On Not Flying Away: Humanism and the Afterlife

When I was a kid we sang on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights—church night—and at revivals and camp meetings, “Some bright morning when this life is o’er . . . I’ll fly away.”

It’s an upbeat and happy song, by design. The song was written by Albert Edward Brumley back in 1929 and is the most recorded song in gospel music . . .

Just a few more weary days and then,
I'll fly away
To a land where joy will never end,
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory,
I'll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by,
I'll fly away.

Getting out of here is a central theme in gospel music and in the denominations of Protestantism that have developed among the poor in the United States. The Sunday morning experience may fairly be described as a reminder of, and celebration of, this promise of escape from reality.

All of us understand the impulse and we all know the feeling. The question is if we think it is possible. The number one question when people find out that I’m a Humanist is: how can you deal with death if you don’t believe in an afterlife?

The way I answer the question depends upon my mood. Sometimes, if I’m in a snarky frame of mind, I point out that the speculations about an afterlife vary so much between the various religions and the subsections within various religions that the idea becomes meaningless.

When I was a kid, I remember people in my church speculating about Heaven. What kind of body would we have?

Would we have a body?

Would we need to eat?

Could we fly?

What age will we be in Heaven?

What is a “glorified body”?

Will we be married?

Will my cousin who had both of his legs amputated have legs again?

The questions, I find, boils down to this: will I be able to talk with those who have died before me, people such as George Washington or my grandma?

The answer to that: it appears very unlikely.

Yet why has this idea persisted for so long in the human family? What do we want in an afterlife?

Is it that we want consciousness to persist?

That’s what Hindus have thought for millennia: that individual consciousness melds back with the universal consciousness. Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson took up this idea and called it the Oversoul. The universal, cosmic consciousness.

No one can say that isn’t what will happen. Yet I can’t help thinking of the worry I’d feel in that situation. What about the poor? What about all the little animals being chased and eaten by bigger animals? The view from the macro-level, it  appears to me, would to be pretty frightening.

Furthermore, what would be the morality if I didn’t care about the starving and the poor and the suffering . . . if I just kick back in the cosmic consciousness and say “ah!” and allow all the suffering to continue . . .

Consciousness. It does appear impossible that it won’t continue. But think a moment about reincarnation: the point of the process is to reach that cosmic consciousness, so we’re back to that problem again.

Did the cosmic consciousness set up the cosmos to operate as it does? If so, I’m back to an earlier objection: the rules appear immoral to me. There’s simply no moral justification for the fact that some people grow fat while others starve.

So perhaps the cosmic consciousness is trying to fix the problem? Well, whoa! Talk about “compassion burnout”! An eternity of that?

But perhaps the cosmic consciousness is jut there . . . simply being. Well, OK, I guess I’ll have to join it someday then, but I’m going with objections!

The idea that everybody goes to some blissful place implies becoming completely oblivious to the reality of reality. I simply can’t believe the argument that after we enter some afterlife all the ways of God will be justified and appear fair and balanced. Yes, the world is a beautiful place—for some creatures some of the time. But I’m a farmer. I’ve seen fire ants eating newborn fawns. In this existence I go get my shotgun and put them out of their misery. I’m not going to be content flying around with a harp watching that sort of suffering occur.

I choose the most likely followup to our earthly existence: oblivion. Reflect for a moment: each of us spent the first thirteen billion years of the existence of the universe in utter oblivion. And I, for one, have never been bothered by that rather extensive blank spot. So, why should I be concerned about another thirteen billion years of oblivion after my death? Or the infinity after my death? What’s another blank spot when you’ve already spent thirteen billion years in one?And, come down to it, we do go on after death: we’re carbon-based creatures. Carbon gets recycled. Each of us has some carbon that once belonged to Shakespeare. Most of us don’t have any carbon from Elvis . . . because he hasn’t been dead all that long. But the fact remains, we do go on, after a fashion, and that’s fine with me.

Now, if only someone would write a good gospel song saying something like,

Some bright morning
when this life is o’er,
I’ll be recycled.

I’ll become carbon,
glory,
I’ll be recycled . . .

Image credit: Access to Cloud / Ladder to Heaven, by FutUndBeidl via Flickr, under Creative Commons license Attribution 2.0 Generic

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David Breeden's picture

Rev. Dr. David Breeden is the President of the UU Humanist Association, serves as co-dean of the Humanist Institute, and is Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis. David has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also has a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School. He blogs at http://wayofoneness.wordpress.com/, on the UU Collective, Quest for Meaning on Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/, and http://revdocdavid.tumblr.com/. He tweets at @dbreeden.