Living Without an Afterlife
" Some important part of the story of your life needs to be bigger than you
A few weeks ago I found myself at a funeral where no doctrine of the afterlife was preached. No one assured us that the deceased was with Jesus now, or in a better place, or had moved on to another incarnation. No one promised that we would meet her again someday.
Instead of speculating on her soul and what might have happened to it, the service celebrated the life that she had led, the kind of person she was, and the effect she had on those who knew her.
I came away from that funeral with two impressions: First, that this woman had really lived. And second, that living a human life is a pretty cool thing to be able to do.
In short, that funeral was an inspiring, upbeat event.
That description may sound familiar to you, and by now it has become familiar to me too. But it isn't what I was brought up to expect. One of the first things my mother told me about "unbelievers" was that their funerals are depressing. I don't think she had attended many Humanist funerals, so I imagine she thought it through like this: With no salvation and no Heaven, what could a funeral possibly be other than a bleak confrontation with the fact that death is the pointless end to a pointless life?
It's amazing how widespread this view is among the general public, and even more amazing how compelling it seems to people who have little or no experience of Humanism.
Deathbed conversions. If you were brought up in some traditional religion, maybe you've had this conversation: An elderly friend or relative says, "Those notions are all well and good at your age, but when you get older, and death starts staring you in the face, then you'll come back to the Church."
They're very confident about this, because they know that Humanism can't handle death.
Supporting that view is an entire mythology of deathbed conversions by famous free-thinkers -- Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Thomas Paine, and many others. A few days before Christopher Hitchens' death, an article in The Daily Caller asked Is Christopher Hitchens about to convert?
In case you're wondering: No, he didn't, and as best anyone can tell neither did any of the others I listed. But an interesting circularity keeps such stories going. On the one hand, they are offered as evidence that Humanism can't handle death. And on the other, they are believed because, of course, everyone knows that Humanism can't handle death.
But some anecdotes point the other way. James Boswell wrote this account of David Hume's final illness:
I had a strong curiosity to be satisfied if he persisted in disbelieving a future state even when he had death before his eyes. I was persuaded from what he now said, and from his manner of saying it, that he did persist.
I asked him if it was not possible that there might be a future state. He answered it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn; and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist for ever.
Boswell, a believer, concluded: "I left him with impressions which disturbed me for some time."
But Hume's friend Adam Smith wasn't at all disturbed by the philosopher's peace of mind. He wrote to another friend:
Poor David Hume is dying very fast, but with great cheerfulness and good humour and with more real resignation to the necessary course of things, than any whining Christian ever dyed with pretended resignation to the will of God.
A more recent case is that of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon professor whose Last Lecture in 2007 has been downloaded on YouTube more than 14 million times. "If I don't seem as depressed or morose as you think I ought to be," he says as he describes his terminal cancer, "I'm sorry to disappoint you." He then goes on to give one of the most inspiring talks I've ever heard.
Anecdotes are not science, but Humanist anecdotes are as good as anybody else's. Not having found any objective data on the question of who dies well or which beliefs hold up as death approaches, all I can say is that my own experience does not support the conclusion that a Humanist death is unusually horrible. Elderly or dying Humanists that I know personally do not seem to be softening their positions or returning to traditional religion. Elderly or dying believers do not seem noticeably more serene.
So I am left with a mystery: Where does this notion come from, that Humanism can't handle death? What would it mean to "handle death" in a humanistic way?
Is death a problem? Now, I expect some readers to resist that turn of phrase, because what about death needs "handling" anyway? You just die. Everybody does it sooner or later. Some people do it in their sleep. Infants do it. Dogs and cats do it. Even amoebas manage to die. It's not particularly difficult.
And yet, human beings have never found it that simple. Cultures all over the world, in many different eras, have found death sufficiently troubling that they have postulated some kind of an afterlife. Western society was built largely by and for people with a particular vision of the afterlife.
We live in that society, but we don't share that vision. How do we manage?
Again, I anticipate resistance: "What do you mean manage? I breathe in, I breathe out. I eat at mealtime, sleep at night, and go to work in the morning just like everyone else. Living without an afterlife is like being a fish without a bicycle. It never occurs to me that I should have one, so I don't feel the lack of it. What's the problem?"
But when believers look at us from the outside, they imagine a tremendous lack and a huge problem. Much of their world would come unglued if they lost their belief in Heaven and Hell, and so they imagine that we must live in an unglued world.
How do we manage?
The unspoken questions. The first time my father realized that I wasn't expecting us to meet again in Heaven, he asked: "So you think we just die and that's it, like animals?"
He said "like animals" as if it were obvious to any five-year-old that animals have no souls. I was fascinated by that assumption. But then I thought about who I was talking to. Dad has been a farmer all his life. He has killed, seen killed, or sent to be killed countless chickens, pigs, and cattle. And yet, I don't believe he has ever murdered a human being.
Why is it OK to kill animals but not people? That's an important question for any meat-eating farm culture. My father's Christianity answers by putting a great metaphysical gulf between animals and humans: We have eternal souls and they don't.
There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of issues like that. They aren't the first questions that come to mind when you think about death, but once the conceptual infrastructure of the Christian afterlife is in place -- once you have souls, salvation, Heaven, Hell, Judgment Day, and so on -- people use it to answer all sorts of questions.
And when you challenge the afterlife, all those questions come open again.
So when a believer asks, "What do you think happens when we die?" that spoken question is just one bird in a flock of questions that are unspoken and perhaps even unconscious.
Precision, toughness, and bleakness. Now think about the way many Humanists answer such questions: like scientists. We narrow the scope, get the terms precisely defined, and then answer exactly what was asked.
What happens when we die? Our bodies get buried and they rot.
And while that answer is true as far as it goes, it gives the fluttering flock of unspoken questions nowhere to roost. Our questioner may leave thinking that we have missed his point, or that we are shallow people who deal with life's deepest issues only in the most superficial ways.
Another aspect of the Humanist character adds to this misunderstanding. Many Humanists glory in the image of mental and psychological toughness: We are the people who have the courage to live without comforting fairy tales. We face the cold, hard truth, whatever it turns out to be. As Julian Baggini wrote about atheism in The Guardian in March: Life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.
Bleakness. What a selling point! Where do I sign up?
Hearing this kind of rhetoric, a believer may picture Humanists living a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max kind of life: Everything is bleak, hopeless, and purposeless, but we can take it. Only a special kind of person can live in the rubble of the old worldview, but we're up to it.
No we aren't.
Maybe some Humanists are mentally and psychologically tough, but most of us are not that tough. We don't live in the rubble of the old answers. We cleared that rubble a long time ago and started to rebuild. And if we can't support our new structures by attaching guy-wires to Heaven, that just means we've had to dig our foundations deeper into the Earth.
That's where we need to take the conversation. When believers ask us what happens after death, we need to look past the obvious question and unpack some of the assumptions behind it. Perhaps like this: "While I have no confidence in any particular vision of an afterlife, life confronts me with the same issues you face, and I have found other ways to deal with them."
Answers that don't assume an afterlife. From there the conversation might go in any number of productive directions. Think about all the life-centered questions that traditional religion answers by reference to Heaven and Hell. Yes, those questions come open again when you stop counting on an afterlife. But do Humanists really live without answers to them? Or do we just answer them differently?
Some of these questions are classic and have been answered perfectly well many times over the centuries. For example, I doubt that readers of The New Humanism need me to explain how it is possible for them to be decent people even without the threat of Hell.
But two questions have given me enough personal trouble that I want to pass on how I handled them:
- Without an afterlife, how do you face the loss of loved ones?
- If death is the ultimate end, doesn't that make everything pointless?
Grief. Years ago, a woman I know used to ask my advice before she made financial decisions, in the mistaken belief that she didn't have the right kind of mind for such thinking. Once, when she didn't ask about something I expected her to, I wondered how she figured out what to do. She said that when she thought about asking me, what I would have said just popped into her mind.
In other words: She consulted me. I just didn't have to be there.
One way to interpret this story is that I have a spiritual double who (unbeknownst to me) goes around giving financial counsel. For all I know, that spirit might be immortal, and might go on advising people to pay down their credit-card balances long after I'm dead.
But a more reasonable explanation is that this woman had projected a part of her own intelligence onto me. As she got to know me, she shaped a piece of her own mind to think and talk like me, until eventually she could converse with "me" even when I wasn't around.
I suspect you recognize this phenomenon. Most of us have entire communities of people living inside our heads -- parents, siblings, spouses, children, bosses, teachers, friends, and acquaintances of all sorts. When I try to anticipate what my wife will want to do when she gets home from work, I don't deduce it logically like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, I talk to her in my mind.
That's a major way that we know other people: We shape pieces of ourselves to resemble them. And when they die, an important part of the grieving process is figuring out how far the death goes. When my mother died, I had to wonder whether that Mom-shaped piece of myself was dead also.
It wasn't. Today, when I meet new people or try new things, I can still hear my mother's comments. I expect those conversations to continue for the rest of my life.
Humanists often say the dead live on in our memories, but that's such an inadequate description. We don't just remember people, as if they had been reduced to photo albums and souvenirs of things that happened long ago. We continue to interact. We carry them around in our minds as active presences.
That isn't the same as having them in the room as flesh and blood. But day-to-day, it is not actually that different from believing we can talk to souls that watch us from some etherial realm.
Meaninglessness. Traditional Christianity teaches that meaning comes from God, and that a life cut off from God and the hope of Heaven must be meaningless.
One of the most powerful expressions of this view is a speech that Shakespeare puts in the mouth of MacBeth. At this point in the tragedy, Lady MacBeth is dead, MacBeth's schemes are coming apart, and (given his crimes) he can only hope that he will face no all-seeing judge in the afterlife. So this is how he views the human condition:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
This is what believers hear when you say, "We Humanists are tough. We don't need fairy tales about the afterlife." They think you have steeled yourself to deal with meaninglessness on a MacBeth-like scale.
But is that really what a Humanist life is like?
Death and meaninglessness. This issue first became real to me when I was 16. I was working at my hometown newspaper -- this really dates me -- carrying typewritten pieces of paper from the newsroom to the composing room where the stories were set into metal type.
I used to read as I walked. One stormy day, the story in my hand was about a man who had been killed in his front yard when a branch blew off a tree.
I had never thought about that kind of death. People died left and right on the westerns and cop shows I had grown up watching on TV. But those deaths happened inside plots that made sense. They were heroic or tragic or resulted from foolish decisions. And I had known relatives to die after long illnesses, but those illnesses themselves were a kind of story in which death was a logical conclusion.
But this guy in his yard … He was a total stranger to me, but I was convinced that the blown-down branch was not the climax of any story he thought he was living. He must have been in the middle of a million other things, and then suddenly he wasn't.
Out, out, brief candle!
Here was a guy who literally died in the middle of sound and fury that signified nothing. When the storm came, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Something about that kind of death seemed to threaten the whole meaning of life, and it took me decades to put my finger on what it was.
Meaning and stories. When we talk about meaning, what are we talking about? What kind of answer are people looking for when they ask, "What's it all about?"
I think they're looking for a story. I think they want somebody to frame what's happening to them as something other than just a random sequence of events.
I might ask "What's it all about?" as I battle rush-hour traffic. But if my wife is in labor and I'm rushing her to the hospital, then I don't ask. I know what it's about. This scene is part of an important story, and my actions are turning the plot in a better or worse direction.
When people say they want to "make a difference", that's what they're talking about. They want their actions to move the plot of some important story. They want that story to reach a better conclusion because of what they did.
We live inside stories, sometimes dozens of them simultaneously. And when our stories are working, life is good -- even when life is bad. If you're exhausted and in pain, life is bad. But if you're exhausted and in pain because you just won the Boston Marathon, life is good.
The story creates the meaning.
Sometimes, though, our stories fail us. Sometimes the conclusion you're working towards seems so unlikely that it doesn't inspire you. Sometimes you forget why you even wanted it in the first place. Sometimes you get so alienated from your story that you feel like an impostor in your own life. "Yes, I look like a success, but that isn't really me."
That's when you have a crisis of meaning.
Meaning and the afterlife. The inevitability of death throws a monkey wrench into our stories. Usually our short-term stories get their meaning from the longer-term stories they fit into. Studying at 2 a.m. is meaningful because it's part of the story where I ace tomorrow's test. But the test is only meaningful as part of the longer-term story where I pass the class. And that matters because of the story where I get my degree, and so on.
But what if the longest-term story I can tell is the one where I die? Doesn't that undercut all the others?
Because I might die at any moment, the stories I think I am in the middle of may never conclude in any satisfactory way. And even if my life is not cut off prematurely, then eventually I arrive at decrepitude and senility. What kind of climax is that?
So you see the problem. It's not just that I will die. As I said at the beginning: That's easy; everybody does it. But given that I am going to die, how can I tell the story of my life in a way that engages me and motivates me and gives me a sense of meaning?
One solution is to work an afterlife into our stories. Then death doesn't cut the plot short, because we get a sequel in Heaven. And old age is just a temporary hardship on the way to a glorious eternity.
It's a fabulous plot device. For Humanists, though, it has just one problem: It's too transparent to be believable. Of course I want to believe that I will live forever in bliss, that all my questions will be answered someday, and that my relationships will work out perfectly and then continue forever. Who wouldn't want to believe that? It's a wonderful fantasy.
The problem is that I can't believe it. It's like the story that tomorrow will be a good day because I'm going to win $10 million in the lottery. Good as it sounds, that story doesn't motivate me or give me a sense of meaning (no matter how many times I repeat it to myself), because I just can't believe it.
I think that explains why I'm not seeing a lot of old-age or deathbed conversions among my Humanist friends. Yes, the approach of death makes us want to believe in an afterlife. But wanting was never the obstacle. Believing is the obstacle, and the approach of death doesn't make the afterlife any more believable.
Meaning without an afterlife. So that's where we Humanists are: The afterlife plot device isn't working. What are we going to do?
Personally, I found a solution in a surprising place: The final speech of Martin Luther King, the Mountaintop Speech.
If King's speech doesn't sound very Humanist, that's because it isn't. Dr. King was a Baptist minister. The Mountaintop Speech talks about God, and the whole mountaintop image comes from the story of Moses. But don't let that turn you off. The speech contains the trick that I needed to tell the story of my life in spite of the prospect of my death.
As you read this excerpt, bear in mind that this really is King's last speech. He doesn't know it, but he is going to die the next day. It ends like this:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to ... talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I'm happy, tonight.
I'm not worried about anything.
I'm not fearing any man!
Did you catch the answer? Or were you distracted by the "do God's will" part?
Let me explain what I learn from this passage: If the story I'm living in is purely about me, then my death may cut it off short of its conclusion.
For example, suppose the story that motivates me is that I am going to be a rich celebrity someday. Suppose I strive for years, but I still haven't achieved fame and fortune when the doctor tells me I have three weeks to live. Then what was my story about? How does my life mean anything? It was all a waste.
The mere possibility that my story may turn out that way undercuts the meaning of the whole thing. At any moment, I might find out that it was all for nothing.
Now think about the story Dr. King is telling. I'm sure he also had plenty of personal stories, personal relationships, idiosyncratic tastes, and so on, just like we all do. But in addition to all that, he is living in the story of his people's march to freedom. That is a collective story that did not begin with him and is not cut off by his death. The contributions he makes to that story do not become meaningless just because he dies before the story reaches its conclusion.
I'm not trying to take Dr. King away from the Baptists, and I assume he did believe in an afterlife. That's not the point. The point is: If you can pull off the trick in the Mountaintop Speech, you don't need an afterlife.
If you can become part of a collective story, a story that will continue beyond your death, and if you believe in that story and can find a role in it that gets you out of bed in the morning, then death will not undercut the meaning of your life.
That story doesn't have to be the stuff of history. Anything you care deeply about will do: your family, your community, the progress of science, the healing of our social or physical environment -- anything. And you don't have to be the Nobel-Prize-winning star of the story. All you have to do is contribute. Affect the plot in some positive way, and you can go on telling meaningful stories about your life right up to the moment you die.
Summing up. So that's my message: The next time a non-Humanist asks you what you think happens after death, don't just say, "They bury you and you rot." Think about what he or she is really asking. Think about the here-and-now issues that all people, no matter what they believe, have to address -- issues like morality, justice, anger, guilt, purpose, grief, and meaning. Traditional religion finds its answers in an afterlife, but Humanists answer the same questions in other ways. That's the interesting conversation to have, and it will give your questioner more insight into Humanism than any argument you might make against the existence of Heaven or an eternal soul.
I left most of those questions up to you, but I did say a few things about grief, and about how the prospect of death makes it harder to tell an authentically motivating story about your life.
And finally, I told you how I deal with that difficulty, the trick I picked up from Martin Luther King: Some important part of the story of your life needs to be bigger than you -- not because God demands it and not even because that's how good people live, but because you need to envision yourself as a positive contributor to a story that will not end when you die.
If you can do that, I predicted that your life will stay meaningful right up to the moment of death. And I can predict something else, too: Your funeral will be an upbeat, inspiring event.