The Lesson of Autumn Leaves: A Humanist Sermon

November is a good month for poetry.

Most great poetry is about transience, and with autumn in full swing, there’s much in November to inspire the poet’s thoughts on that topic: the last yellow and brown leaves raining from the trees; the early fall of dusk as the days continue to shorten; the gray skies and cool days as the first taste of winter frost becomes perceptible in the air, and the world settles in for its yearly sleep.

While I was walking in the leaves the other day, I had a minor inspiration. It occurred to me that there’s a common thread woven through religious belief. The theists, in their apocalyptic dreams and mirages, long for something that’s eternal and unchanging: God’s eternal kingdom, the city with gold walls and gates of precious stones, or C.S. Lewis’ heaven that opens like an onion, each layer more beautiful than the last. Or, more ominously, the worm that never dies, the fire that’s never quenched, or Dante’s vision of the damned being boiled forever in rivers of blood, frozen in perpetual ice and snow, or trudging in endless circles so they can be hacked to pieces by demons on each pass.

Either way, what the Earth’s major monotheisms teach us to desire is permanence: a world immutably fixed in its course, never to change again. They want the race to be run, the final victory to be attained, and all strife and toil ended. They want existence sorted and classified so that they’ll never know pain or loss again, while their enemies will suffer in infamy for all eternity.

But as we learn from the autumn leaves, that isn’t the way of nature. The world does not trade in permanence, but in perpetual rebirth and renewal.

Observe nature, and you’ll see this pattern at every level. Mountains are thrust up and then worn away to nothing. Rivers and streams flow to the sea, become choked with life and silt up, and then fan out and cut new courses across the landscape. Deserts and grasslands sweep back and forth, impinging on each other’s boundaries. Plants sprout in the spring, bloom in the summer, die in the fall, and are reborn after the winter. Even within our bodies, new cells are always being created as old ones are destroyed and recycled. In every case, what we see is rebirth and renewal – not a state of changeless stasis, as the religious wish for, but a constant, dynamic tension between destruction and rebuilding; an endless flux of old forms passing away as new ones arise.

In fact, we owe our very existence to such a process. Though a seamless thread of historical continuity links all of us to the very first life on Earth, there is no single molecule, no single cell that has come down to us intact from that moment of genesis. What has been passed down is a pattern, a template of information constantly being copied from one physical substrate to another, constantly being born again with each generation – although, because of the ceaseless scouring and reconstructing of evolution, not even that pattern has survived unchanged.

Knowing that we are part of nature, that our lives are also evanescent swirls in the great river of change, is not a vision that everyone finds reassuring. Hence, sermons like this one, which assures hearers,

…we know death is wrong. It was never part of God’s plan for creation. You were made to last forever. God designed you in his image to live forever.

This is a view that animated bits of carbon may be expected to take. We’re anxious to convince ourselves that we are exempt from the rules that apply to all other living things, that our destiny is not like theirs, and it’s no surprise that theologies which fulfill our fantasies with promises of immortality and endless bliss have found millions of takers. But all the soothing platitudes in the world can’t change the fact that, despite all that we’re capable of, we too are like those autumn leaves. We bloom and burst into full color; in our heyday, we’re fiery and beautiful; and then, ultimately, we fade, fall away, and are gone. Henceforth we belong to memory, and it’s left up to future generations to continue the work of humanity.

The apologists of religion often accuse atheists of being arrogant, but is it not they who truly lack humility? Is it not they who believe that they are special, set apart, above the rest of nature? Is it not they who believe that although trees fall, mountains erode, and even stars die, that they will live eternally, that they are not part of nature’s ceaseless ebb and flow?

There are those who would say that this viewpoint, this recognition of our transience, is a reason to despair. Unless our lives are endless, so they say, we must feel hopeless. That, too, is a claim that I deny.

The knowledge that our time is brief is not a reason to fix our gazes with dread on the end, but to ground our vision in hope for the present. Knowing that we will not be here forever, we have the strongest possible incentive to make the most of what time we have, and to live with happiness and fulfillment of purpose. Our time is finite, so let us use it wisely, and dazzle the world with what we can accomplish before we go. That, too, is the lesson of the autumn leaves.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • BradW

    beautiful and oh so true!

  • D

    Everything is flux.
    – Plato

    Well said! I would add that, the more you look into the metaphor, the more it works. Many of us go on to add to the great churn of life, feeding and nourishing the next batch on our way out; and many others are swept away into the gutters; and more still are ignored and left where they lie on sidewalks, trod underfoot as the world goes about its business. Perhaps a bit more somber, but this too is a perspective; and yet it is the way of the world, and if we would see it changed, then we have work to do.

    A beautiful sermon, worthy of our finest meeting halls – far worthier than the hollow comforts of our primitive superstitions. Keep up the good work!

  • MikeK

    God designed you in his image to live forever

    Which brings up the question, how could an illiterate Adam and Eve have any conception of what it was to “die.” Or forever? To them, forever probably seemed like next week.

    “Eat from that tree,” God said, pointing to a nearby shrubbery. “You will die.”
    Adam looked puzzled, asked Eve, “What’s die?”
    She shrugged, staring at the thing dangling between Adam’s legs, “Beats me, I don’t even know what that’s for?”
    “god, uhh?” Adam said.
    “Goddamit, it’s God!!!” said God, “With a capital G.” A nearby volcano erupted.
    “Okay, uh God, sir, is this die good or bad,” asked Adam.
    After God patiently explained that die, in their case, didn’t mean die like lions and rabbits, killing several to demonstrate dying, but He actually meant “Go to hell!” and suffer endless torment. And He temporarily created some pain sensors and kicked them on the shins so they’d get a clue what suffer was. And so they wouldn’t forget, he left them with hemorrhoids.

    Adam was tempted to discuss “proportionality” and “mercy” but decided, later maybe.

    After a while, God shook his head, walked off(or whatever God does), muttering, “How in hell could I, being all knowing, all et cetera, have designed these two idiots.”

    Apparently, knowing all doesn’t mean realizing the obvious.

    Later on, a talking, walking (they didn’t crawl on their bellies at that point, so unless they flew …., well, maybe it flew up. The bible is vague on that.) snake came up. The rest is history. Or maybe mythology.

    But didn’t God know all this stuff before hand? That Eve would eat the apple. (Parenting 101) After all, they were designed in His Image. And that He would have to condemn billions upon billions of people to endless torment until the end of time, when the stars burned out.

    Did God, on the next planet, leave out the tree? But that’d imply he learned something from his first F-up which if you’re omnipotent, is impossible.

    As you might guess, I have problems getting past the first few pages of the bible. But I am glad snakes don’t walk, or worse, fly. Thank God for that.

  • PeterW

    Another brilliant essay, thank you so much. Reading this reminded me of another article I thought was excellent and I think most readers agreed with me. The title escapes me but I remember it was about a meteorite you saw in a museum. I believe you won an award for it. I think this one deserves an award too.

  • MikeK

    Everything is Flux–Heraclitus
    sez Mike, pedantically.
    It’s a slow day here in Preskit

  • D

    Bands of Iron won Top Quark from 3QD (it’s right below his Big Red A at right). It really epitomized the act of science education: big concepts, accessible language, and modern relevance. Y’know, everything religion lacks with its small-minded nonsense concepts, obfuscatory circumlocutions, and outdated notions of everything.

  • Karen

    A lovely meditation and a great way to start a weekend of gratitude. Thanks so much for this and for all your writing. A wonderful holiday to you and to Miss Cherrypie!

  • Mathew Wilder

    Thank you MikeK! I don’t think you’re being pedantic at all.

  • Libby


    In the second paragraph from the last, I believe you mean “omniscient.”

    Nitpicking, I know…

    But this really reminds me of a Christian I was talking to the other day. She just couldn’t get her head around the idea of living without a promise of eternity. I remember, when I was christian, almost being afraid of the idea of eternity. I find the reality of “flux” far more beautiful.

  • D

    @ MikeK (#5): Thanks for the correction! I waited to get home before responding, because I wanted to check my source. It’s really funny, I had this mental photograph in my head of the quote appearing at the top left of an even page, but I found it in the book and it’s actually at the bottom right of an odd page (and yeah, it’s Heraclitus – I totally misremembered).

    Also, you merely corrected me, so I don’t think you were being pedantic. Just right. Ain’t a thing wrong with that!

  • Caiphen

    One thing I know being an ex christian. I appreciate life far more now than what I did then. I spend more time with my family and appreciate every moment.

    To think, our ancestors fought for our existence and gave us life. What more reason do we need to love life and be in awe of the universe that we come from? There is none.

    Life is short and the universe is beautiful, so this weekend forget about that dumb assignment or that room you have to paint. Go out with your loved ones and behold the majesty.

  • John

    On some level I wonder if the various creators of the bible really created it as a tongue in cheek piece of fiction like the Easter Bunny, Coyote, etc. to create a social identity and/or mores, or to give answers to their children incessant questions or escapist fantasy. Or maybe a way to justify a collective greed reaping a reward realized by war or the like. Also the possibility exists one wishes as by example societal permission for the poetic to be allowed in a dreary life. However, I doubt that they were that noble.

  • Steve Bowen

    The idea of an eternal after life, and certainly a heavenly immortality, is not that evident in the bible. It seems to be a later, post Paulian, idea. Robert Wright in his excellent book The Evolution of God suggests it developed in response to the non-appearance of the Kingdom of Heaven during or shortly following Jesus’ (supposed) lifetime.

  • PeterW

    Thanks D,
    I have to start bookmarking may favorite articles since my brain lacks the capacity to remember them accurately. Is that part of our perfect design?

  • the chaplain

    Thanks for a nice piece. I agree that religious believers who hold doctrines of special creation and eternal life actually are the arrogant, narcissistic ones, not us.

  • Scotlyn

    Hurray for flux. As an ex-Christian, the concept of eternity also gives me the shivers – especially as it seems to preclude the concept of inhabiting a society of people of different ages and experiences – elders and children. Perpetual anything would have to be a torture in the long run – after awhile everyone would be about the same age, and have lived about the same experiences. Ugh!

    A very well expressed and thoughtful musing – thanks.

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  • XPK

    “Well said! I would add that, the more you look into the metaphor, the more it works. Many of us go on to add to the great churn of life, feeding and nourishing the next batch on our way out; and many others are swept away into the gutters; and more still are ignored and left where they lie on sidewalks, trod underfoot as the world goes about its business. Perhaps a bit more somber, but this too is a perspective; and yet it is the way of the world, and if we would see it changed, then we have work to do.
    A beautiful sermon, worthy of our finest meeting halls – far worthier than the hollow comforts of our primitive superstitions. Keep up the good work!”

    @D – Wow…this is almost the exact same metaphor (i.e. parable) Jesus uses himself in the Bible about sowing seed on the ground: some falls on the rough ground, some is eaten by birds, some choked by thorns, but some finds good soil and takes root and flourishes. In fact, I guarantee we could take your comment and put it on a religious blog comment board and you would be getting “Hallelujiah, sister” and “Amen” all over the place. Perhaps this is simply because the metaphor applies to just about any message in the world (education, advertising, etc).

    I think a lot about how insignificant we really are as human beings. If I wasn’t here, someone else would be married to my wife, owning my cats, living in my house, doing my job, thinking my thoughts, commenting on this blog, and trying to deal with my parents. I have a feeling many people do not think this way because they find it insanely depressing (as I do also at times). But, as stated earlier that IS the reality of the world.

    The movie “It’s A Wonderful Life” does a wonderful job of making life without YOU a horribly dark and depressing place. Well, what if we told the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with the main character as Al Capone? Would he at the end of the movie be telling Clarence, “I want to live again”?