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Long Shadows of Evening

(reflections for my four children, holidays 1995)

Dear Joel, Jake, Jeb and Cass:

I’m almost 65, and my future is obvious: decline, disease and death. I’ll “grab the gusto” as long as I can — maybe another third of a century, if I’m as lucky as Bertrand Russell, or maybe just briefly — but, either way, the outcome is certain.

The dark at the end of the tunnel is inescapable — simply part of the life-cycle, like birth, puberty and the rest. There’s no point in agonizing over it. Just accept it. All the miracle cures and life-support machines won’t change the outcome.

It would be comforting to tell myself that the end isn’t the end — that I’ll pass into a magical realm of angels or houri nymphs or whatever. This would give me something to look forward to. But I can’t lie to myself. There isn’t a shred of trustworthy evidence to back up the notion of heaven. It’s wishful thinking — self-deception.

I realize that my view is bleak, compared to the happy “victory over death” promise of the churches. You might ask: Why be a spoilsport? Why not take their hopeful outlook, rather than my glum one? Answer: Because theirs is bogus, as far as I can tell. For thousands of years, priests and gurus have been proclaiming lies, I think. You shouldn’t delude yourself, swallowing a hoax to make yourself feel good. I try to look at reality factually like a scientist.

It’s depressing to say, I’m going to die and just end. That’s a dismal prospect. People naturally avoid facing it. But if you’re honest, you have no other choice. Once you reach this grim understanding, it makes you determined to improve life for people here and now. That way, you give meaning to life.

In the ultimate sense, life has no discernible purpose, no grand plan. We are born into an existence that is joyful and painful, dull and exciting, wonderful and horrible, sensible and crazy. People are the thinking animals, and much of civilization proceeds intelligently. There’s a lot of kindness and decency in people — but there’s also madness and stupid self-destruction. Ethnic groups become paranoid and kill each other, shattering their own happiness, wrecking their own communities and families. Wars are the ultimate insanity. At the individual level, America has 25,000 murders, 100,000 rapes and 1 million brutal assaults annually — wanton, banal violence. About 2,000 raging American men kill their wives or girlfriends every year, then often kill themselves. Nobody gains from this senseless mayhem. It’s just the grotesque side of life. The Chinese concept of yin and yang — of good and evil mixed in every person — is fairly accurate.

Since I don’t believe there’s a hell waiting to punish the wicked, or a heaven for the virtuous, our behavior has no cosmic meaning. Right and wrong don’t exist, outside of human values. If Dixie Klansmen lynch a black person from a tree limb, the tree doesn’t care. Neither do the squirrels, nor the hills, nor the deer, nor the river, nor the planets and stars.

But people care. We humans developed moral rules in an attempt to make society workable. The rules change constantly, and vary from place to place. There was a time when “righteous” people stoned adulteresses to death — and still do in some Muslim lands. There was a time when the Inquisition burned “heretics” who doubted holy dogma. Even today, in some places, you may be beheaded if you “blaspheme” the Koran or the Prophet.

When I was young, homosexuals were thrown in prison for “sodomy.” You could be jailed for looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or the sex scenes in one of today’s R-rated movies. You could be jailed for buying a lottery ticket or a cocktail. Unmarried couples who slept together were jailed for “fornication.” It would have been a scandal for a woman to wear a bikini. In some states, birth control was a crime. Books that mentioned sex were seized by police. (I’m not making this up — that’s what was “right” when I was a boy in the 1930s and ’40s.) Also, it was against the law for African Americans to enter “white” schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks, pools, beaches, etc. — and not too long before my birth, it was perfectly legal for wealthy whites to own blacks as slaves, kept like livestock. Many clergymen wrote treatises saying the Bible sanctioned slavery.

Today, all those values have vanished, and seem medieval. You can see that right and wrong aren’t fixed — they evolve as society changes. Currently, it’s considered “patriotic” for soldiers to kill each other in wars. Someday, it may be considered as horrible as murder. (I hope so.)

Still, although morality changes, we must decide what we feel is right, and work for it, to give our lives a purpose. I think affection and compassion are always right, even though other values fade. The same goes for intellectual honesty: earnest seeking for truth. Humanism — striving to make life better for people — is noble. (I’m a secular humanist, which means improving life without supernatural religion.)

There are many meanings we can give to life. Raising healthy children, combating hunger, making love, curing diseases, playing music, providing safe homes, spreading education, walking in forests, searching for scientific truths, resisting bigotry, thinking honestly — all these are human values worth struggling for.

The part of religion that teaches kindness is beneficial, but the supernatural part is a fantasy, I think. All the claims of a spirit world are old myths or hallucinations of mystics.

So, my fatherly message is that there are no divine rules telling us how to behave — we must build our own personal set of rules. I can’t accept the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rules, or Jimmy Swaggart’s, or Master Moon’s. I contrived my own, as best I could.

Even though there’s no ultimate meaning, and we’re heading for the grave, we should keep trying to improve life — to suppress violence and disease and hunger, to give fair and equal rights to everyone, and to make a safe world for our kids. When I see the faces of children, including my eight grandkids, it gives me hope. Their eager innocence says that life will rush on, teeming with vitality, always with a chance for goodness to hold the dark side in check.

We must make the most of the baffling existence that has been handed to us. Lucy Stone was a crusader who struggled for women’s rights. As she lay dying, her last words were: “Make the world better.” That’s as good a motto as you’ll find.

(From a booklet I gave to my four children.)

“Long Shadows of Evening” is copyright © 1995 by James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of James A. Haught. All rights reserved.

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