Baby, You’re a Firework! – Humanism and the Hereafter

“I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does Revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This Universe, this all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework.”

So said John Adams, second President of the United States, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson following the death of his wife Abigail. In this letter, Adams states clearly his reason for believing in an afterlife: he simply can’t imagine that God would create something so wonderful as a human being and allow it do die. To Adams, belief in an afterlife and belief in God are mutually reinforcing. His belief in God is founded on his belief in the afterlife (“If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God”), and at the same time his belief in the afterlife is founded on a conception of God who would not simply allow life to be extinguished like a “boyish firework”.

To this, a Humanist reply: in the words of noted philosopher Katy Perry, “Baby, You’re a Firework!

To Humanists, who do not generally believe that anything of a person’s personality persists after death, there is little consolation to be found in the idea of an afterlife. However strongly we might wish to believe that we can somehow outlive our own death, our assessment of the facts leads us to what may seem a bleaker place. We are, truly, fireworks. Our fuse is lit at conception; we gather speed through childhood, struggling to lift off the ground; we zoom through adolescence and young adulthood, gathering speed as we learn and grow; we burst into the world as adults in full splendor, lighting the sky with our endeavors; our influence spreads through middle age, the colors of our life radiating from the central explosion; we begin to fade as we age, our sparkles glinting more softly; and we slowly sputter out as we approach death, leaving nothing behind but smoke-trails, wispy memories of our brief existence, an empty shell fallen back to earth far from where we started, and ghostly afterimages in the eyes of those who loved us.

But we see this as no reason to despair. We reject the idea that the understanding of our impending death saps meaning and significance from our lives. Rather, we see this realization as infusing our lives with rich color, stunning beauty, blazing significance. The very brevity of our lives enhances their brightness. Humanists have found many ways to express this. Robert Ingersoll – the most famous orator of his age, and a passionate voice for Humanism in the 19th Century – articulated our belief with characteristic style:

Maybe death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. Maybe this common fate treads out from the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness and hate. And I had rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.

Ingersoll, as befits the “Great Agnostic”, couched his comments in “maybe” and “perhaps”, but I think his reasoning is sound.  The rarity and brevity of life – its firework quality – is what makes it so precious. Every person, like a firework, shines in unique constellation before they are gone forever, never to be recaptured. Thus it is critical that we make our own explosion as beautiful and as light-giving as possible, as we seek to illumine the world with our brilliance. Many of us will even ignite new fireworks, perpetuating human light for another generation, a succession of life in burst upon burst of dazzling color, the greatest firework display that can be imagined.

Toward the end of his life, some doubt seemed to corrode Adams’ conviction regarding a “future state”. Writing again to Jefferson in his last months, he said “I contemplate [death] without terror or dismay. If finite, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is an end of it all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not, if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it.” There is something slightly hollow about Adams’ reiteration here – “I cannot believe, and do not believe”. He protests too much, and seems to be clinging hard to the idea of an afterlife while recognizing the possibility that there is “an end of it all”. But Adams, as he recognizes, has no cause for despair even if there is nothing after. More than most, he blazed across the firmament before his light died out, and his afterimage can still be detected on the retina of humankind.

That could be you. You could do great things in service to others, as Adams did, and as many others have. So come on – show ‘em what you’re worth! Let your colors burst! Make ‘em go “Ah, ah, AH!” as you shoot across the sky! Leave them all in awe! And when, inevitably, those colors begin to fade, and your trajectory tilts downward back toward earth, do not despair. Do not seek solace in another life for which we have no evidence. Instead remember that you live on, etched onto the retinas of those who watched your marvelous display.

They will see you when they close their eyes. That is enough.

This post originally appeared at State of Formation, an interfaith community blog.


About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • LucienBlack

    Beautifully written, with wonderful, evocative imagery. When you say “We promote science and skepticism – though more poetically than most,” you clearly mean it, and I quite enjoy it.

    Unfortunately, I disagree entirely.

    I find meaning in life, yes. I find love and wonder and hope, yes. But the brevity of life I find to be an annoyance sticking in the back of mind, like an itch in the center of your back that you can’t . . . quite . . . reach. It’s an annoyance that if I ponder it too much will turn to frustration. To paraphrase Hitchens, it’s like knowing that I will have to leave the party, well before the party is over.

    What I want is immortality, physical immortality. I am not satisfied or comforted by the idea that people may remember me, whether through fame or children. Though fireworks are beautiful, I prefer to stare into a longer lasting campfire, perhaps contemplating, perhaps just… relaxing. I want to be alive when the sun expands to into a red giant, engulfing the earth as I watch from a safe distance. I want to watch my great-great-great-great-etc grandchildren grow and laugh and cry and love and do all that people do.

    I consider the shortness of my life, of the lives of loved ones, of the lives of hated ones, and colors become duller, the purple majesty of the mountains loses the power to stun, and the significance of any one action, or life, seems as a spark in the wind, rather than a blaze.

    Having said all that, perhaps you will not believe me when I say the following: I love life. I LOVE life. I have known a despair and depression so great that I had the note written and the knife at my wrist. Another time I swallowed pills and chased them with alcohol. And another time before that I admitted myself to a psych ward for a day, because I knew what I would do if I didn’t. I did not love life for those years.

    But I survived. Because I survived, I have loved and laughed and danced and sang and had sex and had more pain and then loved and laughed some more. And I’ve learned. Oh, the wonders I have learned! About life’s ever changing, ever evolving diversity! About the strange, strange behavior of particles so small I cannot comprehend it! About stars and galaxies crashing together, releasing energies so vast and immense that not even the sun compares!

    And the wonders I’ve yet to learn! What will life be in a million years? How can the descriptions of stellar movements and the tiniest of particles be reconciled? I want to know! I want to be here when I find out! I want to call my friends and family, saying “hey, did you hear about…?” I want science to get off it’s ass and make that dream a reality (oh, how I hope for that)!

    Until that day, life’s brevity shall annoy me. But, if you will allow me but another moment, I’d like to quote Tim Minchin: “But here’s what give me a hard on: I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon. I have one life, and it is short and unimportant, But thanks to recent scientific advances… I get to live twice as long as my great-great-great-great uncleses and auntseses. Twice as long! to live this life of mine; twice as long to love this wife of mine. Twice as many years of friends, and wine, of sharing curries and getting shitty at good looking hippies with fairies on their spine and butterflies on their titties.”

    • TempleoftheFuture

      It’s GREAT that you disagree! Disagreement is the spark which generates new ideas!

      But I think that really I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. I wrote the post, in a way, to convince myself. I desperately don’t want to die, especially now! I spent ten years of my life struggling with my sexuality and I’d like an extra ten to make up for that, please!

      If we are in the window for scientific immortality, sign me up, as long as I can choose when I go.

      • LucienBlack

        I’m more than willing to let you choose when you go (any doubts I had on that were shot by Eric MacDonald’s excellent work). NOVA science NOW had an episode called “Can We Live Forever?” showing amazing advances in growing entirely new organs, or even in just 3D printing new, healthy organs. I had heard of the work before, but had no idea it was so far along. You can find the episode on Netflix, or clips on YouTube. It’s obviously still in development, with research yet to be done.

        But, we just might be in that window. We just might.

  • LucienBlack

    The Tim Minchin quote is from “Storm,” and can be found on YouTube. Hey James, are we able to provide in-text links in our comments? It may be an idea to implement if not.

    And… I probably should have just made that a blog post of my own, linking to your post, and then simply commented that I’d responded there because of length. Apologies. I just sorta got going on it.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I’ll try to implement links in comments!

  • LucienBlack

    Up at my site, with a brief addendum. I’ll shut up now.

  • Nathan DST aka LucienBlack

    Check out Grief Beyond Belief on Facebook. From the first paragraph of it’s mission statement:

    “Grief Beyond Belief is an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one — without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to participate. If you are in the process of reevaluating or letting go of previously held religious beliefs, you may also join the community and seek support.”

    I think this may go along well with the stated purpose of Temple of the Future.