Today, I turned 60. That's a bit of a hard truth, since various bodily bits are falling apart, but turning 60 definitely beats the alternative.
All the same, it's impossible to hit this age without thinking about life and death. As Jerry Seinfeld will tell ya, all a birthday means is that life is ebbing and death is creeping closer.
Funny guy, that Jerry.
Beyond doubt, one of the great selling points of religion has always been the promise of life after death. Not every religion features it, but the most popular ones do and always have.
So, what's a humanist like me to do? Well-meaning religionists sometimes ask me if I'm not just being stubborn or prideful in my disbelief, and they often invite me to partake in the assurance of faith. I appreciate their care -- I really do -- but here's the hard truth. As a humanist:
* I cannot believe in God or an afterlife,
* I don't fear death,
* And I do have faith.
Those might seem prideful, contradictory, or just confusing claims, so let me unpack them a bit. First, as my friend the physicist Ed Pearlstein points out, belief is not a matter of choice. If someone says "I'll pay you a thousand bucks to believe that there's a live frog in your hand," you might be tempted to lie about it, but you cannot just switch on belief.
So, how do people come to believe in God? For most, it's a matter of inculcation early in life. As children we are primed believe whatever our parents and those in authority around us say. (As teens ... not so much.)
But there are at least two other contributors to belief in God: our instinctive tendency to see agency (personal forces) behind everything and our epistemic hunger -- the desire for an explanation for everything. Like anyone, I'm subject to those, but I find natural explanations vastly more plausible and satisfying.
For example, the idea that a loving God would allow a virus called Zika to spread among his beloved creatures, causing them to have babies with tiny, malformed heads and permanent brain damage outrages me. I could no more believe that than I could believe that Kim Jong Un is a living deity who rules benevolently over North Korea. On the other hand, the scientific explanation that viruses are fragments of self-replicating biological material that evolve with complete indifference to our well-being makes complete sense -- and reinforces the lesson that our well-being is in our own hands.
If there were an all-powerful and benevolent God, it seems obvious to me that he would have created Heaven and nothing else. It's simply cruel, incompetent or both to create fallible creatures, subject them to all kinds of unnecessary suffering, give them unclear instructions, and then consign to eternal torture anyone who fails to pick the right religion or meet its requirements. The alternative explanation -- that religious narratives serve the interests of religion -- make vastly more sense.
This does not mean that life is meaningless, that morals are empty, or that there's no hope for the future. None of those is true. It just means that the dominant narrative of religion -- obey and worship God, and you'll win eternal life -- doesn't hold holy water.
Like most people, I find meaning in life through relationships with others and through making my hopes come true -- as much as I'm able. The older I get the more I want to live a life of virtue -- not because I expect reward or fear punishment after death but because that gets me closer to who I want to be. Morals are essential to good and fulfilling relationships. If you cheat on those you care about, you know that their trust in you is misplaced, and you cannot wholly trust them. If you lie, you are liar. How can that be the basis for a satisfying life?
But what of the Grim Reaper? I don't fear death, because I know it is simply the nonexistence of my self. That doesn't mean, of course, that I have no fear of dying. Put me on the edge of a cliff, and I'll quake like an aspen. If, like Carl Sagan, I learn in my 60th year that I have a fatal disease, I'll be disappointed and sad. But it still won't make me fear death, anymore than I feared it before I was born.
Finally, what of faith? As a humanist, my faith lies in humanity. Listen up, people -- of late you've been testing my faith sorely. But it's still there. Even through these dark days, I know that we've made tremendous progress over the span of history, and that as damaging as we've been to the environment, we're the only species capable of preserving Earth's ecosystem into the deep future.
Of course, that would likely involve the transformation of humanity into something quite different from what we know ourselves to be now. While that naturally arouses fears in us -- the all-absorbing Borg or the ravenous Singularity come to mind -- when we look at resurgence of fascism in Islam, in Russia, in Europe, and in our own back yard, we have to admit that we could do with some improvement.
Faith is a word often appropriated by religion, but its true meaning is both broader and deeper. Faith is about conceding that hardship may lie in one's own future, but that ultimately things will work out for the best. In that sense, at 60, knowing full well that my life will inevitably worsen and end, I have faith in the future. So Jerry is wrong -- there can be such a thing as a happy birthday.