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The Grief of an Atheist

ne of the most common punches in the stomach atheists receive from believers is when they say atheists will believe in God when something bad (eventually) happens to them. “One day something’s gonna happen and then you’ll find out,” I see them say smugly.

I find it tough to give them the answer you might expect, though (say, “Nuh-uh, it ain’t so; not me!”). The problem is that they’re probably right, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Stress, depression, grief — these feelings make us feel bad and in a perfect world we would never experience them. Nevertheless, we do and how we deal with them depends on our frame of mind (which in turn depends on our feelings, creating a vicious cycle). The overall feeling, though, is one of helplessness — not being in control. A huge, uncontrollable workload at your occupation can cause a great amount of stress. Similarly, those who suffer from depression often do not know why they”re depressed, and if they do it is usually about something out of their control. Likewise, the death of a loved one can easily leave one feeling things are not right with the world because such a close loved one can pass away without warning.

Helplessness and being without control causes most of our internal struggles. “If everything were just left up to me, things would be so much better,” we say to ourselves. But what if events in our lives were in fact under control, just not by us? What if there was a god (or gods) who ultimately controlled aspects of the world (let alone the entire universe)? Moreover, what if this god’s ultimate intentions (in Machiavellian flair) were for the good of all?

While not necessarily comforting, the idea of God as the decisive force in the world can give one a sense of control: Although I am not in control of everything, God is; God is good; therefore, everything that happens is for the good. When our lives are more chaotic than usual, when things seem bad, we need a little hope to help us keep calm and secure. Belief in God can foster this hope: Everything happens for a reason and that reason is (ultimately) good.

More so than anything else, the death of a loved one is a fast, strong, simultaneous source of stress, depression, and grief; however, most (if not all) religions provide comfort by saying, “God has a plan” and (most importantly) “the end is not the end.” But are saying and believing such things the only way to comfort?

Within a half-hour of his death, I asked my family’s blessings to deliver a eulogy for Granpa. I toiled over the right words, the right images to elicit about Granpa. I wanted more than anything else to soothe my family’s loss by helping them to accept his death.

At the funeral, when the second song finished playing, I rose to the podium behind Granpa’s casket and did my best to control my voice just enough to get through the eulogy. I stepped down, music played again, and a preacher followed with his message. He read a few verses from the Bible and implored with those of us who grieved that one day Jesus would return. When he does, the preacher said, he will take up those from their graves first before those who are living. “Isn’t that just a wonderful and comforting thing?” he said with a big smile. You will see Granpa again, he said, as long as you believe.

There was something fundamentally different between my eulogy and the preacher’s message that I couldn’t put my finger on until a day or two later. When speaking of Granpa’s passing, my message said “Yes, And,” yet the preacher’s message said “Yes, But.” Let me explain.

On the one hand, in the eulogy I gave, I wanted my family to accept Granpa’s death and focus on our memories of him as a source of comfort. On the other hand, the preacher wanted them to be patient and not to accept his death as the final word. I said, “Yes, Granpa is dead, and let’s accept the fact the we will never see him again and cherish the memories we have of his life.” The preacher said, “Yes, he is dead, but he will live again and be immortal.”

So, which is more comforting? To accept death as the exclamation point at the end of a life; or, denying death’s finality and believing it to be a transition to life everlasting?

It’s an unfair question, to tell the truth. It all comes down to the kind of person you are. Certainly, most people in the world are religious and would find their comfort in the second choice. Nevertheless, they are also typically confused or appalled that someone could think otherwise, believing that their way is the only way to accept death. That’s why they have a smug smile when they say, “One day something’s gonna happen and then you”ll find out.” Believers are so certain they are right (they have to be) that they are forced to conclude that one day unbelievers will reach that conclusion as well.

Yet, the lack of imagination on the believer’s part in no way prohibits atheists from finding comfort for their grief by accepting death’s conclusiveness. In my opinion, I think believers live in constant denial of death by constructing a worldview where death is a transition point to a life where death never exists. Denial is one of the first steps towards accepting one’s death but it later leads to acceptance; however, when it comes to death itself, most religions act as a pillar of denial.

But I”m being too harsh. Even if there were no such thing as religion, denial of death would still occur. Traumatic events in our lives can cause us to react in irrational (yet very human) ways. Denial comes from within and while religion provides legitimacy to the denial of death, it is still left to us in how we deal with death.

Death brings with it questions of life’s meaning and purpose. The sister of one of my Christian friends once confronted me about death. “If you die and that’s it, then why do anything?” she scoffingly said. “Why go to college and get a degree, why accomplish anything if it’s never going to matter?”

I answered, “But it does matter — it matters to me what I do with my life.” Too often, people think that the finality of death makes life meaningless. It couldn’t be any more false, for it is life’s brevity and fragility that give us the incentive and purpose to make it mean something. If there were no death, our lives would tend towards sloth and meaning would become meaningless.

“I want to talk to you, Granny,” I said to my family’s matriarch the day after Granpa’s funeral. Granny pushed her walker to the other end of the house to the room her husband occupied the last months of his life. I closed the door and sat next to her on the bed. Being mostly deaf, Granny only heard part of the eulogy at the funeral.

“I’ll never read this aloud again but I’m going to read it for you now so you can hear,” I said. She gripped me tight and listened hard. When I finished, her sad eyes looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from the family that after your eulogy we didn’t need a preacher. Granpa would’ve loved it.”

I can’t think of anything in my life that made me prouder. It can be done. Comforting doesn’t have to come from refusing to accept death as the end. I’ve come to realize that grief is an expression of love and we don’t need a belief in gods to love one another.

[A version of this article appeared in Lankford’s “Doubting Thomas” column at Themestream.com.]