Death from a secular humanist's perspective

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A genuine photo of death.

The majority of people believe in an eternal soul. Each individual belief differs on exactly which aspects of their identity they think are contained in their soul, but the general concept is that some essential quality of themselves persists after they die. As someone who doesn't believe in anything supernatural, including the concept of souls or an afterlife, I'm occasionally asked what I think happens when people die. It is generally assumed that people who don't believe in an afterlife have a very bleak view of death, often described as blackness, nothingness, or in similar desolate terms. However, as a secular humanist, I feel my view of death is rather inspiring.

I Would Love Heaven

This afterlife would be boring.

To begin with, I'm not a cynic, and I admit I would certainly be happy in a heavenly afterlife. That being said, I've noticed the illustrations people make of the afterlife are just plain terrible. Depictions designed for children usually show a boring world in the clouds where everyone is somber and angels lay about plucking harps. But, when you see depictions of the afterlife designed for adults, especially those in popular Renaissance paintings, it looks far worse! Everyone is painted with a countenance of despair as they sit in the world's most boring church service forever.

But this afterlife would be horrifying!

In my 20s, I accepted the common criticism: perfection is boring. If nothing bad ever happens, how can you appreciate it when something good happens? If there isn't any risk, how can there be reward? While this view seemed logical to me at the time, I no longer accept it.

When I discuss the concept of an afterlife with people, I don't get the impression they think it will be like the paintings, but rather the way life is now, only with more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff. For example, if a person loved to build things when they were alive, they can still build a house in their afterlife, and they would still have to overcome the various obstacles involved in the process, so they would still take pride in a job well done. The only difference would be they would never have to worry about developing brain cancer during the process. This is an afterlife which is just as "perfect" as it needs to be so that each person enjoys it.

I would love for such an afterlife to be real, however, the realist in me is always points out how, no matter how comforting a belief is, no amount of wishful thinking will make it true, and all the evidence I have seen so far tells me that it is not.

Death Is Real

Although neurologists haven't yet solved the problem of consciousness, all the evidence points to our brains being the source of our minds. This means, when our bodies stop working, and our brains shut down, our mind and our consciousness will go with them. What will this be like? Probably how it was before you were conceived. 200 years ago, the world was here, people were living on it, but none of us existed. One day I came into existence, so it's not too difficult for me to accept that, one day, I will leave existence.

There is a Latin phrase memento mori, which means, "remember that you will die." It isn't just good advice, it's an absolute fact. Many people view permanent death as terribly depressing, yet I find it highly motivating. If we really only have this one life to live, it becomes extremely important to take advantage of the time we have. This prods me into doing all the things that I want to do with my life while I'm still able. It reminds me not to waste any more time wallowing in self-pity since I can't change the past, but I can work for a better tomorrow. And it's not just about living for today; knowing that the world will continue after I'm gone means I also have to plan ahead for when I leave. I have to tell my family I love them, today. I have to teach my children to be self-sufficient, today. I have to make the world a better place for everyone, today.

After Life Not Afterlife

Although I don't believe in an afterlife, it's still fair to say we persist after life. What I mean by this is, even after we die, we have a legacy that continues. A common way of stating this is, even after we die, we remain in the hearts of our loved ones, but science has shown that it's much deeper than we previously thought.

Carl Sagan's famous star-stuff quote.

Memories are created by pathways in our brains being physically formed to accommodate them, and the more we think about something, the deeper these pathways are ingrained in our brains. This means, the sound of your grandmother's voice, that tune your father was always humming, all the memories from your deceased loved ones have actually left a physical mark on your body that remains with you long after they're gone. And, one day when you're gone, your mark will remain on the thousands of people who remember you.

A different mark is left on mothers. When your child was growing inside of you, some of the stem cells separated from the developing fetus and spread throughout your body in a process called microchimerism. These cells took up residence outside of your uterus and began to mature. Even after your child was born, their cells remain and grow for the rest of your life. Any mother who has ever lost a child can take solace in the fact that a part of their child is literally still alive inside of her.

Also, the atoms that make up our bodies don't disappear when we die. Our molecules persist, essentially forever. After our tissue breaks down the constituent molecules are absorbed back into the earth, and are incorporated into new things. This never ending cycle of atoms means that everything you are was once part of other things, like rocks, trees, birds, and even other people. And, when you die, the atoms in your body will go on to become the building blocks for a new generation of rocks, trees, birds, and people. Everything in the universe is connected in an unbroken chain. A portion of the food you eat, the water you drink, and even the air you breathe was once a part of another human being.

Putting science aside for a moment, having a secular humanist's view of death also allows people to appreciate art, prose, and music which uses death as a theme even when it doesn't have supernatural overtones. I especially love the hilarity of Eric Idle's Always Look On the Bright Side of Life and the introspection of Frank Turner's One Foot Before the Other.

The Final Curtain

I have no desire to die, and I still get sad at funerals knowing I'll never be able to see my loved one again. However, I take solace in the fact that nothing important between us was left unsaid. It is my secular humanist approach which reminds me to live a full life and to face death with dignity, contentment, and good humor.



What should we think about death.

See Also