Former NOSHA board member Will Hunn recently read this personal essay at our January 2014 meeting.
It seems particularly appropriate to me for two reasons to have at this point in my life an opportunity to make a statement of what I believe. The first reason is that, at 42, I have entered into what is commonly referred to as “middle age,” and by now should have formed some definite opinions. The second reason—the more important one—relates back to something that happened less than a year ago to a close friend and working associate of many years, an event which has resulted in my taking considerably more time to engage in reflection than I would have normally.
On one particularly beautiful and balmy afternoon, while clearing away an overgrowth of brush from his property, his life was suddenly and quite rudely interrupted by a massive, fatal heart attack.
Now the sudden, unexpected death of one whom you have both valued and admired has a way of arresting your attention like few other events, and is all the more arresting if that person was close to you in years. It now appears to me that it is one of life’s sad paradoxes that to truly appreciate its worth one must witness its cessation.
In the months since my friend’s death I have found myself forced to take a closer look at my philosophy of naturalistic humanism, but this time in a personal rather than an academic context. I can perhaps best clarify the point I wish to make by taking a moment to tell of an earlier time.
Twenty years ago I broke completely with Christianity. During the first few years of my unbelief, my head swam in the heady atmosphere of intellectual freedom, and I spent many hours immersed in the literature of philosophy and free thought. I cut my agnostic eyeteeth on the works of Robert Ingersoll, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and others of less celebrity (or notoriety).
I reveled in the thought of being privy to the ideas of some of the most penetrating minds the human race had produced and of being silently wise to The Grand Illusion of popular religion under which most of humankind still labors. Admittedly, mine was a secret smugness of no mean proportions. But that smugness became tempered with time, not, mind you, because I no longer believed what those skeptical thinkers had said about the absurdities of Christianity and its many negative effects on civilization, not at all. I still believed the bulk of their criticisms to be true.
The problem, rather, had to do with what they hadn't spoken of. They hadn't mentioned the difficulties that some former Christians experience in living without the security of their religion’s psychological support system.
I've heard it said that in life for everything that we take with us there is something that we leave behind. For years, in my enjoyment of one-upmanship on the world’s believers, I’d somehow overlooked the tradeoff. I had gained a new-found and, to be sure, much treasured freedom of thought. What I had left behind was the illusion of immortality, both my own and that of those whom I love. My freedom, I began to realize, had been bought at a great price. Thereafter, whenever a relative or close friend died this realization was driven home with even greater force
It has come to me most recently with the death of my friend Dave Grant, to whom I made reference earlier. Dave’s name was synonymous with excellence among those fortunate enough to have known him. There is in me now a strong wish for his life, and by extension, the lives of all the others I care for to take on a larger significance than that permitted by the naturalistic philosophy which I believe to be true. It can be a difficult philosophy to live by.
The worldview of humanism comes to us as the legacy of a four-centuries-old experiment in applying the scientific method to everything that lies within humankind’s purview. It depicts humans as the product of an evolutionary process leading up to a point where matter actually assumed consciousness, which is another way of saying that we humans are infinitesimally small particles of a universe that has become aware of itself. Though physically we play a role of minor significance when compared with the vast swirling masses of stars and galaxies, we are (as far as we know) unique in the universe by virtue of our having an eye on existence. Observing this gradual ascent of inert matter up to sentient beings prompted one wag to quip that “We are the canny child of a witless mother."
Philosophically, we live in the midst of an enigma, knowing not why we came, nor where we’re going. At night we look out upon a naked, indifferent universe. And though the theologians continue to reassure us in the face of global suffering that we are under their god’s constant, benevolent care, to me, any god who can stand idly by as a seven-year-old gets raped and strangled, or as a 747 jumbo jet full of helpless, screaming passengers plunges in flames into a cold sea, is a god in whose presence I would not care to spend a minute, let alone an eternity.
No, we are on our own; moreover, our life spans are mere snippets of time wedged between two eternities of nonexistence. I view this as an awesome and uncompromising fact; yet, I need not dwell upon it. In fact, I can, if I wish, use it to advantage. For it is the very brevity and uniqueness of our individual lives that lends to them a tragic beauty all their own, one that I submit the believer in immortality can never know. The knowledge that we and our loved ones share a common doom invests our and their lives with a genuine significance. Perhaps there are times when this belief cannot completely satisfy the heart’s hunger, but unlike the one of old, namely, that of our being the children of some fanciful celestial tyrant, our belief is firmly rooted here on Earth and in reality.
In the end, it is the value and love that we have for one another, that will make our lives precious and meaningful, and enable us to stand side by side on our exposed planet, still vulnerable, but with heads unbowed, even as we face an indifferent universe.
~Will Hunn, January 25, 1987