Richard Dawkins has a new series going on at the moment, about Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life. The sex and death episodes have been interesting so far. You can watch them online at that link if you’re in the UK.
It has a godless leaning to it, but it’s not all about arguing with religious claims. Instead, it’s covered some useful thinking on how to live well once you’ve done the relatively easy bit, and progressed far enough intellectually to give up on the failed God hypothesis.
One idea in particular was crystallised for me when he met with a couple whose child had died in infancy. During pregnancy, the scans had shown that the developing fetus had no kidneys. It was an uncommon, horrible medical condition. There was nothing that could be done for it, and it had absolutely no chance of survival. The standard medical advice in these situations, I gather, when it’s detected early enough, is to terminate the pregnancy.
This couple didn’t do that. They allowed the child to come to term, prayed for a miracle, and decided to make the most of what time they had with it. They got to spend about half an hour with their baby before it died, as had always been inevitable. They felt sure that this was the right thing to do, and those few minutes they had as a family were incredibly precious to them.
What this crystallised for me is that there are two things in this world which are absolutely vital.
The first thing is reality. If this couple’s decision was based on a hope that things might somehow turn out okay for this child, then it was misguided. Miracles do not happen. Infants developing with such severe problems cannot, with our current level of medical science, survive in the world. A developing embryo is different in a number of crucial ways from a fully developed human. The world is a certain way, and the extent to which our beliefs match up with the way the world is matters.
There’s no god to help make things better when babies die unfairly. None of us will ever meet our departed loved ones again in some other world.
The second thing is each other. These two people were facing a terrible situation, and they deserve powerful, continuous compassion from anyone analysing and discussing that situation and their decisions. I don’t know what it’s like to love a child the way they loved theirs. The closest I can come to that feeling is for the cat, who’s only been around a month or so. If the love people have for actual human children scales up from cats as much as some people say it does, then, well, I don’t think I understand how other people aren’t all crying all the time.
Everyone deserves all the compassion you can possibly spare for them.
The important thing – or perhaps I mean, the thing it took me longer to realise, and which I need to keep reminding myself of – is that it’s an and, not a but. Kindness and skepticism.
Not: “Yes, it’s important to feel for these people and their difficult situation, and not judge them for the decisions they’ve made, but…”
Not: “Yes, it’s important to believe things based on evidence, and not be swayed into irrationality by emotions or other cognitive biases, but…”
Humanism isn’t about but. At least, mine isn’t. Care about reality, and care about people. Both these things are vital, and there’s no reason they can’t complement each other.