By James Haught
James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back, as he opens in No Qualms (Ed., published on 2018, July 18, i.e., when he was 86), “I’m quite aware that my turn is approaching. The realization hovers in my mind like a frequent companion. My first wife died ten years ago. Dozens, hundreds, of my longtime friends and colleagues likewise came to the end of their journeys. They number so many that I keep a “Gone” list in my computer to help me remember them all. Before long, it will be my turn to join the list.”
[Ed., Thank you, Jim, truly.]
Millionaire evangelist Rick Warren is correct: Having a purpose-driven life gives people meaning and goals. But he’s absurd in claiming that purpose comes from gods and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and messiahs, and the like.
I think the purpose that drives science-minded freethinkers can be summed up in a single word: honesty. It’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that nobody can know. Honest people want evidence, and don’t embrace magical assertions without it. Simply to be honest about beliefs — that’s a powerful motive imparting purpose to skeptics.
Sixty years ago, when I was a gawky young news reporter, my mentor was a tough city editor who was a clone of H.L. Mencken. He sneered at hillbilly preachers in our Appalachian Bible Belt. As a naive wisdom-seeker, I asked him:
“You’re right that all this Bible-thumping is silly — but what’s the truth? Why is the universe here? Why does life exist? Why are we all doomed to die? What’s the meaning of everything? What truthful answer can an honest person give?”
He eyed me squarely and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.”
Bingo. That rang a clear bell in my mind, and it never left me. It showed me how to be honest in the face of bewilderment. An honest person admits inability to comprehend ultimate reality.
Later, as I studied, I learned that this same conclusion was reached by Ancient Greece’s great Epicurus — and by Omar Khayyam in his profound Rubaiyat — and by Jean Paul Sartre and fellow modern existentialists — and by Zorba the Greek, whose questions exposed “the perplexity of mankind” — and by multitudes of other earnest seekers trying to discern what underlies our existence.
The honesty worldview can give you a sense that you are supporting factual reality. It makes you advocate science, democracy and human rights as the best tools to improve humanity. It gives you a personal identity — something worth fighting for.
Honesty makes us realize there’s no trustworthy proof that our minds will continue living after our bodies die. As far as we can tell, each person’s psyche is created by an individual brain — and dies when the brain does. Accepting the coming oblivion requires courage, but it’s the only honest stance. Wishing for immortality is self-deception.
When I foresee the abyss, the blackness of death ahead, it breeds existential gloom — a sense that everything ultimately is meaningless — a bleak awareness that our struggles soon will be forgotten and ignored, like those of past generations. I’m haunted by the bard’s rant:
“All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”Pointless floundering, soon to vanish into the forgotten past. That’s a dismal summation, and it rings true. Yet we nonetheless can develop purpose-driven lives that hold the gloom in abeyance, while we slog onward.
We gain purpose by raising children, working at a satisfying job, sharing our life with a fond spouse or lover, relishing the serene joys of nature, etc. But those pursuits don’t address the ultimate questions that cannot be answered and never go away.
Historian Gleb Tsipursky of Ohio State University says trusting one’s own sense of integrity and belief in the scientific method imparts value.
“We as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose,” he wrote. “We can use science to answer the question: What is the meaning of life for you?”
He cited studies showing that people with strong convictions have better health and more happiness. “Discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective,” he urged.
A wag replied: “My purpose in life is to feed my cat.” Well, simply ignoring the profound questions is a legitimate way to cope — but some of us can’t stop wondering. We know we will never find answers, yet we crave firm beliefs to keep us struggling onward.
The only approach that works for me is to repudiate imaginary spirits and support humanistic reality as the basis of life and society. Battling for secular humanist truths gives you purpose, so you have little time to feel gloom about the approaching end — and no time to wonder whether everything is meaningless in the long run.
Ever since Ancient Greece, the world’s greatest minds have searched for the purpose of it all — to no avail. But each secular humanist can acquire a personal purpose by embracing honesty and the scientific method. We can have purpose-driven lives by opposing self-proclaimed holy men who write books like The Purpose-Driven Life.
Link here at Daylight Atheism.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.