In a society that reflexively copes with death by using religion, grieving atheists are turning to each other.
August 15, 2011
How do you deal with death -- your own, or that of people you love -- when you don't believe in God or an afterlife; especially when our culture so commonly handles grief with religion in ways that are so deeply ingrained, people often aren't aware of it?
A new online faith-free grief support group, Grief Beyond Belief, is grappling with that very question. And the launch of the group, along with its rapid growth, presents another compelling question: Why do so many atheists need and want a separate godless subculture... for grief support, or anything else?
Grief Beyond Belief was launched by Rebecca Hensler after the death of her 3-month-old son. Shortly after Jude's death, she discovered Compassionate Friends, an online network of parents grieving the deaths of their children. But even though Compassionate Friends is not a religious organization, she says, "I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept."
And she knew there were others who felt the same way. (Full disclosure: Hensler and I are friends, and I actively encouraged and supported her in launching this group.)
About a year later, she started a Facebook page, Grief Beyond Belief. The group grew and flourished far beyond her expectations. Once the atheist blogosphere heard about the group, news spread like wildfire, and membership in the group grew rapidly, rising to over 1,000 in just the first couple of weeks. The group is open to atheists, agnostics, humanists, and anyone without belief in a higher power or an afterlife, to share memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions, and to give others support, perspective, empathy, or simply a non-judgmental ear. It's also open to believers who are questioning, struggling with, or letting go of their beliefs. As long as you don't offer prayers, proselytize for your religious beliefs, or tell other members their dead loved ones are in "a better place," you're welcome to join.
So why do atheists need this?
Salt in the Wound
For some grieving non-believers, the comforts offered by religious believers are neutral, and can even be positive. These atheists don't agree that their dead loved ones are in heaven and that they'll see them again someday, but they can accept the intent behind the sentiments, and can feel connected with and supported by believers even though they don't share the beliefs.
But for many non-believers, these comforts are actively upsetting. They are the antithesis of comforting. They rub salt in the wound.
For many grieving non-believers, the "comforts" of religion and religious views of death present a terrible choice: Either pretend to agree with ideas they reject and in many cases actively oppose... or open up about their non-belief, and start a potentially divisive argument at a time when they most need connection and comfort. As GBB member William Farlin Cain said, "I was still very much in the atheist closet at the time [my mom] passed away, and I was surrounded by believers saying all the things believers say, and I had to say them too just to keep the peace. It was hard."
Religious ideas about death can also make atheists feel alienated: hyper-aware of their marginalized status, and of the ways that atheists in our culture are invisible at best. As I've told believers who were pressing their religious "comforts" on me even though I'd explicitly said I didn't want that: If you wouldn't tell a Jewish person that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus Christ, why would you think it's appropriate to tell a non-believer that their dead loved one is in Heaven? And yet many believers do think this is appropriate... to the point where they not only offer nonbelievers the "comfort" of their opinion that death is not final, but persist in doing so even when specifically asked not to. They're so steeped in the idea of religion as a comfort, they seem unable to think of any other way to comfort those in need. And they seem unable to see that their beliefs aren't universally shared by everyone.
What a great idea this woman had, to start this group, Grief Beyond Belief. I know that for a number of atheists I personally know, it has been hard to have to "pretend" or to nod silently when someone tries to tell them they will see their mom, or dad, or other loved ones, in heaven. It can make grieving even harder, even if you know they mean well. Even worse is hearing stuff like "everything happens for a reason, god has its reasons", or inane idiocies like "god needed one more angel in heaven". I like the example in the article, if Christians understand that you don't tell a Jew that their deceased loved one is in the arms of Jesus, or the virgin Mary, or whatever, why can't they understand that an atheist doesn't want that either? I find that for many religious people, the important thing is that the other person should be religious, no matter what religion, so they respect other people's beliefs, but they do not respect an atheist's lack of belief.
When my mom passed away, I got sick of listening to people telling me she was now happy with my dad in heaven (my dad died when I was 15, a long time ago), and that they were protecting from heaven. I wanted people to understand that I realized I was never going to see my mom again and that I wanted to remember her when we were having fun the two of us, going shopping, jumping in the waves at the beach, or cooking together, watching a movie together, etc. It almost felt as if these believers were not really trying to comfort me, the grieving person, but they were rather trying to comfort themselves and their fear of death.
When my mother died, we drove to the ancestral family cemetery with the ashes in my car and the priest was waiting for us near the little hole in the ground. I put her remains down and the priest asked if I wanted to say something as I was her oldest children.
I said something to the effect of (I can't recall the exact words) "Her pain and suffering has now ended, as it will end for all of us. The only thing that remains of her is in our memory and that's what we should cherish."
The priest remained politely silent but I could see he was wiggling inside. When I was done he insisted on giving his little speech about eternal life bathing in the love of god. I simply turned around and walked away for a minute.
When I came back to the group, I could smell brimstone =)
When my mother passed it was the same thing. You say it perfectly Adriana, they are trying to comfort themselves. All I wanted was to cherish memories, not listen to any priests bullshit.
At the grave site, I had to listen to the BS but I had the last word. I was going to play a song at the end, and the priest asked me if I would like to do it before the final prayer or after, I picked after. The last thing heard at that funeral was the atheist lamenting his loss in music.