Thursday, January 13, 2011

Atheism and Death

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.


  1. Hi Ginx, Happy New Year.
    It has been awhile.

    I love your posting. I am around death all of the time, and I am also doing a research study on it. Oddly, with all of the death that I have seen, people who are religious appear to cope worse with it. They are more afraid of being around a dead body, they are more disturbed by it..... The only thing that I can say is rationalize death as an end to suffering. If they were in pain, at least they are no longer in pain. If they had trouble breathing, at least they no longer breathe. And, you look more to the people that they left behind as a source of concern. I also think that there needs to be more stress on the life, and not the death (which is what religion looks at).

  2. Nice to see you back, tink. Been busy? Damn real life...

  3. Good post, Bret. I liked the guy in the video saying he doesn't go into churches and tell them it's bullshit, so don't come to people's funerals and talk about god. They feel so free to disgorge their nonsense. That in itself is offensive.

    As to what to tell an atheist after someone close to him dies: the same thing you tell anyone -- you celebrate the life and damn the loss. I think it's much easier to talk to an atheist who's grieving. At least the person isn't in nonsense-space so the two of you can discuss real things. And yes, our main job in such a situation is to listen. It's a forgotten skill.

  4. Phew, broke my fail streak. Thanks guys.


If your comment is too long, break it into multiple comments and post them all.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...