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Long Shadows of Evening

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(reflections for my four children - updated 2020)

Joel, Jake, Jeb and Cass:

I'm 88 and my future is obvious: decline, disease and death. I'll "grab the gusto" as long as I can -- maybe another decade, if I'm as lucky as Bertrand Russell, or maybe just briefly -- but, either way, the outcome is certain.

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. Just accept 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? Answer: Because theirs is bogus, as far as I can tell. For thousands of years, priests and gurus have been proclaiming lies, I think. You shouldn't delude yourself, swallowing a hoax to make yourself feel good. I try to look at reality factually like a scientist.

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. At the individual level, America has 25,000 murders, 100,000 rapes and 1 million brutal assaults annually -- wanton, banal violence. About 2,000 raging American men kill their wives or girlfriends every year, then often kill themselves. Nobody gains from this senseless mayhem. It's just the grotesque side of life. 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. If Dixie Klansmen lynch a black person from a tree limb, the tree doesn't care. Neither do the squirrels, nor the hills, nor the deer, nor the river, nor the planets and stars.

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. There was a time when "righteous" people stoned adulteresses to death -- and still do in some Muslim lands. There was a time when the Inquisition burned "heretics" who doubted holy dogma. Even today, in some places, you may be beheaded if you "blaspheme" the Koran or the Prophet.

When I was young, homosexuals were thrown in prison for "sodomy." You could be jailed for looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or the sex scenes in one of today's R-rated movies. You could be jailed for buying a lottery ticket or a cocktail. Unmarried couples who slept together were jailed for "fornication." It would have been a scandal for a woman to wear a bikini. In some states, birth control was a crime. Books that mentioned sex were seized by police. (I'm not making this up -- that's what was "right" when I was a boy in the 1930s and '40s.) Also, it was against the law for African Americans to enter "white" schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks, pools, beaches, etc. -- and not too long before my birth, it was perfectly legal for wealthy whites to own blacks as slaves, kept like livestock. Many clergymen wrote treatises saying the Bible sanctioned slavery.

Today, all those values have vanished, and seem medieval. You can see that 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, I think. All the claims of a spirit world are old myths or hallucinations of mystics.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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