I don’t think there’s any time that is more uncomfortable to be an atheist than when people have died. I was reminded of this last night when Obama’s speech delayed the beginning of “Modern Family.”
Death has a way of turning religious people into inadvertent douchebags. Even worse, people who would otherwise never mention God start getting very mystical:
He’s in a better place. She’s at peace, now. Everything happens for a reason. It was God’s plan.
Basically, because death is such an uncommon thing, we have very limited social scripts to draw from when it comes to dealing with funerals and mourners. On one hand, I understand why this is the case, on another… it’s really annoying to have to cope with both loss and someone shoving their religion in your face.
For example, sometimes political figures show up at funerals and make comments which are religiously inappropriate not only to atheists in the audience, but also the atheist in the casket:
I can’t tell people what they can or cannot say, I can only tell them what I would do if someone says something like that to me. And I can assure you, it’s not polite. I can really relate to that guy calling out the religious, especially since it was outsiders coming in to his brother’s funeral to politically and religiously capitalize on a tragedy.
I realize people don’t talk about God and heaven and the Bible when people die because they’re trying to be ideologically intrusive, but if you aren’t firm with people, they don’t get the message. They aren’t trying to annoy me, they’re just doing what they’ve been programmed to do, and it takes quite a jolt to shock them out of autopilot. Frankly, most people will get apologetic afterwards, at least to your face, because they really do mean well.
So what is an atheist to say to another atheist who has lost an atheist? How can you console someone without the risk of offending anyone’s beliefs? Rather than looking for the magic words which will bring comfort, I think maybe the best thing to say is something to the effect of… if there’s something you want to say, let me know, I’ll listen.
Then listen, without judging.