Earlier this week, I found myself reading through some eulogies for someone who died suddenly and unexpectedly a few weeks ago. So far as I know the person who died had never expressed faith in God during her life and neither has her family. She was, I believe, a humanist and I’m also guessing that most of her friends would loosely fall into this category as well.
What struck me, though, was the number of references to things for which humanism has no place in its worldview. Eternity was mentioned. So too was “everlasting love.” “Rest in peace” was of course there, as was something about her “being in a better place.”
I don’t think many things illustrate the hollowness of humanism and atheism better than this sort of thing. People who live within humanist assumptions can only do so up to a certain point. At that point – the death of a loved one being the most dramatic point of all – they find that the worldview they hold under ordinary circumstances simply cannot bear the weight of their thoughts and emotions. Suddenly, without really knowing what it is they are saying, they find themselves reverting to overtly Christian language as a release valve for their grief.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if people were actually consistent humanists all the way down to the end, including unto death. Eulogies (if indeed there were any at all) would read something like this:
“Oh well, you’re born you live you die.”
“He was animate dust and now he’s inanimate dust – get over it.”
“I guess he was just an early loser in the cosmic lottery.”
It would also be acknowledged that so-and-so is not now in a better place – unless that is you count annihilation and worm food as a better place than the land of the living.
Of course, there are more consistent humanists out there. The average run-of-the-mill guy or gal who rejects God, tends to do so without too much thought as to the true ramifications of the worldview, and so when someone dies, their inconsistency becomes evident as they seek to cling onto some kind of future hope. But there are more militant humanists out there who would say that talk of a better place, rest or eternity is sheer folly, and would no doubt put this down to some quirk of our evolutionary past which still has a hold on people whereby we have a need to grasp onto some kind of hope. There is of course another and better explanation for this desire for hope.
However, even the more consistent humanists must say something at funerals other than “stuff happens” whilst shrugging their shoulders. What they do is this: rather than pouring their hopes into an eternal future which their worldview categorically denies, they instead pour out all their thoughts and efforts into the memory of the dead person.
Now in one sense there is nothing too wrong with this. We are meant to honor the dead and we should, as much as we can, remember people for good when they are gone. But it occurs to me that a humanist doing this is being no more consistent with their worldview than a humanist who suddenly finds a future full of hope for the dead person.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in one of his better moments, said that a finite point can have no meaning unless it has an infinite reference point. This statement blows my mind. But it does so not merely in relation to the future, or to the present, but also to the past.
With regard to the future, how can I have any meaning if all other things are finite and there is nothing infinite and eternal out there? Without the infinite and the eternal, inscriptions like “You’re born, you live, you die,” or “worm food” are the most appropriate of all wordings on our headstones.
With regard to the present, again how can I have any meaning if all other things are finite and there is nothing infinite and eternal? Where is my basis for living right now? Why bother going to work today? Why bother going to change my little girl’s nappy in a few moments? Why bother making plans now for the future when the future is a corpse? Why bother when there is no ultimate meaning?
But what about the past? If you go to a humanist funeral, far from hearing people admitting that the person being buried or burnt is as non-existent as if they had never even existed, which is considered to be rather impolite, the whole thing will focus on the past and on memories. “I remember the time when he _____________.” “Yes, she was always a great one for doing ______________.” Fill in the blanks.
Yet is this really any more in keeping with the spirit of humanism than those humanists who suddenly find a hopeful future for the dead? What is memory and the past in a world with no infinite reference point?
Let’s turn the question around and ask what memory and the past is with an infinite reference point. Memory shapes us. The past made you what you are. You didn’t arrive at where you are right now without a past and without memories.
For instance, perhaps your memories of your parents are of warmth and love, and that has shaped you to become a warm and loving parent yourself. Perhaps your memories of them are of coldness and harshness, even austerity, and perhaps that has left you with a bitterness that you are now passing on to your own children. Or perhaps that bad experience left you with a determination not to make the same mistakes in your own family. Memory shapes. The past moulds. And all of it matters.
How about that accident you had when you were 10? Did that shape you? In what ways? Did it make you think about your life and death and what is important? What about when you first heard about the holocaust? Were you shocked and horrified? Is it etched on your mind and does it still influence the way you think?
Have you led a life where you have sought to love your neighbor as yourself? Or have you unrepentantly sought to look after number one?
In a world with an infinite reference do any of these things matter? They could hardly matter more. I’m not just talking with reference to your eternal home here either. I’m not just talking about this: “to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness— indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”(Romans 2: 8-10).
No, in a world anchored by an infinite reference point, the past matters because the present and the future matter. You got to where you are through the doorway of the past and you continue to go through doorways of the present to get to the future. You will continue to be shaped, moulded, influenced by all you do, hear, see, taste, touch, read and because you are an immortal creature, made in the image of the God of past, present and future, it all matters.
But a world with no infinite reference point? Does it matter that you lied to your parents when you were 12 years old and have never owned up? Does it matter that you left your wife for another woman and left her to bring up your 3 children on her own? Does it matter that you fell out with a friend 20 years ago and you still can’t think of them without bitterness?
Does it matter that you were the inventor of a cure for some illness that was blighting children in third world countries? Does it matter that you worked for three years in a soup-kitchen for homeless people in New York City? Does it matter that you worked tirelessly to provide a comfortable home for your family? Does any of this matter?
Does it matter what your opinion was on abortion or same-sex marriage or the death penalty or the invasion of Iraq or who would win the Superbowl? Does it matter that you read every single work by every major philosopher by the time you were 30? Does it matter that you can speak 7 different languages fluently? Does it matter that you never did a day’s work in your life? Does it matter that you spent your life working like crazy to pay for a comfortable retirement? Does any of this matter since you could become worm food by the end of next week?
Take away the infinite reference point, take away the eternal, take away the awe-inspiring, mind-unsettling thought that you are an immortal creature, an actor on the great stage of life, destined to live forever, and then tell me how much anything you ever did means. Who cares! Tell me how much meaning you can get from the works of the greatest genius that ever lived in a world that ends in nought, zero, absolute nothing. Again, who cares!
Consistent humanism is an impossibility. Every humanist out there, whether they know it or not, puts their hopes in something that their worldview denies. Those that suddenly hope for a future beyond the grave despite denying that such a hope exists do this in obvious ways. But those who exalt memory and the past, because they admit there is no future beyond the grave, are equally as inconsistent, though the inconsistency may be less obvious. For the past to have any meaning, there must be a meaningful future too. And for the future to have any meaning, there must be an infinite reference point – God – to give it meaning. Without God, neither past, nor present, nor future can have any meaning. And not even all the eulogising in the world can fill this hollowness.