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Humanist Wonders: Can You Believe in Both an Afterlife AND Euthanasia?

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I’m a secular humanist, which means that I am fairly certain that this life is our only one, so we should work hard to make it a good one for as many people as possible. I generally like and agree with humanist organizations and find that by and large, they do good and important work, especially compared to similarly sized organizations that just focus on atheism.

That’s why I was surprised to read one of the most pointless and anti-humanist articles ever at thehumanist.com, written by American Humanist Association employee Matthew Bulger.

Bulger comments on the heartbreaking case of Julianna Snow, a 5-year old girl with CMT, a degenerative nerve disease that can vary in its intensity. Many people live with it, including Julianna’s father, but it was so severe in her that it was killing her in an incredibly agonizing way that required constant hospitalization.

Her parents asked her if she wanted to continue going to the hospital for painful treatments, or if she wanted to stop and die at home. She enthusiastically chose the latter. Now she’s hanging out at home in her princess-themed bedroom with her family. Happy, and making plans for what she’ll do when she goes to heaven.

Bulger thinks that Julianna shouldn’t be able to have a say in her own life and death, for two reasons: one, because she’s so young that she can’t understand death; two, because she believes that she’ll go to heaven when she dies.

It’s tough to argue with Bulger’s piece, mostly because it’s so badly written. He says at the end that the child’s decision should be noted but that ultimately it’s the parents’ decision, which, um, obviously? I don’t think anyone anywhere is arguing that a 5-year old should be allowed to commit suicide over the objections of her parents.

But clearly Bulger thinks that this child’s belief in an afterlife compromises her ability to make this decision, which, frankly, is disgusting. I’m an atheist, meaning that I believe there is no heaven or hell. But I’m also a pragmatic agnostic, meaning that I believe there’s absolutely no way for me to know for sure what happens after I die. Bulger apparently is sure, since he insists that Julianna is wrong and that if she knew for a fact that she isn’t going to heaven, she wouldn’t make the same decision.

That’s not just an argument against children who wish to end their lives. That would be an argument against any person with a religious belief that includes the afterlife from ending their own lives, which is maybe the least humanistic argument I can imagine.
Deciding when and how a child with a painful terminal illness is going to die is an incredibly horrific decision, and it’s only going to be made worse by people like Bulger judging the family harshly and insisting that they believe in fairytales. The humanistic approach? Understanding that they’re dealing with the situation in the best way they know how, giving them a tiny bit of empathy, and letting them find what comfort they can in the beliefs they have, even if I disagree with them.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. November 20, 2015 at 4:34 am —

    I think you misconstrue the article somewhat. His objection is that a child is not intellectually prepared to make such a decision, and favors parental decision making, supposedly even under the scenario that parents might opt to withdraw treatment in the face of a child wanting it, which is what I would find disturbing. I don’t think there is an objection to adult religious people opting to end treatment. It’s not about atheists imposing their non-belief so much as the moral objection that a child is not in a position to make an informed decision.

  2. November 20, 2015 at 9:23 am —

    I’d maybe go even further: I don’t think her believing in a heaven or not is relevant to her decision at all.

    If she’s suffering, and wants the suffering to stop by ceasing to exist, that alone should be enough for an informed decision, no? Her believing in heaving is not the reason for her decision, it’s something that gives her a little solace despite the gravity of the situation.

    In either case, a sad story all around. :(

  3. November 29, 2015 at 3:35 pm —

    I’d say euthanasia has other issues. There are plenty of reasons medical associations are anti-euthanasia. (Chiefly, the power is easy to abuse.)

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