Death, Meaning, And Awe in The Realm of secular Humanism and Atheism
How do you Identify
Categories of Spiritual Belief
The following terms should be examined before moving on to further discussion. What follows are the major metaphysical classifications that most people adhere to. Note these are not mutually exclusive and overlap can exist in these rudimentary demarcations. They include;
Theism-The metaphysical view of God as personal, present, and active in the governance of the Universe. Usually involves a sacred text regarded as revealed, specific doctrines, and often an organized hierarchy. (Examples; Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jains)
Deism-Belief in the workings of the universe as evidence for a supernatural first cause, but rejection of any revelation, authority, or intervention in the world by this first cause. (Examples; Enlightenment thinkers-Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, Voltaire)
Pantheism-The Universe or nature and it’s workings as a euphemistic god. Rejects personal or anthropomorphic god. (Examples; Spinoza, Einstein, Hawking)
Atheism-Rejection of the existence of deities based on lack of empirical evidence or historical analysis of religious origins and comparative mythologies. (Examples; Hitchens, Russell, Nietzsche)
These orientations often dictate a person's stance on the pragmatics of governance, their social propensities, and behavioral inclinations. These practical extrapolations from metaphysical alignment are manifested in categories such as these;
Secularism-View that political decisions should be uninfluenced by religious opinion and that “a wall of separation” (Jefferson, 1802) should separate government institutions from religious institutions.
Humanism-Ethical perspective which values human beings collectively and individually and thought and evidence over dogma.
Materialism-View that all of existence is contained within the measurable totality of matter and energy. The states of matter and energy constitute the whole of reality.
Implications drawn by The Atheist
I wouldn't profess to be able to speak for all atheists, but there are general issues on which they tend to agree.
The Mind-Body Problem;
A question in Metaphysical Philosophy addressing the connection between the mind and matter (namely the biological brain and the mind we associate with consciousness and a soul)
Two Dichotomic Answers are classically proposed. One is Cartesian Dualism (Rene Descartes 17th Century France). This holds that the mind and body are not identical and at least some of consciousness mental phenomenology is not merely a physical manifestation.
Other is Material Monism (Pre-Socratic 5th Century B.C.E. Athens). This contends that all mental processes and spiritual epistemology is reducible to physical processes. Monism implies that consciousness is a product of complex Neurology and that there is nothing akin to an eternal soul that survives the cessation of Human Physiology. What we perceive as self or as a soul is a projection of our physical minds.
Atheist, often materialists, tend to agree with this latter epistemology model.
Life After Death;
It follows naturally then that the answer to the question, "What happens after death?," for a materialist is, "nothing; complete lack of consciousness, you won’t even know it happened, and everything will be as it was before you were born."
While nothing in science is 100%, science does lend some evidence to support this viewpoint.
Firstly I should note there is no positive evidence for an afterlife of any kind.
But to be fair Carl Sagan famously said, "Absence of evidence is not evidence for absence." This said,there is positive evidence that at least implies Monism Firstly, when we look to evolutionary common descent the difficulty inherent in making a division between soulless animals and human beings proves problematic for any view point on then physical monism. Did Neanderthals, Australopithecus, and other Hominid cousins have souls? If you discard the extraneous construct of a soul then this problem clears itself up nicely. Secondly we know from studies involving Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI's) that damaging certain parts of the brain can change everything about an individual’s personality, emotional and cognitive functioning. This implies That what we see occurring piecemeal as parts of the brain shut down or are irrevocably damaged should also logically apply to the brain as a whole. If partial cessation in brain activity results in a particular cessation of some area of consciousness then total cessation would lead to complete cessation of consciousness rather than the expectation that an intact soul will float off into the ether at death.
Finding Meaning without Religion
Given This you might be tempted to ask, "How does one find meaning in these beliefs." I would answer that without any prescribed meaning dictated by dogma we are free to find our own meaning. And that we still have availability to plasticity of mind, Aesthetic sensibilities, moments of Ecstasy and Awe, self-transcending love, just without the superstitious baggage.
Or you may be find yourself struggling to find a bedrock upon which to erect a sense of morality. Isn't good needed for a basis of right and wrong? No, thousands of species of animals show group solidarity, altruism, even empathy. These traits within a group have survival advantages and morality is an evolutionary by-product of this advantage. What's more, when we read the bible or some other holy revelation, we distinguish the value good fro the bad. We distinguish the moral wisdom found in the sermon on the mount from the barbarism of stoning non-virgins on their wedding nights. We are fully equipped with moral intuitions that obviously do not arise from revelation.
Religions have been universal throughout human culture and this is probably a result of our propensity for pattern seeking, our unique ability to reflect on our own mortality within the animal kingdom, opportunities for social cohesion, and attempts to control a frightening and random world through ritual and propitiation. Current religions and discarded religions (Mythologies) almost universally assert that life as we know it on Earth is merely an anteroom to an eternal, Utopian existence. This is in it’s way a denial of death and because death produces excessive Existential anxiety, the promises of religion are seen as wishful thinking on the part of Theists by Atheists and Materialists to ameliorate this anxiety. Atheists reject this and accept a true “nothingness” as described by Sartre upon death. The realization that this life may very well be all that there is, liberates you to live life fully and freely and drives you to actively pursue a healthy state of wellness.
Secular Memorial Services;
Celebrating the life and memory left behind after a death is an important exercise no matter what you believe. As such memorial services are as important to Atheist as they are to Theists with only a few small differences. Firstly secular services are often free, though not necessarily, of readings from holy texts. The usually organized and presided over by the friends and family of the deceased with little structure. Anecdotes, Eulogies, favorite music and poetry are shared during the service. The remains are tended to (in developed nations) by a funeral home and may be buried or cremated, buried or scattered, with or without a marker. Reflection over the works done, the people who will most remember the deceased, and the memories left behind take the place of prayer and thoughts of better places.
The Results of Belief
Unfortunately, belief and disbelief aren't equally innocuous. Certain beliefs do cause real harm to society. Two such examples are The Theory of Evolution, Euthanasia, and Stem-Cell research. Some point to consider regarding these topics are;
What’s factual and demonstrable is important to Materialists and Scientists. As such the fact of Evolution and it's inclusion in science classrooms as the underlying tenet of Biology is essential and yet controversial to some theists. A hypothesis of why religious zealots reject the best tested theory in Science Is that if the bible is wrong about where we came from, it might very well be wrong about where we are going. The Theory of Evolution, at least to literal readers, disproves all of Genesis as well as parts of the collective Pentitude.
The Euthanasia debate seems to hinge on a religious tenet that all life is precious at all times (particularly human life) and that god will end a life according to his own plan. This is a clear impingement on secularism which demands a reasoned argument in such a nuanced issue without the assumption of god or any other religious dogma. A secular humanist prizes the autonomy of the individual to control how they live and die, a humane ending of undue suffering, and quality of life over the unquestioned extension of life. Atheists primarily reject the notion of god or a plan, and instead of abdicating tough questions to dogma, require a moral examination of policy and a codification of rules/laws that both remediate suffering and protect against caprice and abuses.
The most promising field in medical research to potentially ameliorate human suffering. Is not funded on a federal level purely because of religious dogma that life begins at conception and a blastocyst has a soul. A few Scientific points about this contention:
- A 4 day old blastocyst is comprised of about 150 cells.
- There are 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly.
- At about 4-5 days a blastocyst can hatch into two embryos.
- Conversely, two embryos can merge back into a single embryo which can survive to term on occasion, this is called a embryonic chimera.
So given these facts should the “rights“ of undifferentiated clumps of cells trump the real suffering of people with genetic defects, quadriplegia, or full body burns? And further is attributing a soul to a blastocyst reasonable? If so where do the extra souls come from on when a blastocyst splits and where does the extra soul go when two blastocysts merge into a Chimera?
To anticipate comments regarding the destructive beliefs of Atheistic regimes in the 20th century, even if I grant that Atheism led to pogroms (and with some Nihilists perhaps it did) this is a non sequitur in regards to the veracity of claims about the human condition and the universe collectively.