Thursday 20 September 2012

Secular Humanism and Life After Death

Just what is there to say about secular humanism and the afterlife? Humanists don’t believe in any such thing, after all and yet I've been asked to talk about just that at the London Interfaith Centre this November. It might seem as sensible as discussing the Christian view of Mohammad or vegetarian recipes for roast pork. 

But stuck for ideas I ain't after a tweet for help (and a helpful retweet from the BHA) was answered with over 30 thoughtful 160 character gobbets to get me started. There were new ideas and ones I'd thought of, ideas I liked and those I wasn't so sure of. Here, for your reading pleasure, are my thoughts on these tweets.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral

A few people quoted a nice piece from NPR about what a physicist might say to your bereaved. Some also suggested quoting Sagan about how we'll end up in stars. I can certainly see the poetry in this. It's a pretty nice thought that the stuff we're made of will one day undergo a nuclear reaction in the belly of a star or that our matter never really dies; it just takes another form. But I'm not sure this can provide true comfort. After all, the blood in my veins may well one day play its part in the celestial boogie, but so will the atoms in this keyboard and Julius Cesar's dandruff. In fact, this version of "afterlife" is open for us all, regardless of how we live, as if it doesn't matter how we treat people, the risks we take, where we stand on the Mac/ PC debate, none of it. For a humanist who believes that there is such a thing as a good life, this concept of afterlife kinda sucks compared with the wrath/ reward structure found in most religions. What's more, it requires a pretty selective reading of science. Yes we could become stars but then those stars will burn out and spacetime will continue expanding until all is isolated and cold (I suspect this sentence explains why I haven't been invited to speak at any funerals). Also, stars are only cool because we humans say they're cool, they ain't objectively, scientifically so. You just can't have meaning without humans. So selective science provides for some nice poetry, but we're going to have to get more humany...

Humany woomany

Most tweets spoke of the need to focus on the here and now over any hope of afterlife. These were much more in line with my own thinking. Here are a few of the tweets I got;

For me, as an atheist, the "afterlife" is how we are remembered: how we have influenced others and the world around us.

Make the most of this life. Its all the more precious because its brief.

Important to try and make this world better, in this life, because there probably isn't a second chance.

Celebrating the life & using this life to do good?

You could go with the old (but true) cliche that the fear of death is really fear of a life half-lived.

I like 'em all! One thing you'll notice is that unlike Sagan and religion, these human-ier approach offers no immortality. Reproducing won't make you last for ever- your genes get watered down with the generations and your children are individuals, not you reincarnated. Memories can't last forever, either. But is that so bad a thing? I guess firstly, if that's how it is then that's how it is. There's no competition on for who can create the loveliest vision of the world. 

But is eternal life even all that lovely? It's certainly unfathomable. Would I still be the same person without my body? If a big part of my personality is playing golf, how can I still be myself without arms? But I don't really see how it's desirable to simply never expire. It seems that the sensible statement "I don't want to die tomorrow" has been madly extended ad infinitum without too much thought. 

Looking at the world around us all we can guess is- this is it. There are no second chances. Lost opportunities will remain just that; lost. This was the theme in many of Tuesday's tweets and what I would say is the essence of the humanist approach to death. We are born without purpose and die without going anywhere, all that matters is what happens in between. Whom we meet, how we live, what we leave behind. 

This doesn't mean religious ideas of afterlife have no use. Nietzsche made good use of the concept of reincarnation to express neatly his view of life. He invites the reader to imagine being forced to repeat her life over and over for ever. Every mistake, triumph, wasted evening, friendship gained and lover lost. Now, he said, how would you live your life differently knowing this? I'd say that's the acid test for a life well lived. It may only be a metaphor but there is still some use, at least, for the afterlife for a secular humanist. So, as the cool kids say, YOLO.

A million thanks for the tweets! I've still a while to go before this talk, will be sure to write more about it.

1 comment:

  1. Only by laying social foundation stones whilst alive, will you have any sort of life when you are totally and in any sense dead.