Seagulls! On Martin Hägglund's This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

In this review essay, I examine Martin Hägglund's This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, a book that argues on behalf of democratic socialism on the basis of an atheistic confrontation with the fact of our mortality. Hägglund's book includes readings of Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Karl Marx, and Martin Luther King Jr. and is best assessed as a literary and philosophical, rather than historical, study of the relation between mortality and social action. Simply put, Hägglund believes that, from the standpoint of an atheistic confrontation with our mortality, our time itself should be our ultimate measure of value. He furthermore believes that democratic socialism is the political and economic form that most naturally follows from this, allowing us to honor, defend, and enhance one another's mortal time and freedom to make choices—and that, by comparison with atheism, religion offers only the false coin of otherworldly salvation. Although sympathizing with Hägglund's existential and political orientations, I criticize his account of religion, which I find to be historically weak. But I also criticize his approach to the problem of valuation, or the issue of how we make choices in relation to our limited time. Whereas Hägglund believes that mortal creatures like ourselves must make choices in a spirit of commitment—the “secular faith” of his subtitle—I observe that, despite our mortality, we humans make our choices in a variety of psychological states, and that asking us to occupy only one such state—one of zealous resolve—actually undermines our “spiritual freedom,” another one of Hägglund's key terms.