Why it’s good to be mortal

Whenever Natalie reads something in a magazine that she thinks I’ll find interesting, she leaves it out somewhere obvious for me to find. And so I stumbled this morning upon a review in the Guardian of Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund’s book ‘Why mortality makes us free‘. It’s “a sweepingly ambitious synthesis of philosophy, spirituality and politics”, apparently (the book, not the review), which argues that it is not believing in the glorious afterlife promised by many religions that makes our lives on Earth so full of meaning. To be honest, though, this benefit of what Hagglund calls “secular faith” is far from news to me. Or to my fellow humanists around the world.

Humanism is about recognising that this life is the only one that we have, so we’d better live it like we mean it. It’s not a religion. Or a cult. It doesn’t draw on a sacred text or the notion of a supreme being. It’s simply a way of living our lives in an ethical way, making the most of our time on this planet, and treating people nicely.

There are probably as many definions of humanism as there are humanists. But according to Humanists UK, which seeks to promote a better understanding of humanism, a humanist:

  • trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural;
  • makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals; and
  • believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.

For me, humanism is about thinking for myself and making decisions on the basis of the available evidence, rather than resorting to dogma or some notion of what I ‘should’ do. It’s about showing compassion to others and doing what is best for everyone, rather than just what is best for me. And it’s about challenging myself and living every day as well as I can. The Quakers call this ‘living adventurously’, which I think sounds just right.

This isn’t to say, though, that I’m against religion. Because I’m not. I have no beef with people of faith. And I’m not one of those ‘new atheism’ zealots who go around telling all religious people they’re idiots. I just don’t personally feel that we need religion to tell us how to live our lives. And we certainly shouldn’t need the promise of an afterlife to get us to behave in this one.

As a humanist, I’m as confident as I can be that this is our one shot at life on Earth (or anywhere else). And that our time here isn’t going to last forever. Indeed, it’s this very fact of our mortality that makes our (and everyone else’s) lives so precious. It’s what makes looking after each other so important. And it’s what makes our lives worth living as adventurously as we can, each and every day.

To learn more about humanism, check out the Humanists UK website. Or just ask a question in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer it.

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