Facing Reality (a Humanist Perspective)
Those who believe in an eternal paradise where we are all reunited with our loved ones, embrace what is referred to as a positive delusion, or a belief held firm contrary to available evidence, in which the belief has positive effects. Much research has demonstrated that a belief in the afterlife does contribute to happiness and well-being (e.g., Smith, Range, & Ulmer, 1991), but these studies do not measure the related decrease in well-being resulting from the effects of holding these kinds of beliefs. For example, a widow may believe that she will be reunited with her husband in Heaven, and therefore spend the rest of her life pushing away other potential partners, which can have a serious deleterious effect on well-being. This focus on “the next life” comes at a clear expense in this life. As humanists, our focus is on the overall well-being in this life, and only this life. We might be tempted to conclude that one’s belief in Heaven is not authentic, since he or she avoids death just like the rest of us. Rationally speaking, if one was certain Heaven existed why would anyone hang around this place? The answer has to do with something I call holistic dissonance—a cognition in conflict with non-cognitive desires or biological drives. A good analogy is one’s strong biological desire to eat way too much junk food despite the rational understanding that a large amount of junk food has negative effects on one’s health. Our behaviors are strongly influenced by evolutionary pressures, and this influence can be extremely difficult to overcome. In the case of believing in Heaven, evolution is protecting us from our own possibly fatal behaviors resulting from unsupported beliefs.
The fear that one’s death will have a serious negative impact on one’s family’s well-being is a justified one, but not one that can’t be overcome by taking the necessary precautions to ensure one’s family is well taken care of, which includes not only financially, but emotionally. Perhaps one might make sure his last will and testament is updated, his businesses can survive and continue to make money for his family, he talks with his wife and makes sure she understands that he has no problem with her remarrying (after he is gone, of course) if that is her desire, and he become the best father to his children now rather than “someday” when everything is perfect and he “has more time” for them. These specific actions would increase one’s well-being by lessening the negative emotions associated with the worry of death and increasing the quality of relationships.
We cannot claim certainty about the impossibility of some form of positive existence post death—a fact where even the most rational humanist may find a ray of hope. But we don’t live our lives based on remote possibilities, rather we live our lives based on realistic probabilities. The best we can do is be prepared for death and mitigate the associated worries and fears, then spend the rest of our lives focusing not on death, but life.
This is not a practice; this is the big game. This is not a rehearsal; this is both opening night and the final performance. This is not some test; this is real life. So put your game face on and enjoy the ride!