The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Beyond the Abyss

Thursday, 8 September 2011

 

Posted by our religious correspondent Richard Rawlinson

 

The North Texas Church of Freethought, according to its website [http://www.churchoffreethought.org], offers “atheists, agnostics, humanists, and freethinkers all the educational, inspirational, and social and emotional benefits of traditional faith-based churches”. 

A group of non-believers who acknowledge how many aspects of religion continue to attract, their interest is in what they hold to be the human imagination which dreamt up gods and creeds. They recognise that religion embraces architecture, art, nature, marriage, death, ritual, time – and that by getting rid of God, one is dispensing with notions that have held societies together.

This secularised version of Christianity is not new. In the early days of the French Revolution, painter Jacques-Louis David unveiled “A Religion of Mankind”, which aimed to build upon the best aspects of religious tradition, with feast days, wedding ceremonies, revered figures (secularised saints) and atheistic churches. The new religion would use buildings, good books and academia (seminaries) to try to make us good.

David’s experiment never took off. The Church of Freethought tried to open a ‘parish’ in California but it, too, folded. Is it surprising that secularismhasn’t been able to inspire communal rituals as religion does? Most secularists are content to act individually rather than communally. Why wouldn’t one sleep in, go shopping or read online on Sunday rather than go and hear a secularist lecture (sermon)?

Religions require sacrifices, and reject the secular assurance that everyone can discover happiness and meaning simply through physical life – work and love.

Theists find this as difficult to comprehend as atheists do the belief in a life after death, and the division seems unbridgeable. To some theists, an atheist is necessarily a nihilist, for whom beliefs are unfounded and existence senseless. If each generation’s death means the end of those individuals, then we’re faced with an endless cycle of creation and destruction, the meaning of which, if any, is incomprehensible.

Certainly the bereaved are affected by death, but death cannot be of any consequence to the purely physical human being who no longer exists. If you cease to exist, you need not fear death, where you will feel neither pain, nor pleasure, nor peace, nor torment.

But humanists assert that a person’s life before physical death has existential meaning. Belief in some kind of physical persistence of a human being’s past is the rational argument for the conclusion that even if physical death is the end, living a good life gives meaning and value to human existence.

Humanist philosophers also often speak of the void that would follow death as “the abyss”, suggesting a journey to an unknown place which lies at the end of our physical lifetimes. They seem to be giving substance to “nothing” as we cannot understand or visualise nothing.

Several of today’s physicists concur that we exist in some kind of four dimensional “space-time”. Mathematician Hermann Minkowski said: “Space by itself, and time by itself, have vanished into the merest shadows and only a kind of blend of the two exists in its own right.” Space-time is essentially the history of the universe, containing every event that ever happens.

While it appears to be impossible to scientifically prove that life has meaning, it is equally impossible to prove that it does not.

4 comments on “Beyond the Abyss

  1. Monday 12th September 2011 at 3:34 pm

    […] makes interesting points in the thread beneath my Beyond the Abyss post, which discusses the gap between secularist individuality and religious communal […]

  2. Richard Rawlinson

    Saturday 10th September 2011 at 8:34 pm

    James showers

    JS: “Richard assumes that Monsieur David’s ‘new’ religion initiative was to ‘try and make us good’. This is a philosohpical shiv often used by people of faith (usually Christians) whose intent is -I imagine – to establish doubt of our own essential goodness without fear of eternal retribution. Tsk Tsk’.

    You imagined wrong. I assume most philosophers, religious or atheist aim to improve mankind with varying degrees of success and failure on both sides.

    JS: ‘In a somewhat similar vein Mr Rawlinson claims the investigation into ‘the human imagination which dreamt up gods and creeds’ to be a ‘secularised version of Christianity’. If only the Christian church was interested in such matters!

    Christians are especially interested in how Christianity influences secular philosophy as a force for good, whether by thought, word, deed or omission.

  3. Richard Rawlinson

    Saturday 10th September 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Vale, thanks for your thought-provoking comments. I still find it hard to imagine meaningful death rituals devoid of any spiritual belief in an afterlife. Non-religious funerals certainly help bring comfort and closure, but wouldn’t a truly atheist ritual do this while professing the faith that God and souls don’t exist? Would it not be crucial to celebrate the fact that the deceased, however fondly remembered, is now nothing, incapable of pleasure or pain.

    Some political and intellectual atheists can cope with such a nihilistic philosophy, but we seem some way from popular demand for rituals reflecting such secular realities.

  4. Saturday 10th September 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I was interested that Richard assumes that Monsieur David’s ‘new’ religion initiative was to ‘try and make us good’. This is a philosohpical shiv often used by people of faith (usually Christians) whose intent is -I imagine – to establish doubt of our own essential goodness without fear of eternal retribution. Tsk Tsk.
    In a somewhat similar vein Mr Rawlinson claims the investigation into ‘the human imagination which dreamt up gods and creeds’ to be a ‘secularised version of Christianity’. If only the Christian church was interested in such matters!

  5. Vale

    Friday 9th September 2011 at 6:05 pm

    For ritualists practicing today, this post raises some important points. We (I) believe that community and the communal celebration of key events is important – yet secularism, at least as it finds expression in the west today – tends to be individualistic. Not surprising, perhaps when the only common bond is a lack of belief.
    My own feeling, though, is that we are in a transitional phase and will over time evolve new and meaningful rituals to reflect the reality of people’s sense of personal meaning and purpose.

    At first these will ape the religious ceremonies we are familiar with – because they are the ones we know. But they will diverge and in time consolidate new norms, patterns and meanings.

    Actually, look at any civil ceremonies, the start has already been made.

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