Grieving as an Atheist

Dec 27, 2012


Discussion by: Kimberly Danner

Death, Funerals, Church, and Loss by Suicide.

Experiencing the whole process of loss and death is quite different as an Atheist. The obvious difference is we do not believe in an “afterlife” whether it be good or bad, it doesn’t exist to us.

My graduating class had our 10 year reunion early this year because we had three losses over the summer. Two of them were death by suicide.

In addition to that there were a few deaths caused by natural causes but this year is by far the most tragic for myself and for many of my peers. The typical grieving process takes an individual through various stages until reaching acceptance. While religious individuals can imagine their loved one in a sense where they are still “alive” aka happy in an afterlife, Atheists would have to accept that their loved one has made a choice to take their own life forever. Being around religion while being upset can take a toll on an Atheist (especially if people talk about it with you at the funeral). 

Do Atheists grieve slower than theists? 

60 comments on “Grieving as an Atheist

  • 1
    canadian_right says:

    I really doubt that being religious or an atheist affects how long you grieve compared to what your basic personality is like. Some people just take more or less time to grieve.

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  • 2
    Bananamama says:

    I lost my mom and my grandfather in the same year. They were both hard-asses and they didn’t really care too much for drama and that’s why I love them. I thought it would be an insult to their memory if I got depressed so I just took comfort in the fact that they’re free from all forms of bs humanity has to offer. I never really felt the need to seek solace from outside sources(religion, support groups etc.). I dealt with it by getting closer to the family I have left and partying more often with friends I’ve known since childhood. It took me a couple of days but then I found a reason to smile again. I guess in my case, an atheist grieves faster than a theist. 

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  • I don’t really think it affects the grieving process – the person is still gone. Maybe you can convince yourself they’re in another place, but you’re still going to go through life not seeing them. I have a friend that I know I probably won’t see again, though he’s alive, and that hurts very much too. It doesn’t really help knowing that he’s just in another place.

    Sometimes it seems like religion can be used as a coping mechanism, but I don’t know how effective it is. My mom died of cancer and my dad tried to reconcile her prolonged death as a sign that she was a good Christian, and came up with a list of other “good Christians” that suffered terribly before dying. I went to another funeral, and that woman’s suffering (she basically suffocated to death) was said to be a gift from God, because he knew she could handle that burden. People that knew her were nodding their heads in agreement. (Seems like a crappy deal to me, though.)

    But in each case, though being in heaven was said to be a cause for celebration, extreme life saving measures were taken prior to death, despite those measures causing suffering and pain. I think we can convince ourselves that something is true, and perhaps people really do believe in life after death, but there’s a part of the brain that does not buy it and will take any measure available in order to stay alive. We still have a strong sense of preservation, and we still suffer from loss.

    Perhaps the best thing about religion in that case is having a built in community of sorts. My mom would make meals for people she didn’t even know, just because they were a part of the church, and there were a lot of people at my mom’s funeral to offer their support. I’ve sort of built something like that here for myself, outside of a church, but I don’t think a stranger would just volunteer to help if I needed it. Maybe though – it hasn’t been tested. =)

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  • I was thinking along similar lines recently. My mom is ill but the worst part is it is effecting her mind as well as body. She’s been suffering from delusions and paranoia and normally she is the sweetest lady on Earth. There were times when just getting up in the morning was almost intolerable. I was so depressed I was just like a zombie, going through the motions and dealing with the endless things you have to deal with in a situation like this (I’m the only family member that can take care of her) and it occurred to me that I can see how religion is so useful in situations like this. Just having something, anything to pray to and to hold out as hope no matter how irrational at times like that would help someone muddle through.

    Not that I’ve converted or anything.  But I don’t find the religious trappings of others to “take a toll” on me in such situations.  On the contrary when people say “I’m praying for her” I just thank them, their hearts are in the right place even if I disagree with their reason. In fact one of the few positive things that I’ve observed is how helpful and genuinely caring many people can be in such situations and how for good people questions of politics, religion, etc. are secondary next to just helping someone who really needs it. 

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  • I don’t think there’s really much difference in the length of the grieving process, but there is a huge difference in a childish versus adult-like attitudes.  We view death and dying differently and are more honest with ourselves.  The religious people I know desperately try to hold onto their magical thinking and love to say, “He’s in a better place.”  One woman told me when my dad died that “you’ll see him again one day.”  That would be amazing since he was an atheist and is now ashes in an urn!  

    Anyway, I see it in their eyes…  flashes of doubt, fear, sadness, grief, misery…  For all their surety and proselytizing and dutiful praying, death rips the self-denial-of-reality bandage off their skin, though they usually won’t admit it.  I’ve yet to see the smiling faces, joy, and celebration one would think they should show if their loved one was now frolicking about in perpetual afterlife with their loving god and all their long dead relatives and friends, never again experiencing any pain, suffering, etc.  One obit I read actually said that the deceased, who had been particularly attached to a much loved horse, was now not only with his heavenly father but also reunited with his horse and prancing about in heaven.  Absolute silliness that nobody really, truly believes.  Nope, we all grieve pretty much the same.  The nonbeliever just doesn’t play ridiculous word games about “better places” and strives to fool himself into thinking magically like a little child.

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  • 6
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    “Do Atheists grieve slower than theists? “

    I think we only grieve once, while theists grieve twice. There is the grief remedied by myth, but a part of them grieves on the same level as the rest of us. There is a nagging part that they don’t really know what happens, and I think this can be more painful.

    I’ve lost some friends to suicide, and that is a unique pain. I can’t imagine the thought that they were bound for Hell, which is what afterlife doctrines often suggest.

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  • “There is a nagging part that they don’t really know what happens, and I think this can be more painful.”

    There is a lot of what therapists call cognitive dissonance with most theists. When you think about it they should be happy not sad, at least for Christians their loved one is now in heaven listening to Jimi Hendrix concerts and having drinks with Dorothy Parker (at least that would be my version of heaven) yet instead they mourn because down deep I think many of them know its just a story. 

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  • 8
    Ben_Keyes_780 says:

    I do think the fact that believers exhibit little or no celebration of of death is a strong indicator of weak or faulty faith. However, I also think it wise to not make too much of it at the same time. The grief experienced by believers is mostly the same as their non-believing counterparts: they are sad that a loved one is to no longer to be in their presence (at least physically), a fact that is not changed by belief. The believer arguably could claim an extra source of solace, unique to them, in believing that their loved one continues to live on blissfully, thereby giving them an edge in reacting to the uncomfortable reality of the absence of the loved one. So it may be that they do grieve better, dubious as the truth of their claim may be.

    But I do not accept that believers fully grieve, because much of their grief is deformed by self imposed delusion. To me it seems to be, like all magical thinking, a cop out. But again, we might be well advised to not fully write off theistic grieving as hypocritical. I am myself sympathetic to this assessment, but it is a little too simplistic for a phenomenon as complex as grief to be granted credibility.

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  • 9
    achromat666 says:

    I lost my fiancee 12 years ago. I had the comfort of my friends and loved ones of differing backgrounds, and in some measures still deal with the loss in my own way. It is a lifetime process I think regardless of who it is, or of what persuasion. It is more about the impact the death has on you than the perspective of the grief.

    I have since lost 2 cousins, my eldest sister, my grandmother (who made it to 101 years old!) and most recently my uncle. Each death takes a separate toll and affects me in a different way. 

    I have had to deal with people in church for many of the deaths but I don’t think that has any more or less impact on how one grieves. That process is still very personal to each person, I think. And whether theist or atheist, the life the loved one led is vital to the memory of them, which I’ve always found more comfort in than any idea of an afterlife.

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  • 10
    Uriel-238 says:

    I think the tool that people are using (tool from a psychological sense) is a device of denial as a means to temporarily relieve the pain of grief. My roommate recalls imagining her best friend (who died of diabetes in the ’90s) was just on an extended globe-hopping holiday. She knew this was a fantasy, but she was aware that the effect was the same (he was just as accessible either way) and so it helped when she was tired of crying.

    I suspect that it is no different when a theist engages a bit of their own dogma for the same purpose. After all, there is very little psychological difference between faith in a thing and pretending that it is true.

    Being skeptical of afterlives also allows us to be more thorough in our grieving. We won’t be satisfied that we can encounter our loved ones when we die, and then feel the weight of our invested interests when our faith occasionally buckles to doubt. Nor do we worry that new relationships (friendships, romances, whatever) are going to betray those that are gone, because they’re really gone

    U.

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  • Hello Kimberly, others have said things I agree with, and so have you. Permit me to add something. I don’t think you have a clinically correct understanding of what the words acceptance (or resolution) are meant to denote when they are used in the grieving process.

    I mention this because I do think it may help. Acceptance or resolution is about one thing: understanding that a loved one is dead (at least according to American psychologists). It’s not really about accepting or being resolved with the subjects of heaven, hell, oblivion, or, as the case may be, the unknown. 

    Many of those issues are actually worked through in the anger, denial, and depression phases. I think when acceptance is understood in this way, an enormous amount of pain is in fact relieved (or at least transformed into something that is more tolerable), which is the goal of trying to have a healthy grieving experience. And I do hope one of those for you. Sorry about your challenging year to say the least. 

    Regards,

    Mike

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  • Upon academically studying the idea of a funeral and most of the processes associated with it, we have arrived at the understanding that they are more for the living than the dead. Human societies have generated many ways in which to deal with the loss of our most like and loved kind, and over time these ways have changed. But what is concurrent in each of these funerary practices is the interactions between people, (experiences that can engage some or all of our senses). This may not come as a surprise, but that is most likely the foundation of the grieving process.

    As their practices have changed, strange constructs have become manifest. If we generally accept that there is no evidence of afterlife, then is the soothing the grieving receive built upon a suspicious notion? The answer is, most likely, “yes”. Richard Dawkins and others have stated that just because we don’t like something doesn’t make it not true. But does that make us cold and calloused organisms? Of course not. Our reasoning abilities have come so far in such a short amount of time. So how does one reason a statement like: “They are with Jesus now.” or “They are in heaven and one day I’ll see them.” I find ideas like this shocking. They actually push those people away from us. To me it sounds as if someone is saying, “well, they are over there now so I can get back on with my life”. We have probably all experienced death of friends and family and we can use our powers of reason, combined with our life experiences with these people, to continue to make a difference in our lives. And those experiences count that much more when we expect no further experiences with those people to occur in heaven, hell, or in between.

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  • 13
    TyroneAByrne says:

    I think @rdfrs-77acb97a04c70d2e50d158f841b93af9:disqus has a point, but I would say that religion is a factor. I would say atheists probably do take longer to grieve because, naturally, we understand the true weight of death as eternal. One way I think you could help to aid your grieving is to consider the beliefs of the person who took their own life, were they religious? If they were they probably did not understand the eternal nature of death, they thought they were going to a better place. It is tough grieving as an atheist, but ultimately, in the long run, the false hope that the person lives on “somewhere” is not going to satisfy you, because you know the truth of the matter, and in many respects you are lucky that you do not have the deal with the burden of the possibility of your loved one going to HELL. After all, flip the coin and religion can lead to more grievance than simply not believing you go anywhere where you die, it all depends on which way you view it.

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  • 14
    Pauly01 says:

    It’s not easy. I’ll tell you the way that being an atheist can help you. Many Theists in these circumstance are bound by an unreasonable urge to put themselves out their like an emotional punching bag. Because that’s the so called holy way. Unhelpful emotions such as guilt and shame come into play because it is felt that peers and god sit in judgement of the person. Pick yourself up as soon as you can and accept that these situations will inevitably rare their head through out your life. I don’t know what your feeling , but if it’s guilt , that emotion is for fools.

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  • My Mum, who died a non-believer, always said to me, ‘Never believe in hell,  the worst ‘hell’ is separation from those you love”.   Death is a final separation, that’s  why it is so painful for us left behind.   I still miss her very much.

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  • 16
    Nordic11 says:

    Kimberly,

    I’m so sorry for your loss.  I lost my cousin to suicide two months ago.  His brother had found him and actually saved him from a previous suicide attempt.  After several shots of Scotch, my living cousin and I had a heart to heart.  He is a non-believer, and I’m a Christian, but we connected with each other in our grief.  Whether or not my deceased cousin still existed or where he was did not matter.  My living cousin felt guilt because the last words spoken to his brother were in anger, but I was able to tell him what a good brother he had been all these years.  I told him I was praying for him even though he does not believe in prayer, and that meant a lot to him because he knew I cared and wanted to help.  I have cancer and shared with him my own weariness with battling the chemo and disease and anxiety, and I think that helped my cousin understand his brother’s lost war against depression.  I think this was the only conversation of substance we had ever had in the decades I’ve known him.

    I guess I’m telling you all this because we can find common ground in our humanity through our grief.  Your loss touches me and I whispered a prayer for you this morning (though you would think it a silly waste of time), and I find myself genuinely concerned about you though we stand at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum. 

    Be well and know that others care.

    Nordic

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  • 17
    Ben_Keyes_780 says:

     Nordic11, your words are touching, and I think the world would be a much more pleasant one indeed if more were to spare such kindness. You claim yourself to be “at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum,” which may be true in relation to god(s). But I would suggest that your words mark you to be more similar in ways more important and on matters more dire: namely, stewardship of our fellows. 

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  • 18
    typical animal says:

    OP, it doesn’t exist to religious individuals either. You can’t make it exist. 

    Is it possible that living a lie could ever be right? If you were a very religious person and then suddenly someone convinced you there was no afterlife, then you might get extremely depressed and sad for a while… but this would be more as a backlash to all the lies you believed. Suddenly you would have to do a large amount of reorganizing the way you look at everything, and that hurts because the lies lived previously can seem like a huge waste and make you feel ashamed. This is surely a big part of the reason that older people find it a bit more difficult to change their belief systems and commitments (though it’s always possible, my aunt was a nun who a nurse told me was questioning god’s existence on her deathbed, which seemed totally unlike her, though I couldn’t say whether or not she questioned it previously).

    I have to believe that in the end the true way is the only way to do anything. People don’t want to face the truth, they hide it from themselves. When the fact is that if they gave themselves a chance… their biology starts to work on this new (true) information at many different levels, and produces appropriate and good responses to this truth. It’s not possible to believe in something you know is a lie anyway, it’s a contradiction. So this question of is it “easier” or “harder”… there is really no meaningful comparison.

    Other primates grieve a little bit, horses are in fact notorious for grieving. It’s a natural process. If you remain true to yourself and to your beliefs and always try to do what is right in life then there is no reason that you would feel extended sadness. It might be concerning if you didn’t grieve.

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  • 20
    Nordic11 says:

    Hi Smill,

    I’m sorry for your loss.  I read your post hours ago, and I’ve been sitting here thinking off and on about how I could respond to you.  As a Christian, my “realistic and valid” view of life is so different from yours’ that I’m not certain how I can connect with you to help you.  I lost my dad eight years ago, and I do believe I’ll see him again, which made his loss less devastating for me, but I beleive many Christians (and theists in general) are hypocritical with their comforting belief in the after life.  We look forward to the joys of heaven but do everything we can to stay right here.  I do have faith in a God who has this broken world figured out, but I wrestle with the feeling that life does not make sense and seems random.  In my opinion, the great cruelity and evil that humans perpetrate upon each other contradicts both a good God and evolutionary explanations.

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  • 21
    Nordic11 says:

    Sorry, Smill.

    Somehow I cut off my previous comment before I was done.  None of the things I said before helps you.  I do know that I never had the chance to grieve properly for my dad.  Grief started to hit me, but as the only son in the family, I suddenly became the family patriarch and needed to help my mom with the myriad of funeral details, and by the time everything was done, I missed my chance to grieve.  Like most fathers and sons of my generation, my dad and I were not very close, and I used that deficit to focus on being close to my own sons.  When I was diagnosed with cancer, I almost wanted to pull away from them to spare them greater grief when I died, but I decided to use each day to love my boys as much as possible and spend as much time as I can with them.  I have no control over how this universe works, but I can make a huge impact in the lives of those I love. I can turn grief into acts of love; I can combat great evil with those same acts and let the universe, God, no-God, belief, and unbelief sort itself out.  I believe we are hard wired to love others deeply, and to avoid love because we will suffer future loss will open us up to greater grief and regret at the end of our lives.  I never heard of someone on their deathbed saying, “I wish I had spent more hours at the office and worked harder to make more money instead of spending so much time with my family and those I love.”  Again,Smill, I’m sorry for your loss, and I said more than one prayer for you this morning.  I wish I could do more for you.

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  • 22
    intuitionella says:

    what I read you as saying is that you are finding it difficult to deal with your own feelings of grief and loss, it’s not how do atheists grieve, it’s how do you deal with your feelings, in a non scientific way?

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  • 23
    NoKiddingMan says:

    To me, who lost his father some years ago, religious interpretation of death of a loved one is not relieving.  The grieving period is not related to religious belief scientifically.  I was involved in psychiatry as research worker  for some years.

    DSM-5:

    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/1

    Since there is no evidence for eternal existence after life, I do not need to worry what happens to my loved ones (or myself) after death.

    It is natural for us to avoid thoughts of annihilation.  When we die such thoughts will cease to exist for us.  So, live happily and enjoy your life.  I am sure your loved ones who are not living now wanted you to be happy.

    My best wishes.

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  • 24
    FreeThink says:

    My dad committed suicide a little less than 3 months ago. During the services I was pretty upset that all they talked about was how he was going to Heaven because he was baptized and basically talked about God more than him. I thought about if I was Christian I could have at least looked forward to seeing him in Heaven and maybe this grieving would be easier. At the same time I though he would probably be going to hell according to every other religion. Yet the preacher (who had known my father) was so certain he was in Heaven, as were my grandparents (my grandfather is a preacher, both very religious). So I started thinking, I would probably worry that he would be in hell if I was a Theist, and that honestly would trouble me more than the thought of him being dead. I recalled a few weeks before he passed that told me that he had a lot of ghosts in his head. He was abused as a child. He was a Marine, lost nearly all of his friends in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, he felt as if he should of been there with them and felt he left them all behind. All of this is just scratching the surface of his life. He was still being haunted until the day he died So at least I know that he is no longer in pain, no longer haunted. I don’t have to worry if he made it to Heaven or not. I don’t have to worry about anything, even though this may sound a little dark, he finally got what he wanted, a peace of mind. Which also gives me a peace of mind about him, and I may not have that peace of mind if I wasn’t Atheist. And that peace of mind my friend helps with the grieving process. 

    I’d also like to mention that my dad didn’t give a shit about religion, raised as a baptist, but I would say he was more undecided.

    I apologize because this probably isn’t the most well-written comment, just some thoughts on my mind.

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  • 26
    tardisride says:

    I’m a little late to the party but thought I’d chime in anyway. I believe some theologies can extend the pain of a person’s death, even through the life of the person left behind. My biological father died of cancer when I was too young to know him. His family was Catholic and his parents lived in fear over the fate of his soul until their own passings, paying their local church to have masses said in his name several times annually for about thirty years. The goal? To be sure his soul wasn’t trapped in purgatory. This is not the same as grief, but it adds an unhealthy, never ending panic and urgency that prevents the wound from healing.

    Conversely, I suspect there is some truth to the idea that the theist who believes in an afterlife (without a troublesome purgatory level) may experience grief differently, if not less. Surely the afterlife first entered the imagination as means to assuage both the fear of death and the grief associated with it. My dad (who raised me) passed away earlier this year. My mom was devastated but adopted a weird ‘oh well’ view of his death, saying that god picked that day for him to die, they’d be together again one day, he is with Jesus now, etc. This is an obvious means of coping and does not reduce grief, but it might alter how intensely that grief is felt, like an analgesic. 

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  • I find the concept of Heaven pretty absurd, what would heaven look like? are we some abstract bubble which neither eats and drinks but each day gives praise to god. This sounds like perpetual hell, so the idea of a better place needs defining by theists, sorry they seem quite certain about what god wants in nearly every other mattter so will ask {not at funerals} what is this better place.

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  • 28
    jasongw1122 says:

    Be careful about theuse of forever if you consider the immense size of the universe and the unimaginable time that is available it is possible that we could meet family members again if the conditions are right.

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  • My uncle (my mother’s brother) is dying of terminal cancer. There’s nothing we can do avoid that. He probably has a few more hours or a day or two left to live and I’m sitting here at home, helplessly looking at my grieving mother and my uncle’s young kids(who don’t even know that their father is about to die). this is the cold and dry narrative of what’s happening with me right now,at this very moment. As an atheist I can’t run to religion for refuge,but I want to. I want to be able to leave everything to god because if I don’t, there’s no way I can make sense of anything. I don’t want to be the one to tell these kids what happened to their father because I can’t convince them that their father is in a better place, because I don’t think there is a place after death. But right now, I want a place to be there. I’m breaking apart everytime I see these kids giggle and shout. I’m shattered to see my mother like this and I’m wondering what my uncle’s thinking right now (if he can think). Is death becoming an obvious fact to him? Does he feel comfortable because he believes in god? Am I allowed to change my beliefs after years of atheism, just because I can’t handle this grief? Report abuse

  • Shrindhar

    When people close to me have died in the past, I have made many of the same observations that you describe in your comment above. At funerals, I looked around and saw many people who were comforted by believing that the deceased was in a “better place” and not really gone. I don’t believe in better places after death or any place at all after death but what good does it do for me to press my lack of belief onto the grieving? I imagine that it must be easier to deal with the catastrophe of death of a loved one if one really believes the mythology of heaven and a loving God(s) but isn’t there some comfort in the realization that we are lucky to be alive on this earth in the first place? It’s a gift to have lived in this beautiful world even if that life is cut short at some point. This might be harder to process but it’s honest.

    As adults we can accept the truth of death, difficult as it is, but with children, as you described, that is more complicated. Depending on the ages of the children, they may or may not have the cognitive development to understand the finality of death. But I believe we can prepare children for the sad event that is imminent. Most children have observed the death of a pet and have processed that event to some degree and they can understand that people are a sort of animal too and subject to the same biological processes including birth, life processes and death. Of course they will be devastated but they will recover and achieve an acceptance like the adults all around them. What is the alternative? To hide the truth and obscure it with fairy tales? I can’t see how that would serve the best interests of a child.

    Stay strong for everyone around you. Report abuse

  • Shridhar 29 
    First of all please accept my condolences during this obviously difficult time.  As you note in your moving piece, as atheists we don’t have a belief system to comfort us in such circumstances.  I am reminded of what Professor Dawkins has said on several occasions – what is comforting and what is true are two different things.  I am not qualified to give advice regarding what to tell the children of a parent who has died.  Adults, on the other hand, need to confront the reality, the truth, of the situation.  The truth is that everyone who has ever been born has died, or will die.  I suspect that children too will also benefit more from the truth than from fairy tales.  We will miss our loved ones, but as an atheist I do not understand how pretending that they have gone to a celestial North Korea – to reference the late Christopher Hitchens – is a comforting thought.       Report abuse

  • Michael, people do not believe their loved ones are in hell, or a celestial North Korea, as Hitchens put it, that is all. It’s an incredibly silly thing to say “I do not understand how pretending-” when they are not pretending, it gives them real comfort, and the ‘connection’ they have does not involve the same experience in life you have to come to this conclusion about faith. Their feelings are real, and their comfort/coping mechanisms are also real, do not belittle people over it.

    But anyway, to the reason I wish to post…

    I am currently grieving. Heavily, in fact, or atleast, this is the first time I’ve been so emotionally affected by a death… My friend passed away, at the age of 25. It’s been many years since he passed, but I still find myself having the odd cry and thinking about him.
    To put it in to perspective on some level about my emotional state; I don’t cry often, and my partner of several years has only seen me cry over this, never over anything else… I’m quite stable and emotionally sound, I think.

    I think we might grieve slower as “Atheists” to answer the original question… I am still grieving years later, not to any “greater” extent than his other friends or his family, of course. But I felt so alienated and lonely when it came to truly grieving amongst PEOPLE. All of his family are religious and the thought of ever having to sit and talk about anything like this terrified me, to the point where I still haven’t talked to anybody close to him about what I feel.

    I’ve experienced a LOT of death in my life, from work, friends and family, but this person in particular shattered me and really opened a big hole at the time… I can proudly say that I have done my part and constantly strive forward as a result of him… Him passing has given me a lot of motivation to become a better person, and I do it all in his honour…

    My heart aches when I think he might be in a better place, as I’d absolutely love to believe it, but alas, things like this and beliefs are not a choice… I know what my reality is, and it’s one where he doesn’t physically exist anymore.

    No chance to express how much he meant to you, nor what he did for you, especially during my dark times… When I had nobody, somehow he was there, and like most things in life until something like this happens, you take it for granted.

    Call it psychological bias or the effect of remembering things differently over time, but I know I never saw this person express hate or anger, and over his lifetime I definitely gave him reason and justification to, but he forever remained positive… Even when diagnosed, positivity was all he could muster.

    First time I’ve wrote anywhere about this and there’s plenty to write, and after experiencing so many deaths and be unshaken, perhaps even sounding like some of the ‘sure-footed/arrogant’ people in this comment section… I thought similarly. But no, grieving and death, there is no logical approach to stop the pain of losing somebody you TRULY adored and loved with all your heart.

    At least, it doesn’t particularly help =).

    Found myself crying half way through writing, but hey ho… Good luck to all, and stay positive. Report abuse

  • Beautiful post, Brad. Brave, too. I’m sorry for your loss – your friend was obviously a very special person, and your post also speaks volumes for the strength of your mutual relationship.

    Many of us atheists tend to emphasise rationality, and obviously that’s a hugely important and valuable thing. But there’s a risk we can over-do it, to the point where we discount or despise feelings. And when it comes to understanding human behaviour, nothing could be LESS rational than refusing to acknowledge the power that feelings hold over people, ourselves included. (That fear of feelings … what else is it but a feeling?) The reality is that we humans are overwhelmingly driven by our emotional responses. And the reason very few believers can be reasoned out of their religious faith is that they simply don’t put religious claims in the same category as, say, facts about how to build a bridge, or facts about the workings of the internal combustion engine, or facts about how to bake the perfect chocolate brownie. Their faith works for them on an emotional level, and that fact itself reinforces their allegiance to it. And while it’s true that many atheists find themselves unable to understand that, it’s also true that many atheists don’t actually try very hard. Report abuse

  • i once made the blunder of saying to a bereaved woman

    at her husband’s funeral

    that he was in a better place

    she lit into me loudly (and rightfully) with

    no!   he should be here with me! Report abuse

  • In comment 31 Michael100 said:

     We will miss our loved ones, but as an atheist I do not understand how pretending that they have gone to a celestial North Korea – to reference the late Christopher Hitchens – is a comforting thought.      

    I see nothing wrong with the statement and I agree with him. I don’t understand it either and I never will. I’ll take it another step and say that I see no evidence that the devoutly religious understand my views on death whatsoever and haven’t ever made any effort to try.

    Americans have a constitutional right to practice their religion within the law of the land and I’m in favor of that. It’s a human right. People have rights but ideas and ideologies don’t have rights. They are available for criticism and I don’t see anything in Michael00’s comment that violates that.

      Report abuse

  • Brad #32.  I should probably rely on what LaurieB said in #34 (thank you Laurie), but I spent the morning composing these thoughts, so I’ll post them.
     
    My comments in #31 were in response to Shridhar #29, who was dealing with the impending death of a maternal uncle.  Shridhar wrote: “As an atheist (emphasis added), I can’t run to religion for refuge, but I want to. I want to be able to leave everything to god because if I don’t, there’s no way I can make sense of anything.”  Shridhar went on to note that he/she did not want to tell the children that their father was in a better place “because I don’t think there is a place after death.”
     
    My intention was to support what Shridhar – an atheist – was feeling.  Although religion provides comfort to some people, for myself turning to religion in times of crisis is dishonest – either I reject supernaturalism, or I don’t.  If for one second, I thought there was the most remote possibility that god exists, I would not consider myself to be an atheist.  Not only am I an atheist, but I do not want to live in a world haunted by gods and demons.  Although I have no intention of belittling people who find comfort in an afterlife – I have no right to belittle anyone – I find such belief unrealistic and unhelpful.  I don’t proselytize atheism, but neither do feel compelled to apologize for my views, especially when talking to fellow atheists, or to anyone who wants to have an adult conversation.

    A few months ago, after I wrote #31, my mother died.  Some of my relatives are very religious, but others are atheists.  Those of us who are atheists, including some pre-teenage children, were respectful and observed the funeral rites – in fact, at an appropriate point, I rose and thanked the church members for having been so kind to my mother – but among ourselves we atheists shared our views that everyone who has ever been born has or will die.  I was particularly happy that the children had been told the truth, and they found more comfort in the truth than in the mythology they witnessed others expressing.  This suggests to me that if children are old enough to understand what is happening, they are old enough to be told the truth.  Death is a fact, there is no escape from it.  For me, grief is much easier to deal with when I simply accept the reality of the situation.  Yes, I loved my mother and I miss her.  However, she died; she no longer exists, just as she did not exist before she was born – nothing mysterious or difficult to understand, at least for me. Report abuse

  • Apologies, the last sentence of my last comment probably came across as over-tetchy.

    Personally, I share the horror at the thought of eternal life. I find it personally repellent, utterly preposterous, and also highly unhelpful: if half the energy directed at securing a place in a fictional heaven were directed towards dealing with the pressing issues right here, right now, this life could become a lot less hellish for a lot more people. Eternity is not a proposition that appeals to me in the least.

    But over and over again I read comments from other atheists that portray religious faith in our terms – ‘a celestial North Korea’, being one of them. Well ok: we can express ourselves however we like, but if we’re remotely interested in actually understanding the phenomenon that seems to occupy so much of our time and mental energy, there’s no point in simply recasting it in terms that tickle our egos but that the religious will instantly dismiss because our descriptors only convey how we see their beliefs, not how they do. And if we’re not interested in understanding it, why devote so much of our lives to the subject?

    Laurie, I was struck by this comment of yours:

    Americans have a constitutional right to practice their religion within the law of the land and I’m in favor of that. It’s a human right. People have rights but ideas and ideologies don’t have rights. They are available for criticism

    You’re quite right, obviously, but it strikes me as legalistic. No one is suggesting that there is no legal right to criticise religion or the religious. But the fact something is allowed doesn’t necessarily make it either helpful, effective or … kind. And while I’m all in favour of rationality, if the goal is to reduce the hold that religion has over people, treating them unkindly or contemptuously is the least rational thing we can possibly do. It often seems to me that we stress rationality and reason and evidence whenever it’s bolstering our stance that religion is bad and/or stupid, but then revert to emotionalism and self-indulgence when it comes to actually dealing with the religious. We think they’re stupid to believe X but we’re equally stupid in our insistence that simply telling them they’re stupid will stop them being stupid. There is no shortage of information available about the art of persuasion, the art of influence – and calling people names, failing to engage with them, distorting their arguments (or recasting them in terms more favourable to ourselves) don’t feature prominently among the recommended, evidentially supported strategies.

    Brad was absolutely right when he said that no believer recognises the ‘celestial North Korea’ epithet. And that means it’s not helpful to use it when engaging with them. It will just reinforce their sense that we don’t have the first idea about how they experience their faith, and that we therefore have nothing of value to say about it. So much of our discussion as atheists only works within a group of atheists because, while it may reflect the rational case against religion, it doesn’t reflect (or even reflect on) WHY religion is so important to so many people; it doesn’t reflect how they experience it or why it feels to work for them. We don’t believe something, therefore when they say they do believe it, they must be ‘pretending’. We’ll get absolutely nowhere like that. Even the most basic sales course will tell us that successful sales people listen far more than they speak.

    Remember how the tide turned against Hillary Clinton when she spoke carelessly, in a way that allowed her to be represented as having called Trump supporters “deplorables”? What did that do to Trump supporters? Did it put them off? Or did they resent it and double down? Life would be so much easier if we could simply insult and patronise and abuse our opponents into submission, but humans are FAR more complex than that, and if we want to achieve anything on the rationality front, we’re going to have to engage with them where they are, rather than where we, in our clearly vastly superior wisdom, think they ought to be.

    By the way, Laurie, and for the avoidance of doubt, I get the impression that in your own, clearly complex and challenging family setting, you handle things incredibly well – far better than I would. I’m far too impatient and get too irritated and, what’s worse, I show it too easily (this won’t come as news to regular readers here, I know). I really admire the clear, steady, patient, persistent approach you often share with us here, and frequently wish I had half the emotional intelligence I detect in you. But your experiences are also testimony to the importance of creating and maintaining relationships and trust with people you’re hoping to influence. I get the impression you never mask your own stance, but that you tread carefully, thoughtfully, constructively, and never lose sight of the person behind the belief. And that you fully accept it’s a long-term project, not something that’s going to be achieved with a single killer argument or cutting comment. You’re continuing to value and invest in the relationships. That’s all I’m advocating too (though I’d be the first to admit I’m better at prescribing than doing). Report abuse

  • Good morning Marco,

    It’s such a nice thing to wake up, get a cup of coffee and open this site in the hope that there’s some interesting conversation. Sometimes I think – Oh ok, the Brits have already been up for six hours, let’s see if they’ve written anything! Today it did happen. Yay!

    Well, as usual, there’s nothing really to disagree with.

    Regarding the afterlife, I have a close friend who was brought up in the Catholic church and never hesitates to lob curses and insults their way but when I subtly nudge her to consider the truth of any of their dogma she becomes visibly anxious and shuts the conversation down. I never initiate these discussions but when the topic of heaven comes up, the first thing she always strongly asserts is, “NOBODY really knows what happens after death, right?!!” I respond in the affirmative. “That’s right, nobody knows anything about it.” This opening statement seems very important to her and I think it frees her to enter into the conversation and speak against the teachings of that church. It’s not my goal in life to rip her religion out from under her but I think these conversations have given her a sort of “safe space”  where she can think of her religious upbringing out loud without fear of a toxic bad reaction. I think we’ve all seen what that looks like. In the end we always end up with a good laugh and this seems to me an ideal situation for an atheist and a believer.

    I think it’s this kind of relationship where the (to us) amusing statements made by Hitch can have good effect. With my friend Maria, I once told her what he said about her own saint Mary – What’s more likely? That a young Palestinian woman became pregnant without having sex or that she told a fib? (completely botched his quote, sorry!). Maria dropped her smile and replaced it with that defensive glare. A few seconds later she was laughing, because, you know, come on now, what woman can’t relate to that truth?

    I wouldn’t hesitate to use Hitch’s “Celestial North Korea” remark with Maria. I think the reaction would be the same as with the “What’s more likely..” remark.  Years ago I told a Muslim friend my objections to his ideas on what heaven was like. He replied that the Christian heaven was no improvement on it at all. He said that he couldn’t think of a more boring place to go. All that floating in clouds and boring angels and cherubs and that’s about it. That caught me off guard because I honestly spend no time in my day thinking about how great it will be to go there. I have better things to think about, but when he prompted me to do so I had to agree with him that it must be the most boring place I’d ever heard of. If I’d told him about the celestial North Korea remark I’ll just bet he would’ve laughed.

    I think it would be best if when in discussion with believers of any stripe, we temper our remarks based on our relationship with our interlocutor and our assessment of the degree of their devotion to the dogma of their ideology. (This goes for their political ideology as well). If I can get them to laugh at themselves that’s the best outcome but it doesn’t always go that way. Too many times believers circle right around to a personal insult and attempt to shut me down.

    My paragraph that you quoted above, “Americans have a constitutional right…” is, as you said, legalistic in tone. It exists as a defensive measure with interlocutors who are not as flexible as my friend Maria. When I’m under verbal attack I do make that statement to neutralize the negativity. The devoutly religious often need reminding that this is not a theocracy we live in and there is a constitutional separation of church and state for a very good reason and that the founding fathers did not intend for this to be a Christian nation as they stated in black and white in their own writings.

    It is at this point that I press the point that good and proper morality is not produced by religion but probably in spite of it. If I believe that they are good people I tell them that too but point out the discrepancies between their religious beliefs and what we now consider to be good morality in the current times. Phil and I have agreed in the past that morality is an important topic between atheists/humanists and the religious believers that ought to be on the top of the discussion agenda.

    It often seems to me that we stress rationality and reason and evidence whenever it’s bolstering our stance that religion is bad and/or stupid, but then revert to emotionalism and self-indulgence when it comes to actually dealing with the religious. We think they’re stupid to believe X but we’re equally stupid in our insistence that simply telling them they’re stupid will stop them being stupid.

    This is a real problem for us. I struggle with it on a daily basis. I honestly don’t think that all believers are stupid. Many of them are obviously smarter than I am! A quick tour around Harvard and MIT would prove that easily but I must admit in honesty, that there have been plenty of our less educated and moderately educated acquaintances who came across as so severely dogmatic, defensive and supportive of what I consider to be immoral ideas that in a fit of frustration I thought to myself – This is a fucking hopeless idiot. Yes, I have thought that of a fair number of people and in the US of A, at the current time, that thought has floated out from my frontal lobes more times than I like to admit. It goes without saying that here is where one must shut up and walk away while softly repeating over and over – “Americans have a constitutional right to…”

    We don’t believe something, therefore when they say they do believe it, they must be ‘pretending’

    This “pretending” statement has me a little unclear. It was Michael100 who brought it up and I can’t put words in his mouth but it could use some explanation. I suppose there are believers who feel the need to pretend to believe in heaven and other religious dogma, and that strikes me as a very sad situation but the great majority of believers that I know, appear to be quite convinced about the existence of an actual place called heaven with all of the imagery we associate with the idea of heaven. If I ask them for the location on the time-space continuum of this place or the GPS coordinates of this place they describe then they become visibly exasperated with me and this makes me conclude that they really believe in heaven and are not pretending to believe, as contrasted with the reaction that I predict from my friend Maria which would probably be a glare then a laugh. So I’m not sure what Michael meant by “pretending” but it’s possible that we’re talking past each other. He can clarify if he sees fit.

    if we want to achieve anything on the rationality front, we’re going to have to engage with them where they are, rather than where we, in our clearly vastly superior wisdom, think they ought to be.

    I certainly agree with this as I hope I’ve made clear above. The only thing I’d add is that this is the best course in dealing with interactions on a personal level but as you have acknowledged in past comments here, the US is in a public struggle between the supporters of a secular state and those who intent to impose their own religious beliefs onto all Americans whether they like it or not. This is where civility may need to be surrendered if the going gets rough enough. I always want my interactions to be measured and considered but between the extremely disappointing political situation and the invitation at the highest levels to the fundamentalist Christians to have their way with us, I wonder just how long a civil discussion is even possible.

     I get the impression that in your own, clearly complex and challenging family setting, you handle things incredibly well – far better than I would.

    I fervently wish for this to be the truth, I really do, and I hope I’ve done everything I can to make it so but to my utter disappointment, I’ve now decided that I won’t be attending any further family holiday gatherings. I skipped Thanksgiving but did attend the Christmas dinner with my extended family against my better judgement. I brought my mom out of the nursing home to that dinner because of course, it means a lot to her. If that was the only reason for going then that’s totally worth it. I dodged political confrontations, which I am well used to from the past, being the liberal black sheep of the family that I am but when it came time to sit for dinner, a devout catholic member of the family announced that she wanted to say grace (whatever) and looked right at me, and made a sarcastic remark, naming me and saying that I’ll be mad about it but she’s doing it anyways. ! I replied that I certainly wasn’t mad whatsoever and that she should do whatever she wants. She did go straight on to say a traditional RCC prayer and a few other Catholics gave the traditional response.

    I consider this to be an aggressive move on her part and I’m pretty sure I handled it well enough but in retrospect I’m sorry I didn’t have a humanist statement prepared to say right after her religious one. My bad. Of course, I’ve been ranting that I WON’T be in attendance at these events ever again. I have a year to sort this out.

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  • Laurie

    Sometimes I think – Oh ok, the Brits have already been up for six hours, let’s see if they’ve written anything! 

    To be fair, this Brit is a very late riser 😀 Report abuse

  • LaurieB #38.  I applaud what you wrote.  At the risk of belaboring the point of why I chose to use the word “pretend”.  Please keep in mind that I was responding to Shridhar # 29 who was struggling with the impending death of a close relative.  Shridhar wrote: “As an atheist I can’t run to religion for refuge … I can’t convince them (his uncle’s children) that their father is in a better place, because I don’t think there is a place after death.  But right now, I want a place to be there … Am I allowed to change my beliefs after years of atheism, just because I can’t handle this grief.”  Shridhar stated that he/she is an atheist and was struggling with the urge to revert to religious thinking, or perhaps just terminology, in a moment crisis.  Shridhar said he/she knew better than to be talking about the proverbial “better place.”  I didn’t mean to imply that religious people pretend that the afterlife exists, I’m sure many firmly believe that.  I told a fellow atheist, not a religious believer, that there was no reason to “pretend,” — Shridhar wrote that he/she knows better.  That’s why I used the word and I submit that it was appropriate.  Report abuse

  • Totally agree, Arkrid. I’m with Susan Ertz on this one:

    “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Report abuse

  • For me, and I’ve been an atheist all of my life, family is the single most important aspect of getting through the grieving process.

    My brother was killed last weekend. The memorial service will be held on Tuesday, and there will be a mix of theists and non-theists, but that doesn’t matter. At all. The theists are my two other brothers and their wives. Family. Report abuse

  • How long can the average human put up with their in-laws, cousins, nephews, nieces? A week or so? Imagine eternity. You’d go crazy. I loved my grans and grandads but I wouldn’t want to spend a trillion years with them. A couple of weeks a year during the school holidays was plenty. Report abuse

  • Vicki #46

    I’m so sorry. What a devastating thing to be going through. Thank goodness you clearly have a strong, loving family who will get through it together, but still, it must be a terribly painful time for you. My deepest sympathies.

    Marco Report abuse

  • Thank you, Marco.

    Yes, my family is always there, and they’re the best. We’ve been through this before with our parents, although not as unexpectedly or violently–they both died in their sleep–and it really shines a light on the rock that is my family, and that ties us together. Report abuse

  • Vicki

    In that respect you’re very lucky. That’s exactly how family is supposed to be, but too often it sadly isn’t. Wonderful when it works, though.

    Sudden and/or violent death is the hardest of all to cope with. No warning, no time to prepare oneself, and that awful, sickening sense of shock. It turns everyone’s life upside down and can leave everyone feeling suddenly vulnerable too. Just devastating.

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  • Centauri

    Thanks for posting that clip of Hitch. Such a pleasure to hear him again. I see that I botched the quote, ugh.

    While watching, I noticed how generous he was to Sharpton. I take a lesson from that.

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  • Thanks, Laurie.

    On a brighter note, he was the one who gave me my first taste of Dawkins. We’d been having a discussion about the harm wrought by theists on a secular society, me taking the position that it wasn’t really a big deal. He gave me a copy of “The God Delusion” and, needless to say, I revised my position. Report abuse

  • Vicki. So, so sorry to hear the sad news of your brother, but relieved to hear you have good people all around you for mutual support. There is consolation, too, in consoling others.

    The net of our mutuality, our love, our fellowship is ever in need of repair. It is perhaps the very stuff of living. Report abuse

  • Vicki,

    So sorry for your loss.  There are times in our lives when we encounter situations entirely out of our control and the blindsides can be devastating.  Losing loved ones is the pinicle and most difficult of situations we have to endure.  We cannot escape these events and at the end of the day we have to process it all within ourselves as we run it through our internal barometer as we seek a way to comprehend the blow.  Hopefully family and loved ones are there to help us through the pain as we attempt a recovery of our balance and that social bond provides the most immediate relief.  I wanted to take the time to pass a personal experience on to you for your consideration and I hope you might find some solice in it.

    I have lost both of my parents and I too lost my only brother in his early 50’s and the initial impact was devastating.  I have found the platitude that time heals to have a great deal of credibility but the pain never goes away completely.  What I was surprised to discover is this – often times I find myself musing and remembering share events of our lives together and they have became a comfort to me, a continuing relationship, although one sided, where they still live in my mind and in my heart.  That gift keeps giving and I hope that might occur for you as well.  Again, so sorry for your loss and I want to express my sympathy to you and your family at this most difficult time.

     

     

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