Archive for January, 2014

On death (recycled)


This is a repost of a comment I made back in September 2012 over at Dale McGowan’s excellent blog, The Meming of Life. It was in response to his request for thoughts about how atheists deal with death. I repost it here because I’m very proud of it and want to share it with you, but also because it’s a good lead-in to another thought, which I’ll post in a few days. I start this post with the question Dale posed. It was part of his research for the book that is now out, Atheism for Dummies. I encourage you to go to his blog and read the other responses – there were several thought-provoking contributions.

Q: What ideas or ways of thinking about death have been interesting, thought-provoking, intriguing, helpful, and/or comforting to you?

My answer:

For me, there are just a few very important things:

1. Not thinking about it. Is that shallow? Not really: my live is lived entirely when I am alive, so I should be working on living well rather than worrying about death.

2. Avoid death. Is that cowardly? Not really: I try to cultivate healthy habits, and avoid unhealthy ones, so that I can live as long and as fully as possible. (I agree with you, Dale – in general I’m against death.)

3. Think cosmically. Is that cerebral? I don’t care. Does the idea of *only* a hundred years getting you down? Quarks and other tiny particles bubble in and out of existence in the tiniest fraction of a millisecond. Wonder what will be left of you in a million years? All the hydrogen in your body has been hydrogen for the entire 13+ billion year history of the universe, and will be until it is fused into more complex and interesting elements in the hearts of some ages-distant future star. The little points of light you see in the sky have been travelling to your eyes for hundreds or millions of years, only to be absorbed by the rods in your eyes, ending as ephemeral impressions in your visual cortex.

4. Suffer. Is that cold? Well, perhaps. But it doesn’t hurt much to hurt a little at the thought of death. I don’t know if it’s good for you to feel that pain, but at least it doesn’t kill you. Think of it this way: being afraid of death is, at least in part, simply the flip side of being in love with life. And that’s a tradeoff I’ll take any day (until I can find a better deal).

Something deeper


Today’s Calgary Herald has an interesting piece on declining church attendance.

I’m going to leave aside the opening bit, which identifies “six-month-old Angus Smith” as “a devout churchgoer”. I understand the desire to pursue the human interest side of the story. I think it is inappropriate to describe an infant as “devout”, but it’s not something I’m inclined to fuss about just now.

What I’m more interested in here is the article’s suggestion that church attendance may be the cure for today’s spiritual ennui. One Catholic bishop in Calgary, Frederick Henry, says “We’re finding out no matter how many toys and playthings you have … there’s a restlessness for something more and deeper, and I think there’s a bit of a turn to religion to try and develop a spirituality.”

Now, I don’t know about general historical trends. My experience, within my family and among my peers, is that the people around me have always been interested in keeping grounded in the deeper, important things in life. Things such as fostering community and being true to oneself. In my experience, there has always been interest in that “something deeper”.

What the article neglects is that “something deeper” doesn’t have to be “something religious”.

Humanism is a way of focussing on the important things in life without also subscribing to all the beliefs and traditions of religion – beliefs and traditions that many of us cannot honestly accept and certainly don’t identify with.

I agree with Bishop Henry that toys and playthings do not suffice for deep happiness. Oh, I enjoy my toys. The laptop that I’m writing this on, the smartphone that I use for podcast listening on my commute, the Lego toys that my kids and I enjoy playing with – these do enrich my life in various ways. But deeper and more important is connections with people. Sometimes these toys help me make these connections – as in (responsible) use of social media. Sometimes I let the toys get in the way – I tend to get stuck in computer games when there are people I could be visiting with. (I should also point out that it’s within a framework of humanist values that I fight such tendencies in myself.) I’m delighted that so many people can affirm their social values within their chosen religious tradition. I am also delighted that people who cannot accept those religious traditions also have a way to fulfil this very human need.

The Christmas break has been a good reminder for me – a break from routine that is filled with gift-giving and the chance to reconnect with family members that I don’t see most of the year. The gift-giving is an interesting one. When I was young, I was most focussed on getting. It was fun to get new toys. But over the years, I have learned the joy of giving. Now, the most exciting part is thinking of what gifts I can give that will most delight my loved ones. Usually, this has nothing to do with how much money I spend on them. My favorite gift to give this year was a customized version of the Phylo trading card game – a gift that, itself, will encourage socializing.

The growth of humanist and other secular social organizations is beginning to offer a viable alternative to churches. I know that many people – especially but not exclusively younger folks – are looking for a way to connect with people to explore the deeper things in life, and yet do not feel that religious beliefs resonate with them.

And while religious groups are, currently, better at organizing the social side of things, non-religious groups are catching up at a delightful pace. There are two families we have become particularly close to in recent years – one while we lived in Boston and one more recently in Edmonton. We met the family in Boston at a Unitarian church. While this is (obviously) a church, it is philosophically closer to humanism than to traditional religion. The other family we met through a humanist meetup group here in Alberta.

We don’t currently attend regular humanist meetings, but we have the resources at our fingertips to reach out when we want to find like-minded people interested in the same self-examination and reflection, interested in focussing on what really matters. Odds are, you do to: have a look around. Join a Meetup group (or start your own). Participate in online communities. Visit a Unitarian Universalist church if you have one nearby, and chat with people after the service.

I should note that we have also made friends with Christian families, Muslim families, and individuals whose religious affiliation we have simply never bothered to ask. Ultimately, most people are interested in being good people, and I would hate to limit my social circle to only people who are philosophically similar to me. What a terrible example that would set for my kids in an age where global cooperation and fraternity are the keys to a peaceful, productive future.

Anyway, I thought I’d put that out there. If you are non-religious and seeking a community that will help you explore what is important to you, you have options.

If you are religious and seeking a community … well, you’ve always had options, but you too are welcome at most humanist and non-religious social groups, if you would like to try something different.

And of course, religious or not, odds are you know people who are not religious. If you are able and willing to be open about your beliefs, you might be surprised at who around you is non-religious.