Sunday, May 06, 2012

A Humanist Approach to Death

[a talk presented to the Concord Area Humanists on May 2, 2012]


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 about where she is now, 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.

Now, that description may sound familiar to you, and in fact 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 dark, dismal affairs. I don’t think she had attended many Humanist funerals, so I imagine that she came to this knowledge by deduction: If there is no Heaven, no salvation, no afterlife, then how can a funeral be anything but a bleak confrontation with the fact that death is the pointless end to a pointless human 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 are a Humanist who was brought up to believe in an afterlife, chances are at some point in your young adulthood you had this conversation: An elderly friend or relative says to you, “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 or skeptics -- 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 we 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 believable because, of course, everyone knows that Humanism can’t handle death.

Sometimes, though, the anecdotal evidence goes 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 didn't find Hume’s peace of mind disturbing in the least. He wrote to another friend:

[p]oor 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 like this are not science. But until I see some 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 idea 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 about their fate.

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?

Living without an afterlife. Now, I anticipate some of you resisting 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, for some reason, human beings have never found it that simple. Cultures all over the world, in many different eras of history, have postulated some kind of an afterlife. The society we are living in was built largely by and for people who believed in a particular vision of the afterlife. 

We live in that society, but we don’t share its traditional view of what happens after death. How do we manage?

If you have been living as a Humanist for decades, and especially if you were raised as a Humanist, you may still have trouble grasping the question. “What do you mean manage?” You breathe in, you breathe out. You 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 you that you should have one, so you 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. Let me give a simple example. 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?”

Like animals. I was fascinated by that, as if the soullessness of animals was a fact observable by any five-year-old.

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.

That’s one of the fundamental questions any meat-eating farm culture has to answer: Why is it OK to kill animals but not people? 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 that vision of the afterlife, all those other 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.

Now think about how Humanists answer questions. Humanism is heavily influenced by science, and so we tend to answer questions the way scientists do: We narrow them down, get the terms defined very precisely, 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 leaves our questioner thinking that we have somehow missed the point, or that we are shallow people who deal with life’s deepest issues only in the most superficial ways.

Toughness and bleakness. 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 any fairy tales. We face the cold, hard truth, whatever it turns out to be. As Julian Baggini wrote about atheism in The Guardian a couple months ago: “Life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that.”

Bleakness. That’s 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 we’re 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: “I have no confidence in any particular vision of an afterlife. But 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?

Here are some of the most important issues that open up when a believer starts doubting the afterlife.

  • Morality. Without the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell, why be good?
  • Justice. In this life, people often do not get what they deserve. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. If that injustice is not balanced in the afterlife, how do you make peace with it?
  • Anger. If the people who wrong you are not going to be punished by God after death, how do you let go of your desire for revenge? 
  • Guilt. If you are not going to be punished after death, and if you have no second chance to make up for the ways you have failed people who are now dead, how do you forgive yourself?
  • Purpose. Heaven provides a goal that orients the believer’s life. Without that, don’t you just flounder around?
  • Grief. If you are never going to see your loved ones again after they die, how do you come to terms with losing them?
  • Meaning. If death is the ultimate end, what’s the point?

If I were talking to a non-Humanist audience, I might feel obligated to start at the beginning of that list and work my way to the end, because some people genuinely doubt that these questions have answers.

I don’t think that’s necessary here, and it would even be a little insulting to explain to you how it is possible for a Humanist to be moral. You might find it interesting to have discussions among yourselves about how you answer these questions. But I doubt you need a lecture.

I will say a few words about grief and meaning, though, because I’ve had some trouble with them myself, and a lot of the usual answers didn’t help me very much. So I think that as a community we need to do more work on these questions, and I’d like to give that work a nudge in what seems to me to be the right direction.

Grief. Let me start my discussion of grief by telling a story: Years ago I knew a woman who thought that I understood money much better than she did. So whenever she had a financial decision to make, she’d ask my advice.

But one time she didn’t ask when I expected her to. So I wondered how she figured out what to do. She said that when she thought about asking me, what I would say just popped into her mind. So she did that.

Now, one way to interpret this story is that I have a spiritual double who (unbeknownst to me) goes around giving financial advice to my friends. For all I know, that spirit might be immortal, and might go on talking about interest rates and credit card payments long after I’m dead.

But a more reasonable explanation is that my friend 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 there.

I suspect most of you recognize this phenomenon. Most of us have entire communities of people living in our heads -- parents, siblings, spouses, children, bosses, teachers, friends, and acquaintances of all sorts. When I wonder 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. 

These internal voices keep talking even after death. For example, I know what my mother would think of friends I didn’t meet until after she died -- because her voice in my head continues to comment on them. 

That's a major way that we know other people: We shape pieces of ourselves to resemble them. And when they die, there is a period of confusion, where we don’t really know how far the death goes. Maybe that piece of myself is dead also.

Sorting that out is a big part of the grieving process. My mother is dead, but the piece of me that I shaped to resemble her is still alive. Her voice is in my head and I can continue to consult it for the rest of my life. Those conversations do not depend on her soul continuing to live in Heaven.

Humanists often say the dead live on in our memories, but that’s such an inadequate description of the reality. 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 they 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 all the things that he has done, he can only hope that there is no afterlife, because if there is, he must surely face some terrible punishment. 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,

Signifying nothing.

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 of meaning first became real to me when I was about 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. I grew up watching westerns and cop shows on TV. People died left and right on those shows, but they died inside plots that made sense. Their deaths were heroic or tragic or the result of their own foolishness. 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 -- I had never heard of him before, but I was convinced that this branch blowing down 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.

“What’s it all about?” I might ask as I battle traffic on the MassPike. But if I’m battling traffic because my wife is in labor and I’m trying to get her to the hospital, then I don’t ask what it’s all about. 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.

That’s meaning.

When people say they want to “make a difference”, that’s what they mean. 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.

But sometimes 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. 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?

The fact that I might die at any moment means that 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?

The afterlife is clearly an attempt to solve this problem. If there’s an afterlife, then our stories don’t just cut off. We get to finish them 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 all 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.

By the way, I think that’s 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. Everybody already wants to believe that story. The problem is that it’s not believable, and the approach of death doesn’t make it 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.

Now, this doesn’t read like a Humanist speech at all, because it isn’t. 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 I read this excerpt I want you to 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 hear it?

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 rich and famous. Suppose I work for years at that, but I’m not rich and famous yet when the doctor tells me I have three weeks to live. Then what was my story all 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. 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 some non-Humanist asks you what you think happens after death, don’t just say, “They bury you and you rot.” Think about what he’s 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 answers those questions by imagining an afterlife, but Humanists answer the same questions in other ways. 

That’s the interesting conversation to have, and it will give your questioner some insight into what Humanism really is.

I left most of those questions up to you, but I did say a few things about dealing with 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 be part of 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.