I get chastised a lot. Some devout believers, offended by my work on behalf of secularism and humanism, feel an irresistible urge to lecture me about the errors of my ways. One recent critic was an educated Christian man who was aghast at the cover of my book, Nonbeliever Nation, which depicts an atheist couple with their child. Whereas believers like himself will someday enjoy a wonderful afterlife, he chided, the atheist family shown on the cover is heading to “a deep black oblivion.”
Personally, I’ve never been persuaded by the argument that “oblivion” is a terrible fate. Sure, given the choice of living or not—to be or not to be—I’d much prefer the former, but sooner or later we all must come down the homestretch in life, and to many humanists the nonexistence that awaits at the finish line is nothing to be feared. I suspect that nonexistence after death will be much like it was before birth, which I didn’t find at all dissatisfying.
In one sense, however, this new critic has a point. The promise of an afterlife is undoubtedly one of the main selling points of the major religions of the world. Humanism, while grounded in reason and having many other admirable qualities, doesn’t make such grandiose (and unproven) promises. “I am a humanist,” explained author Kurt Vonnegut, who served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association until his death in 2007, “which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishment after I’m dead.”
One might assume that humanism, being unable to promise eternal life, is at a disadvantage in competing with worldviews that do, but this is not so clear. Whereas the major religions have spent centuries clashing over which presents the correct theology to lead souls to paradise—Christianity vs. Islam, Catholic vs. Protestant, etc.—as human progress advances it is becoming increasingly apparent that all such claims are questionable. In the marketplace of ideas, humanism is like the checkout aisle that doesn’t offer candy—it might be less attractive to your inner child, but there are sensible and healthy reasons for choosing it.
Indeed, many troubling questions arise when we seriously consider afterlife claims. For example, how could anyone enjoy eternal salvation knowing that a loved one missed out on it? I try to picture myself in heaven (don’t laugh) enjoying whatever amenities are being offered, yet realizing that someone I knew and loved—a relative or a good friend—has been excluded or, even worse, condemned to eternal damnation. Is bliss possible with such knowledge? Or are our memories whitewashed in some sort of totalitarian way as we enter heaven, so that we don’t think about such loved ones? Either way, not very heavenly.
Theologians tell us that much about the afterlife is supposed to remain a mystery, but one suspects that this is simply a euphemistic way of conceding ignorance. Even when they try to offer explanations, they disagree on the details. Will your pets make it to the afterlife? Yes and no. Will saved individuals have physical bodies? Maybe. Will there be sex in the afterlife? Answers go both ways, but you can hope. (And if not, one must wonder about the point of 72 virgins—good conversation?)
Any way you look at afterlife claims, an almost limitless imagination is required. Evangelist Billy Graham, for example, assures followers that the saved will have perfected and glorious bodies liberated from sickness and death. But if we are perfected in heaven—free of all characteristics that we might consider negative or otherwise undesirable—are we even still ourselves? Without the usual host of very human impulses and imperfections—anxieties, fears, doubt, insecurities, melancholy, and a vast array of neuroses and other human shortcomings—wouldn’t we be unrecognizable? You wouldn’t be you without them.
Perhaps the most eloquent statement describing a humanist view of death comes from Ann Druyan, widow of scientist and author Carl Sagan. Writing in Skeptical Inquirer, she explained:
“Carl faced his death with unflagging courage and never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don't ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief and precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting . . . The way he treated me and the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other and our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don't think I'll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.”
As we see, the oblivion of humanism is no less profound than the most elaborate promises of any theology.
Druyan photo by Bob Lee, Creative Commons License