much interested in whether or not God exists. He prefers to root out the more persistent belief that it would be a good thing if God existed. In his view, even many secular people are nostalgic for faith, and mourn the absence of a deity to command us and save us. This has kept the secular amongst us from deeply thinking through what it means to be secular—what it means, in other words, to accept that the lives we have here are the only ones we will ever have.

In Hägglund’s view, the essence of religion is a flight from finitude. He sees all religions as being basically the same in this regard, in that they all counsel us that the empirical world is essentially unreal. Our salvation, after all, resides in heaven or some kind of afterlife. Given that, the religious believer has no incentive to grant any independent significance to a particular human being, or even to the natural world. In his reading of Augustine, C. S. Lewis, Søren Kierkegaard, and other religious writers, he argues that they are intellectually committed to a devaluation of our shared, finite life. At the same time, he delights in offering evidence that these religious thinkers—despite themselves, in his view—granted meaning and significance to the finite world and its denizens.

His purpose is not merely to root out perceived hypocrisy, but to buttress the claim that devotion to the finite, or what he calls “secular faith,” is intrinsic to what we are as human beings. This anthropology is taken up in the second half of the book, which is devoted to what he calls “spiritual freedom.” In these chapters, Hägglund asks some basic questions: What would be the political and social consequences of true atheism? If we truly are alone in the world, what would it mean for us? These only seem banal because so few writers have the audacity to pose them so baldly.

The answers certainly are not banal: starting from first principles, Hägglund seeks to reconstruct what a worthwhile human life might look like, and what institutional arrangement might make it possible. The most interesting feature of his analysis is the great attention he gives to temporality. It is not just that human beings are “rational animals,” as Aristotle put it, but that our rationality expresses itself first and foremost through our decisions about how to use our time (hence the importance of finitude as a category). This is less an ethical principle than a meta-ethical one. We can debate endlessly over whether we should devote ourselves to art, or love, or political organizing. Hägglund simply wants us to see that these debates hinge on how to spend our time.

Time, not carbon or land, is the raw material of our humanity. With this insight in hand, Hägglund turns his attention to the state of our shared world now—one that is organized around literally inhuman premises. If our freedom is defined by the rational use of our time, capitalism is defined by its irrational waste. In an era of what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” and increasing awareness of the crushing requirements of modern labor, there is something plausible about this as a sociological observation. Hägglund presents it as a theoretical insight, too. In all of the excitement over the revival of socialism, it can be easy to lose sight of what capitalism actually consists in—or at least, how Marx understood it. Hägglund reminds us that Marx understood capitalism primarily through temporal categories. The historical significance of wage labor, after all, was precisely its linkage between monetary remuneration and the iron progress of the clock.

Hägglund believes that you can either love the world or you can love the eternal creator.

This linkage between value and labor-time, codified into the wage, distinguishes capitalism from alternative economic forms. It explains why the explosive technological innovations of the modern era, celebrated by Marx and Hägglund alike, have not shortened our labor time appreciably. And it explains why unemployment is immediately classified as a problem, instead of celebrated as evidence that we can feed and clothe ourselves with less labor than before.

In short, Hägglund believes that we are defined by the way that we spend our time, but that we are enmeshed in a system that devours our time without our rational input. The only solution, therefore, would be to remake our economic system in a way that honors our finite time precisely by disaggregating the equation of time and economic value that is the hallmark of capitalism.

The book concludes with a robust vision of democratic socialism in which time, and not just capital, serves as a resource to be cherished and distributed. Hägglund is not opposed to the welfarist measures that constitute the horizon of democratic politics today. He does, though, think that they are inadequate given the magnitude of our crisis; they do not arise from a fully articulated philosophy of what man is, and what sort of world would be fit for her flourishing. More pointedly, he thinks that we are focusing too much on the mechanisms of redistribution, and not enough on the capitalist, temporal logic that governs the creation of value.

His form of democratic socialism essentially gives us back our time. The endless hours that are sucked into the maw of production can be ours, once again, if we have the courage to claim them. Partially, this involves the simple exploitation of technology to increase the amount of time we are away from work. It also, though, presumes the revaluation of work and the economy itself. He imagines a world in which our work is unalienated because we have freely chosen it, and because we understand how it contributes to a just world that we want to be our own. This is a world, too, in which we are not riveted to a profession forever, but can exercise our talents in diverse ways across our lives because we are not submitting our bodies to the dictates of the market.

This is a utopian vision, to be sure. Hägglund does not do the work to show how it might plausibly be on the horizon, or ask how it might be possible in a globalized economy where the most unsavory and dangerous sorts of labor are often outsourced. That, though, is the great virtue of the book: it provides a regulative ideal, and a reminder of what kind of world we are actually fighting for. However secular he might be, Hägglund’s is ultimately a project of restoring faith. And if the history of religion teaches anything, it is that faith is not created with concrete proposals. We have faith in a story, and in a promise, and this is what Hägglund seeks to restore to his secular audience.

Marx had no particular sympathy for religion, but he did not seek to explain it away as a failure of courage or as an error in judgment.

If I have tried to depict This Life as an example of what we might call “good” utopianism, there is an element of misguided utopianism in the book, too. This becomes apparent in his treatment of religion. However bracing and convincing his linkage between secularism and socialism might be, he fails to make the case, either normatively or empirically, that only secularism can save us.

For all of its laudable concern for democracy, there is something imperious in Hägglund’s dismissal of religious believers: specifically, his contention that, insofar as they are properly religious, they do not and cannot have any concern for the finite world. It is enormously provocative and counterintuitive to assert that religious traditions (all of them!) counsel believers to ignore finite beings in pursuit of eternal happiness. And yet this is his consistent claim. “If you truly believed in the existence of eternity,” he argues, “there would be no reason to mourn the loss of a finite life.”

The most obvious objection to Hägglund’s thesis is simply that religious people care about the world, and other people, all of the time. Indeed, the history of humanity is little else than the history of that care. His response is that when they do so, they are not in fact acting religiously but are, despite their own self-perception, honoring the secular faith that is at the heart of the human condition. This sweeping argument is made largely through an analysis of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, designed to show that his theological vision does not in fact make room for a devotion to finite beings. A textual analysis of a famously complex thinker simply cannot bear this much weight. Even if we assume that Kierkegaard can stand in for the entire Christian tradition, which is a stretch, he simply cannot stand in for “religion” as a whole (represented in this book, it must be said, almost entirely by European and Christian men).

So even if Hägglund is right about Kierkegaard, there is no reason to conclude that it would be relevant to, say, the millions of Muslim mothers who care deeply about their children. Religious believers claim, in all manner of ways, that their care for the finite world is enlivened and awakened by their sense that the world is not dead matter, but rather emanates from the divine. Hägglund considers this to be impossible, but he does not directly explain why. Even secular people can imagine some form of it. Imagine that a dear friend died and left their beloved dog in your care, and that for years you loved and cared for this dog. It is likely that you would love this dog both in its own right, and also because of its provenance: through caring for the dog, you are honoring both the dog and the friend who gave it to you, even though that friend no longer exists. It would be both uncharitable and mistaken for someone to tell you that you did not really love the dog, but were only honoring your friend. It would be especially so if that person did not know you but only knew the broad outlines of your story. And yet this is precisely Hägglund’s position. He believes that you can either love the world in its finitude, or you can love the eternal creator, but you cannot possibly do both, and one could not possibly enrich the other.

“This Life,” to which Hägglund is so admirably committed, is teeming with cases in which love for God and love for the finite world enhance one another. For many, this world matters precisely because of its linkage to the eternal.

Consider care for the environment, which Hägglund rightly emphasizes as a crucial issue for our times. His view is that religious believers, insofar as they are consistent, should be indifferent to the fate of the world because they care only about the afterlife. One objection is that this argument, which uses clearly Christian categories, fails to address the Native American traditions that have been employed against oil companies in recent years, most famously at Standing Rock. Another would be that, even from within the Christian tradition, there are deep resources for ecological consciousness that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Scholar of American religions Brett Grainger, for instance, introduces us to some in Church in the Wild: Evangelicals in Antebellum America. While we sometimes attribute an enlightened ecology to the New England Puritans, he shows how the many millions of evangelicals of the same period had a similar sensibility. The book shows what an approach to religion that strays from the titanic intellectuals and texts can do. In lieu of a rereading of Thoreau, Grainger offers us a fine-grained account of the hymns, sermons, and poetry that constituted the commonsense worldview of a people.

It is no secret that evangelicals sought to study scripture and nature—or what they called God’s two books—in tandem. What Grainger shows is how deeply this permeated their daily lives. These were people who worshipped outdoors, and who viewed the contemplation of nature as a central component of spiritual practice. This reached bizarre heights in the evangelical attitude to health. They were, Grainger reveals, quite committed to hydrotherapy, believing that water, the stuff of baptism, had unique healing properties, and that mineral springs in particular were sacred sites. His point is that the evangelical tradition has enormous resources for a veneration of nature and that, moreover, the history of U.S. environmentalism relies on a hidden Protestant heritage.

Democratic socialism will run into the ground if it lashes itself this tightly to secularism.

Hägglund does not, and cannot, convincingly show that none of these traditions can nourish a genuine commitment to the finite world. The problem is that, for a book so concerned with theology, Hägglund does not really have a theory of religion. He does not, in other words, have a theory to explain why so many people, today and historically, have devoted themselves to (what he sees as) transparently false understandings of the universe. Ironically, Marx himself is more instructive on this point, and less committed to a reductive reading of religious activity. His fullest analysis of the topic (“On the Jewish Question”) was in fact written to refute a philosopher named Bruno Bauer who had made a claim similar to Hägglund’s. Marx did not believe that religion was an error in judgment, but rather an unsurprising response to a world in which our political and ethical ideals are so hideously absent from our economic realities. The mystifications of religion, in other words, are a reflection of the mystifications and contradictions of capitalism, and faith a coherent response to a world where salvation seems impossible.

Marx had no particular sympathy for religion, but he did not seek to explain it away as a failure of courage or as an error in judgment. Insofar as he does so, Hägglund denies himself the ability to empathize with the billions for whom faith might be the only recourse in a world of savagery—“the heart,” as Marx put it, “of a heartless world.” That insight did not commit Marx to providing a place for religion in the communist utopia to come, but it did allow him to better understand its role in the fallen world we call home.

The world cannot be saved by one book, even one as ambitious as This Life. That would be the most religious claim of all, and one that Hägglund would certainly not endorse. We need many books, like this, speaking to many audiences, if we are to face the crisis of our moment. Hägglund’s is a book for a secular audience, but it is not one that can summon a secular public.

Democratic socialism will run into the ground if it lashes itself as tightly as this to a rigorous secularism. About 80 percent of the world’s population formally subscribes to some form of religious belief, meaning that the concepts and categories that they have at hand to understand political, economic, and climactic affairs are at least inflected by religious categories and institutions. If the transition away from rapacious capitalism must begin with an educational process to reduce that number to zero, we will still be holding seminars on Kierkegaard until the seas overwhelm us.

The task for the present cannot be to convince the world’s population to abandon religion, and then to convince them that secularism entails democratic socialism. The task, now, is to meet people where they are, and to understand the stories and institutions that structure their lives in order to see how the moral arc of their particular universe might be bent toward justice.

To do that, though, we need a vision of justice that is plausible and compelling enough to organize our efforts. Hägglund’s book provides one. After a half century of anti-utopian suspicion, This Life calls us back to a nearly forgotten style of thinking and imagining. In our time of genetic experimentation and climate apocalypse, we are forced to confront anew, and in public, the questions that long seemed safely sequestered in our private lives, and our private hearts: What is it to be human? What do we owe one another? What is to be done? As the waters rise, these questions could not be more urgent. It is impossible to believe that we will all arrive at the same answers. But unless we all start asking them, and with a real commitment to continued life on earth, we are doomed. Hägglund is right that time is our most precious resource. Unlike carbon, though, there is not much left.