Joel, Jake, Jeb and Cass:
I’m almost 90, and my future is obvious.
The dark at the end of the tunnel is inescapable — simply part of the life-cycle, like birth, puberty and the rest. There’s no point in agonizing over it. All the miracle cures and life-support machines won’t change the outcome.
It would be comforting to tell myself that the end isn’t the end — that I’ll pass into a magical realm of angels or houri nymphs or whatever. This would give me something to look forward to. But I can’t lie to myself. There isn’t a shred of trustworthy evidence to back up the notion of heaven. It’s wishful thinking — self-deception.
I realize that my view is bleak, compared to the happy “victory over death” promise of the churches. You might ask: Why be a spoilsport? Why not take their hopeful outlook, rather than my glum one? My answer: Because theirs is bogus, as far as I can tell. For thousands of years, priests and gurus have been proclaiming lies. You shouldn’t delude yourself, swallowing a hoax to make yourself feel good.
It’s depressing to say, I’m going to die and just end. That’s a dismal prospect. People naturally avoid facing it. But if you’re honest, you have no other choice. Once you reach this grim understanding, it makes you determined to improve life for people here and now. That way, you give meaning to life.
In the ultimate sense, life has no discernible purpose, no grand plan. We are born into an existence that is joyful and painful, dull and exciting, wonderful and horrible, sensible and crazy. People are the thinking animals, and much of civilization proceeds intelligently. There’s a lot of kindness and decency in people — but there’s also madness and stupid self-destruction. Ethnic groups become paranoid and kill each other, shattering their own happiness, wrecking their own communities and families. Wars are the ultimate insanity. The Chinese concept of yin and yang — of good and evil mixed in every person — is fairly accurate.
Since I don’t believe there’s a hell waiting to punish the wicked, or a heaven for the virtuous, our behavior has no cosmic meaning. Right and wrong don’t exist, outside of human values.
But people care. We humans developed moral rules in an attempt to make society workable. The rules change constantly, and vary from place to place. Right and wrong aren’t fixed — they evolve as society changes. Currently, it’s considered “patriotic” for soldiers to kill each other in wars. Someday, it may be considered as horrible as murder. (I hope so.)
Still, although morality changes, we must decide what we feel is right, and work for it, to give our lives a purpose. I think affection and compassion are always right, even though other values fade. The same goes for intellectual honesty: earnest seeking for truth. Humanism — striving to make life better for people — is noble. (I’m a secular humanist, which means improving life without supernatural religion.)
There are many meanings we can give to life. Raising healthy children, combating hunger, making love, curing diseases, playing music, providing safe homes, spreading education, walking in forests, searching for scientific truths, resisting bigotry, thinking honestly — all these are human values worth struggling for.
The part of religion that teaches kindness is beneficial, but the supernatural part is a fantasy. All the claims of a spirit world are old myths or hallucinations of mystics.
So, my fatherly message is that there are no divine rules telling us how to behave — we must build our own personal set of rules. I can’t accept those of religious charlatans, and so I contrived my own, as best I could.
Even though there’s no ultimate meaning, and we’re heading for the grave, we should keep trying to improve life — to suppress violence and disease and hunger, to give fair and equal rights to everyone, and to make a safe world for our kids.
We must make the most of the baffling existence that has been handed to us. Lucy Stone was a crusader who struggled for women’s rights. As she lay dying, her last words were: “Make the world better.” That’s as good a motto as you’ll find.
This column is adapted and updated from a reflection that Haught wrote for his four children in 1995.