EM Forster, author and humanist
The one inescapable fact about human life is that it ends. Humanists recognise our mortality. They do not engage in wishful thinking about a possible life after death. All the evidence indicates that when the body ceases to function and brain activity stops, conscious experience comes to an end.
The humanist response is that if this is the one life we have, we should make the most of it and live it to the full. But there is also more to be said. When we think about the finite nature of our existence, it’s not surprising that many human beings have felt a strong need to see themselves as part of something larger than themselves. For religious believers this may take the form of a belief in a divine plan or cosmic purpose greater than their individual hopes and aspirations. Whatever their personal sufferings and frustrations, they can feel that they have not lived in vain, and that things are working themselves out. If there is anything equivalent to this for humanists, it has to be rooted in our lived experience.
It is not hard to find examples. There is the obvious importance which people attach to relationships with family and close friends, which locates us in a wider circle of human experience. Think of the deep interest which many people take in their family history. People can be moved to tears when they find out about the lives of their family ancestors, the hardships and the achievements of previous generations. Why does this matter to us? It is because we feel our lives to be connected to theirs. And it is then unsurprising that we invest such hopes in those who will go on living after us. Whether or not we have children of our own, we care about what will happen to future generations, and through them we have a stake in the future which transcends our own mortality.
This need for a sense of continuity which links us to the past and extends into the future is not confined to our immediate close relationships. At many levels, individuals identify with larger communities: local, national, or transnational. We know all too well that this can be dangerous. People’s attachment to a narrow and exclusive nationalism can be immensely destructive. But the pride which some people take in their country’s history is mirrored by the attachments of other people to different histories and traditions. Campaigners for justice or human rights may identify with the struggles of the past. They may see themselves as inheriting the legacy of anti-slavery activists, trade union pioneers, or the suffragettes, carrying the same banner and continuing their work into the future.
Humanism is itself one such community with an ongoing history. When humanists seek to identify a humanist tradition, tracing it back, perhaps, to the thinkers of ancient Greece, they are testifying to this same need for continuity, the need to feel part of an ongoing shared enterprise. Individuals in the past who questioned traditional religious beliefs, or who stood up for rational enquiry or humanist values, sometimes had to exhibit impressive courage and independence. They may have suffered for their beliefs, and we are right to cherish what we have inherited from them. Being part of a humanist community, at a local, national, or international level, strengthens our awareness of the debt that we owe to previous generations, and our commitment to taking it forward into the future.
The need to connect does not stop at the boundaries of the human world. The life which will continue when we have gone is not just human life. We are part of the cycle of the natural world. When people want their ashes to be scattered and their body to be buried in a particular spot, they are not just being fanciful. They know that they will literally become one with nature, that other living things will grow and flourish there, and that they will be part of this continuing life. That is just one example of the significance we understandably attach to the rhythms of nature, the continuing flow of life and death of which we are a part.
Our close relationships with others, our membership of wider communities, and our immersion in the natural world, all connect us to something larger than ourselves: something which was there before us and will continue beyond our own individual lives. This life is the one life we have, but we do not live it in isolation. We make connections, and we are enriched by them.
Question: How important to living a full and flourishing life is the need to feel part of something bigger?
© Humanists UK