21 August 2011


I've been an atheist since age 17, much to the disappointment of my parents. As I began to see and understand the internal contradictions built into Christianity and other world religions, and as I began to grasp that a superstitious explanation for life and the universe is not only inadequate but irrelevant, I chose to shed belief in a god (or gods), and focused instead on explanations which make more sense to me ~ those derived from the sciences.

Religion has served a few useful purposes over the millenia ~ providing a cohesive set of rules for social behavior, providing a sense of community and comfort, and serving as a sanctuary for much of Europe's written knowledge during the Dark Ages. But all of those functions can equally, or even better, be served by secular agencies. The concept of parsimony applies ~ the simplest explanation is probably the correct one. And an anthropomorphic, inconsistent, and often cruel deity is far from a simple explanation.

Let's return for a moment to that word "comfort". It is brought to bear most significantly when a loved one dies. It is an undeniable (if mistaken) comfort to think that the person didn't really die for eternity, that they persist in some sort of divine afterlife, perhaps (in some traditions) to be reincarnated into this world. But since atheists don't generally believe in an afterlife, from where do they derive comfort? Speaking only for myself, the loss is lessened by recalling all the good the deceased person performed while alive, all the lives that person touched, all the ways that person left the world a better place. I hope that when I die, that is how my friends and loved ones will honor me ~ with celebration and fond remembrance, no need for any assurance that I've made it into some ancient, fabled version of heaven. We each make our own heaven and our own hell, right here in this life. If divinity exists at all, it exists in us. We are the creators of our own reality.

All of which resonates in a treatise called Memo to Religious People: Many Atheists Don't Want to Hear That Their Loved Ones Are "In Heaven". As Greta Christina explains, "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 .... The group is open to atheists, agnostics, humanists, and anyone without a 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?

"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 comfort. 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.

" .... in a time of grief, the need for others who understand, others with a similar outlook on lie and death, is powerful .... [Many atheists] 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 a belief in any sort of afterlife."

The treatise goes on to describe the harm inflicted by believers, from automatic expressions of deistic sympathy to the planning and execution of religious funerals, often against the express wishes of the deceased. It also quotes the experiences of a number of Grief Beyond Belief members, when they lost a loved one, and describes the isolation felt by atheists in a culture which devalues them (as is common with any social minority). It is an evocative piece. My thanks to my friend Irene for providing the original link. (Click on any image to enlarge.)


  1. I'm not sure how I stumbled on your blog...LOL.
    Love this post!
    I have recently been in a (tedious) conversation with a Christin who can't fathom the reality of no afterlife...
    It's called Living in Fear.

    Also, LOVE the Penn Gillette quote.

    1. I know exactly what you mean, Karen. A while back, one of my neighbors came to the door passing out invitational pamphlets to her church, and I said I wasn't interested. She looked genuinely astonished, and asked, "But don't you want to know where you're GOING?" (implying heaven or hell) I said, "Nope." In hindsight, I've thought of several alternative answers which might have been more witty, but at the time I was just annoyed at her audacity in peddling her religion door to door. Oh well. And yes, the Gillette quote is priceless. Thanks for your comment. :)

  2. Believing that my mother is GONE, rather than flitting about some aerial paradise, is actually helpful to my grieving process. There's no nonsense about how I'm going to 'see her again,' no fixation on the concept that she's somehow watching or judging what I'm doing. She's gone, like a song that's finished being sung, and while I can remember the song and hum it to myself, there's no pretending that the song is still playing just out of earshot.

  3. What a beautiful analogy ~ thanks for sharing your thoughts. I completely agree....