After many years as an agnostic my interests in worldly affairs had wavered. This was not a result of agnosticism, it was the product of every philosophy I had indoctrinated myself with since childhood.
As a Catholic I believed I would die, go to Heaven, and eventually god would destroy the Earth, so who cares what happens here.
As an atheist I believed I would die, rot in the ground, and the universe would eventually come to an end, so who cares what happens here.
As an agnostic I didn’t believe in anything and thought “who cares?”
I was never one who felt life needed meaning to be fulfilling, so an inevitable end to all things wasn’t an overly despairing idea. It just made me kind of… numb. I accepted things as they were, and though I always supported efforts to make a better future, I never had much passion for them.
My entire life I had been influenced to accept things:
God is the creator of all things. He decides what is right and wrong, and if tragedy happens it is part of his plan. Accept it.
You are meek and small compared to God. Good things happen through his grace. We do not make a difference on our own. Accept it.
At the end of your life you will meet God and be judged. His idea of morality is how you will be judged. Accept it.
When we die we rot in the ground. Accept it.
The universe will end one day. Nothing will save us. Accept it.
And then I read Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” and finally somebody said, “Challenge it.”
For those unfamiliar, “The Last Question” is a science fiction story where a constantly evolving super computer is asked different versions of the same question: “How do we stop the end of the universe?” The story spans several millennia. Throughout different stages of human society the machine consistently responds that it is processing the answer.
The final solution is beautiful, eloquent, and immensely satisfying.
It is no wonder that this was Asimov’s favorite of his own stories.
I will not spoil the ending for you, but I can say that reading a story where the “end” was not merely accepted was an extremely uplifting experience. This was not like a movie, or Japanimation where characters fight “destiny” and at the last moment a solution drops from the sky and saves everyone. This was a real, thoughtful endeavor that occupied the most powerful computer’s time throughout its entire life.
After reading the story I became aware of how defeatist my outlook had become. All my life, Catholic and atheist, I was taught that accepting the end of all things was a healthy, enlightened attitude. Like the citizens in 1984 I was conditioned to believe my perceived helplessness was for my own good.
Asimov gave me the spark to say Fuck That.
My father sent me “The Last Question” in an email. He is always sending me something or another, so it just sat in my inbox for a long time. It wasn’t until I was studying for my lit comps my last semester of college that I found cause to read it. Part of the test required me to know a decent bit about literary movements stemming from philosophy. I was given a huge list, with more names than I could ever hope to remember. By chance my eye caught “Humanism” with Asimov’s name underneath, so I decided I’d finally read the story.
That was a moment that changed my life.
After reading that story I became obsessed with humanism. I fervently read every article or manifesto written by humanists. This was a philosophy totally different from everything else I had ever learned. Not a word here suggested I was meek, or promoted apathy. Every article shouted one message: Humans can, can, CAN!
Our species crawled from the muck and created fire, a short time later we crafted giant hunks of metal that soar into space. Why should we accept extinction as inevitable? If the universe is dying, we can fix that.
And from there, my entire outlook started to change. The world became brighter, and I started to see the good in people.
As a Catholic, my enemies were followers of “deviant” faiths and the non-religious. As an atheist my enemies were fundamentalists and the ignorant. As a humanist I have no enemies. Even those who disagree with me in every way possible, the kind of opposition that is quick to make your blood boil and tempers flare, I find myself capable of remaining calm and finding the good in them to appeal to.
Finally I saw that we’re all on the same side: We all want what’s best for humanity. Even the people who take causes I find nonsensical, and even amoral: Gun nuts, Fox news, homophobes, war economists; I know that on a base level, somewhere, we all think we’re doing what we think humankind will benefit from the most. Before we start debating, if we remember that common goal and work from there, it’s far easier discuss issues and find solutions. At the very least, you probably won’t walk away hating each other.
That feeling has made my life so much easier. There were so many times where all I wanted to do was scream, shout, and belittle the POV of anyone who disagreed with my principals. While I always feel that initial burst of anger when I am confronted with something I find fundamentally wrong, I am still capable of keeping calm and remembering to keep perspective.
I hate to sound so preachy there. I know if it was me reading that I’d roll my eyes at the overly “we can all get along” attitude I’m promoting. Even now, having that perspective I would feel a bit put off reading this if someone else wrote it. Try to ignore the floweriness and extract the importance of the message.
One last great thing about humanism: It’s not a faith, it’s a philosophy. If you’re a person of faith and have grown tired of being told that you can’t do anything without god, but still want to believe in him, I encourage you to read into humanism. There are a large number of humanists in every faith. Or, hell, don’t even look into humanism- just stop listening to that part when you go to church. You don’t have to follow every doctrine of faith to be a part of that faith.