The End of Life

Humanists do not believe in any kind of supernaturally inspired end to human existence, or in the possibility of surviving death. But many, along with many religious believers, are becoming concerned about the prospects for humanity in a crowded, over-exploited world with dwindling resources and rising temperatures. They see this as a natural problem, to be solved, if it can be, by human effort, which will probably include changes in behaviour and technological developments.

If humanists find any meaning in death, it will be in reflecting on a life well lived and on transience: as Marcus Aurelius put it in his Meditations (121 – 80 CE), “Nature’s law is that everything changes and passes, so that, in due course, other things may come to exist.”

The main difference between the humanist attitude to death and that of most religious believers is in the absence of belief in life after death. The only way we can possibly live on, humanists believe, is in the achievements and memories and children we may leave behind us – an extra incentive to live a good life. Belief in death’s finality is not necessarily gloomy: “Death is nothing to us: for after our bodies have been dissolved by death they are without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us,” said Epicurus, in “Principal Doctrines”, c.300 BCE, and most humanists agree.

Humanists adopt a similarly rational attitude to life and death issues such as abortion and voluntary euthanasia. Life may be very precious but it is not “sacred” or “God-given” for a humanist and there can be good reasons to end it. Autonomy, the power to make decisions about one’s own life, is very important to humanists, and they do not, for example, believe in causing or prolonging suffering unnecessarily.

Humanists, in their ceremonies, are usually expressing a commitment to another person, as well as a public commitment to humanist beliefs and values.

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