Martin Hägglund’s This Life sees the Swedish secular philosopher set up an imitation religionby Tanjil Rashid / January 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
Two years ago, I received the weirdest commission of my writing career. A wealthy couple wanted to celebrate their newborn baby but, as atheists, they didn’t know how to go about it. The father had been raised Christian, but a christening would have imposed a religion on their child. The mother had been raised Muslim, but goat-sacrifice seemed a bit old fashioned. They were anxious to mark the occasion in a way that was both life-affirming and resolutely secular.
For their baby blessing, I was asked to find readings without references to God or any form of higher power. This ruled out not just Scripture but also much secular literature: canonical poetry on this theme reverberates with sacred echoes. More modern meditations on parenthood did occur to me. But Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad…” was probably unsuitable.
I finally put together an order of service composed of wise, God-free texts. But the parents thought it still lacked a certain something. Eventually, they opted for a Buddhist blessing. Buddhism, they’d heard, was a religion without God. That was tolerable. They had even been recommended a lama, who in return for a donation to his monastery would fly in from Bhutan for the party at Claridge’s. The lama’s English wasn’t great; I was supposed to write his sermon.
The question vexing the couple was, essentially, “why, and how, should an atheist revere life?” The same question animates Swedish secular philosopher Martin Hägglund’s This Life, and its answer, like the couple’s own solution, attempts to fulfil a spiritual need for those not drawn to traditional faith. But just as the couple had to appropriate Buddhist rituals, Hägglund also finds himself creating an imitation religion.
In most atheist polemics reason turns out to involve quite a lot of faith disguised in the clothes of science. Hägglund, by contrast, prefers to raid the closet of religion, dressing up his philosophy in religious garb. He mainly quotes Christian thinkers—Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King, Saints Augustine and Paul, CS Lewis—their writings reinterpreted in the light of what Hägglund calls his “secular faith.” His creed rejects eternal life, embracing instead mortality, or “finitude.” Life’s finitude, “the apprehension that we will die,” makes meaningful the question of what to do with our time on Earth, whereas religion, for Hägglund, encourages indifference to earthly…