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.
But these beliefs aren't universally shared, and they aren't seen as universally comforting, either. In fact, religious ideas about death can be profoundly upsetting to people who don't believe them. Sentiments that many believers find comforting -- such as heaven and hell, or god's plan for life and death -- are, for many non-believers, more than just ideas they don't agree with. They are ideas they find distressing, hurtful and repugnant.
As GBB member Lisa M. Lilly said, "After my parents were killed by a drunk driver, people said things to me that I found extremely difficult to hear, such as that their deaths were god's plan or god's will. While I'm sure the speakers thought they were offering comfort, the idea that god wanted my mother to be run over and die in the street and my father to suffer six-and-a-half weeks with severe injuries, only to die after several surgeries, was appalling to me."
As GBB member Karen Vidrine commented, "Even when believers don't say it, I know they are thinking of hell and how to tell me my children [who committed suicide] are there." Even though atheists don't agree with these ideas, they're still disturbing -- and they're the last thing they want to hear about when they're struggling with their grief.
This isn't just true for non-believers, either. It's often true for grieving believers as well. In fact, as Hensler points out, the death of a loved one is often a trigger for questioning or abandoning religious faith -- especially if that death is particularly painful or unjust. (This is a big reason why Hensler created the group to welcome not only atheists, but believers who are questioning their faith.) The idea that death is part of god's plan, for instance, is comforting to some -- but for many, this idea either makes them angry at God, or guilt-ridden about what they or their loved ones did wrong to bring on his wrath. And the idea of heaven or another perfectly blissful afterlife is often comforting only when you don't think about it very carefully. When you consider the idea of a spiritual "place" where we somehow are ourselves and yet magically don't change or grow, don't experience any conflict, don't have the freedom to screw up, and are untroubled by the suffering of others (either living or in Hell)... this idea can become more and more disturbing the more carefully you consider it. And many people find that they cope with death and grief far better without it.
But the reality is that spiritual beliefs permeate grief support -- so much so that it's invisible to believers, who often perpetuate it without even thinking. As GBB founder Hensler pointed out, even in the non-religious Compassionate Friends group, "so many of their members are religious or spiritual that there is no real way to participate without being constantly exposed to comments about god, angels and signs. And when I posted about my son and my grief on the page, commenters frequently projected those beliefs onto me, with offers to pray or reassurances that Jude is in heaven. Half the time I felt understood and supported, and half the time I felt like screaming."
GBB member Kevin Millham echoes this sentiment. "The hospice in which my wife died has a wonderful bereavement program, and I now belong to a grief support there. Everyone tries to be supportive and not proselytize, but the other members are Christians without exception, and we often hear in group meetings how their faith is helping them get through (though I notice they're having every bit as hard a time as I am). What helps them does not help me, however, and I find that talk of an afterlife I do not believe in is a way of minimizing my attempts to deal with the finality of my wife's death, however well-intentioned the 'better place' comments may be."
Planning funerals and memorials with religious content is so common that, even when non-believers explicitly request secular ceremonies upon their death, these wishes frequently get ignored. Said GBB member Julie Downing Wirtz, "When my mom died, she left explicit instructions for her funeral. It was to be in the funeral home, not the church, she wanted two songs played, and she named them clearly. Well, some of my siblings chose not to honor her wishes, went to the Catholic church my mother no longer attended, somehow got the pastor there to allow the funeral service, but he would not allow the songs that my mom felt would give us comfort, since they were not religious songs."
This also happened to GBB member Kevin Millham when his wife died: "The memorials we had discussed and agreed upon before her death were pretty much hijacked by local religious and spiritual types."
Even supposedly secular memorials often get infused with religious or spiritual content. And this tendency is so deeply ingrained, the people planning these events aren't even aware that the content is religious, and might be unwelcome to non-believers. Hensler tells the story of a memorial held for a number of children, including her son -- a memorial that was explicitly described as non-religious. "A book was read to all the children in attendance," she says, "who were mostly grieving siblings. The book was written from the point of view of a dead child, describing 'where I am now'ˇ in vague, stars-and-rainbows sorts of terms. It disturbed me, particularly because my late son was one of the children honored at the ceremony. How can they say an event will be non-religious and then teach the children who attend about a version of afterlife?" And before you ask... this didn't happen in a small town in the Midwest, or the deeply religious South. It happened in San Francisco -- one of the most secular, least traditionally religious, most diversity-supportive cities in the country. As Hensler noted, "A whole lot of people seem to think that as long as you aren't talking about Jesus, any support you provide is universally welcome."
This latter point cannot be emphasized enough. There's an all-too-common assumption that "non-religious" means "not adhering to the tenets of a specific religious sect." If you aren't talking about Jesus, or Allah, or reincarnation -- if all you're talking about is non-specific ideas of some sort of higher power or some sort of afterlife -- that's typically seen to be "non-religious." Atheism -- or indeed, any sort of non-belief in any supernatural beings or forces -- is still so invisible in our culture that the possibility simply isn't considered. So even supposedly inclusive, secular events end up with religious or spiritual content that leaves non-believers out in the cold.
But even if none of this were the case -- even if grieving atheists were never confronted with religious ideas about death in upsetting or alienating ways, or even if no atheists were upset or alienated by these ideas -- the need for non- faith- based grief support would still be powerful.
Because in a time of grief, the need for others who understand, others with a similar outlook on life and death, is powerful.
Secular and religious views of life -- and death -- can be radically different. The view that life and death are deliberately guided by a conscious supernatural being is radically different form the view that life and death are entirely natural processes, guided by physical cause and effect. The view that consciousness is a metaphysical substance with the ability to survive death is radically different from the view that consciousness is a biological process created by the brain, and that it ends when the brain dies. The view that life is permanent is radically different from the view that life is ephemeral.
And the forms of comfort and perspective that we find helpful in grief can also be radically different. The idea that life is eternal and we'll see our loved ones again someday is radically different from the idea that life is transitory and therefore ought to be intensely treasured. The idea that life and death are part of God's benevolent plan is radically different from the idea that life and death are part of natural cause and effect, and that we and our loved ones are part of the physical universe and are intimately connected with it. The idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they're in a blissful heaven is radically different from the idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they no longer exist, and that being dead is no more painful or frightening than not having been born yet. The idea that death is an illusion is radically different from the idea that death is necessary for life and change to be possible. The idea that the soul will live forever is radically different from the idea that thing don't have to be permanent to be valuable and meaningful.
The idea that there will be a final judgment in which the bad are punished and the good are rewarded is radically different from the idea that we were all phenomenally, astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that our loved ones will always live on in an afterlife is radically different from the idea that we keep our loved ones alive in our memories, and that they live on in the ways they changed us and the world. Believers and non-believers have many things in common, and much of what we find comforting during grief is the same -- but much of it is seriously different, and even contradictory.
So for many grieving non-believers, the comfort offered by religious believers is, at best, not particularly comforting. Even if it isn't actively upsetting, it simply doesn't connect. And so the comfort, perspective, practical guidance, support, and simple "I've been there and know what you're going through" offered by the Grief Beyond Belief network has been intensely welcomed. As Hensler says, "One of the hardest parts about the first few days of Grief Beyond Belief was the number of people who said, "I wish this had existed when...."
GBB member Nita-Jane Grigson: "I get a sense of support from other people going through what I'm going through, that my friends don't understand." GBB member William Farlin Cain: "Other grief groups more or less insist I indulge my 'spiritual side,' and I just want something of the rational as I revisit the grieving process these years later." GBB member Karen Vidrine: "I like being able to comment and vent about my children's deaths, suicides, without fear of judgment." GBB member James Sweet: "I look for the same things I think just about anyone is looking for in a grief support group: To know other people are going through the same things; to vent; to share; to find hope in loss, to see that no matter how terrible the tragedy, life still goes on. I just don't need to worry so much about having to bite my tongue."
Even people who currently aren't grieving are finding Grief Beyond Belief valuable -- because it helps them support the bereaved non-believers in their lives. GBB member Julie Downing Wirtz says, "As a trained funeral celebrant, and life tribute specialist, serving only non-religious families, I find the posts at GBB help me to serve my clients with a better understanding of the various thoughts that go through people's minds when they are grieving, many of which are very different from my own experiences." And GBB member Christine M. Pedro-Panuyas concurs. " I haven't lost anyone close to me, but what Grief Beyond Belief has really done for me is it helped me know what to say to those who have lost someone. It helped me learn the words to say that are comforting and are comforting in a powerful way because they are true."
When The Trump Card Fails
It's commonly assumed that death is religion's trump card. No matter what atheism has to offer -- a better sex life, freedom from religion's often random taboos, the embrace of reality over wishful thinking, etc. -- many people automatically assume that, when it comes to death and grief, the comfort of believing in an afterlife will always win out. They assume that any argument for atheism being, you know, true, will ultimately crumble in the face of our desire for death to not be the end.
Many atheists reject this assumption passionately. We point out that many religious beliefs about death are far from comforting -- hell being the most obvious -- and that many former believers welcome atheism as a profound relief. We point out that religious beliefs about death are only comforting when you don't think about them very carefully. We point out that a philosophy that accepts reality is inherently more comforting than a philosophy based on wishful thinking... since it doesn't involve cognitive dissonance and the unease of self-deception. And we point out that there are many godless philosophies of death that offer comfort, meaning, and hope -- with complete acceptance of the permanence of death, and without any belief in any sort of afterlife.
But it's one thing to face the general idea of death with a godless philosophy. It's another thing entirely when someone you love dies, and you're dealing with the immediate and painful reality of grief.
That's what groups like Grief Beyond Belief are about.
That's what the burgeoning atheist community is about.
So if you ever wonder why atheists need our own space -- our own meetup groups, our own student groups, our own online forums, our own organizations, our own support networks -- remember that.
And if you need it yourself -- please know that it's here.