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A Humanist Perspective on Death

Andrew Copson's picture

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A harsh reality?


Humanists believe that we only live once and that when we die, that is the end of our personal existence. There is no reason to think that any part of the conscious beings that you and I are will endure after our hearts have stopped and the cells of our brains have ceased to spark.

This truth can seem a harsh one, and many people prefer to hope that they will continue to exist in some form forever, and that their dead friends and relatives likewise are still out there somewhere. But this fact need not be a harsh one, and the non-religious have, in the western tradition of humanist thought, powerful resources to draw upon when they think on such matters.


Be sure then that you have nothing to fear in death. Someone who no longer exists cannot suffer, or differ in any way from someone who has not been born.


Lucretius (c95-55BCE), On the Nature of the Universe



Or nothing to worry about?


Many philosophers have made the point that to worry about death is a fruitless exercise. 'Death is nothing to us', said Epicurus in the third century BCE, 'because all pleasure and suffering consists in sensation but death is the end of sensation' And Seneca, two hundred years later, when asked if he did not fear death, made the point that death was not unknown to him. After life has ended, we are in the same position as before we were born – there was no pain then, no consciousness, so why fear it in the future?

Indeed, Samuel Butler in the nineteenth century said that we could take joy in a life well-lived and take comfort from the fact that our achievements will survive us – for a while at least – and that those we lived with and gave happiness to in life will remember us fondly when we are gone. We can imagine our lives, short as they are, to be stones dropped into the lake – the ripples continue although the stone is gone.


A meaningful life


Bertrand Russell made the point that just because a good book eventually comes to an end doesn't mean it wasn't a good book. And for humanists the conviction that death is the final and irrevocable end to existence is often the spur to live a good life. We can fill our lives with meaning and purpose and make them worth living with all the more intensity because we know that, like all things, we will have a final and irrevocable end. The growing popularity of humanist funerals, with their celebratory focus, perhaps reflects that this belief is becoming more mainstream. As Richard Dawkins observed:


We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.



The problem is not being dead but dying


Often, perhaps, it is not death we fear (nothingness is perhaps an impossible concept to grasp in any case) but the process of dying. But in this area too we can take comfort. Medical science in the West has made such advances that the quality of care we can give the dying may remove much of their pain and suffering. Far more people die comfortably today than at any other time in human history because of the palliative care that medical science has developed.

Just as essential, though more resisted in this country at least, is the growing recognition that we should all have the right to choose medical assistance in the ending of our lives if they have become intolerable. Physician-assisted dying allows people to end their existence in dignity, at least in the more enlightened nations, and we can hope for changes in Britain soon that will extend this right to us.


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Alan Murray's picture

Hi. To get an answer to your

Hi. To get an answer to your question, your best plan is to contact the British Humanist Association at 

Best wishes

Alan Murray

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