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
.]