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Humanism & The Afterlife

Metaphysics of Humanist Philosophy


Belief in an afterlife has been an important feature of many, albeit not all, religions in human history. There are many possible reasons for why such a belief might have developed, all hotly debated by scholars in different fields. What is not debated very much, however, is the fact that such a belief is certainly attractive — after all, who wants to die? The promise of being able to live on even after one's physical demise certainly has advantages.

Nevertheless, it is a belief generally rejected by humanists. Although humanism does not inherently contradict belief in an afterlife, rejection of such a belief does tend to follow from some important humanist principles. For one thing, as with the existence of souls, science not only fails to provide support for the continuation of life after death, but in fact provides very strong reasons to discount such a possibility. As the Second Humanist Manifesto states:

    "There is no credible evidence that life survives the death of the body. We continue to exist in our progeny and in the way that our lives have influenced others in our culture."

In the Humanist Manifesto 2000 we can read:

    "...naturalists maintain that there is insufficient scientific evidence for spiritual interpretations of reality and the postulation of occult causes. Classical transcendentalist doctrines no doubt expressed the passionate existential yearnings of human beings wishing to overcome death. The scientific theory of evolution, however, provides a more parsimonious account of human origins and is based upon evidence drawn from a wide range of sciences."

Humanists, being naturalists and inclined to accept the findings of scientific investigation, are unlikely to adopt a belief such as this. Perhaps more important, however, is the philosophical issue: humanism is a philosophy about enhancing the possibilities of human life here and now, regardless of the existence of any life after physical death. A focus on our own morality is important for humanism because it forces us to focus on our lives here and now rather than rely on everything being made okay after we die. As Corliss Lamont wrote in The Philosophy of Humanism:

    "If men realize that their careers are limited to this world, that this earthly existence is all that they will ever have, then they are already more than half-way on the path toward becoming functioning Humanists, no matter what their general attitude toward the universe and no matter what they think about a Deity."

The reason why a rejection of immortality is so important is that, for humanism, human problems in the here and now must be solved by human efforts in the here and now. There is no prospect for human problems to be solved or even simply "made okay" after we die in a cosmic system where good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. Justice, if it exists, must be created by us; belief in immortality, however, allows for the belief in delayed justice should we fail — or not try very hard. As we find in the Second Humanist Manifesto:

    "Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now."

A humanist might accept the possibility of some sort of afterlife because, to be fair, we humans don't know everything yet. At the same time, it would be necessary to acknowledge that there is no evidence for it, that there is strong evidence against it, that its existence is therefore rather unlikely, and at any rate it just isn't relevant to the much more important issues that face us today in the world we know exists. That, in a nutshell, is the humanist perspective on an afterlife.

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