Atheism and Bereavement

So what do you say in the aftermath of a tragedy? What do you do? What can you say?

People say that you, as an atheist, are incapable of knowing what to say to someone who is grieving or who has suffered a major tragedy. It is the kind of issue we see after pretty much every tragedy we face in our lives, from dead dog to horrific massacre. We keep thinking that there is nothing to say as an Atheist and we are repeatedly told that our world view does not provide relief.

Dennis Prager thinks so too. It’s why we are such easy targets during times of grief.

What prompted Susan Jacoby to write her piece was a colleague telling her that atheism “has nothing to offer when people are suffering.” She wrote the piece, “The Blessings of Atheism” (“It is Here and It is Now!” screams the subhead) to prove her colleague wrong by offering a consoling atheist alternative to religion’s consoling belief in an afterlife. Atheists cannot believe that there is any existence other than this life. But, Jacoby insists, atheists can still offer consolation to people who lose loved ones, such as the parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook.


I can walk around telling my patients that “everything will be all right! We’ll have a cow and maybe a pig an’
chickens… an’ down the flat we’ll have a… little piece alfalfa for the rabbits…” or I can help them deal with reality of the situation. This is not an argument we can have without people’s feelings getting trodden on so let’s start with the beginning….

Roughly 1200 infants die every hour. Roughly 2000 children under the age of 13 die every hour.

For one hour it was 2020 rather than 2000. Yet we still have to come back to such a tragic incident because people are using this to basically push whatever pet project they want. I don’t think asking for gun control is a pet project. It’s common fucking sense. The entire world thinks America is filled with paper thin models who sing like machines, black rappers with guns or Yosemite Sam. It’s high time the USA realised that it’s guns are a problem as is the attitude of people to them.

But back to tragedies. We can offer consolation, it’s just that Prager doesn’t think it means anything when we say it.

Jacoby offers a quote from Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899. He “was one of the most famous orators of his generation, [and] personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called ‘The Great Agnostic ‘… — I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message. “The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife — to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn’t suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance. And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared to the religious message that we humans are not just matter but possess eternal souls.

I don’t know.

Is it better than telling people that their children are in a made up place? Is it better than telling people who do not believe in your god that their kids are in hell because they didn’t believe in Jesus? Or is that little truth hushed up around the non-christians if they get shot? There is no evidence for an afterlife, none at all. It’s not as harsh as the truth that the world thinks the USA’s obsession with guns is ridiculously unhealthy or that no one really cares about these kids. If we did we wouldn’t be using their deaths to attack atheists.

What Prager says is no different from “the farm” from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. Lenny died happy because of the farm but you know that there was no farm. If you read deeply into the book you may come to the conclusion that there never ever really was a farm and that it was just a story George told Lenny to keep him happy, that it was a dream and a “paradise”, a reward for Lenny and George that never really materialised.  George wanted to spare Lenny the fear and pain of being hung, so he killed him while he was happy because Lenny is not sane. He is basically a huge man with the mind of a child and so such a story meant a lot to him.

But none of what Prager is offering is true and we aren’t like Lenny. This is the grown up equivalent of telling your kids that the dog “went to live on a farm”. Look across the river, you can see Scruffy gambolling in a field full of Pedigree Chum.

It may satiate your 7 year old but pretty soon they start asking really awkward questions. I know my grandmother died in suffering but she is dead. She didn’t go somewhere “better”, she ceased to be alive and her body returned to the earth and air from which it was formed through biological process.

What got me through was remembering her LIFE rather than her death.

Though I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence, I understand atheism. Anyone observing the terrible amount of unjust human suffering understands the atheist. But even atheists — indeed, especially atheists, since they claim that, unlike believers, they are guided solely by reason and intellect — have to be intellectually honest. They would have to acknowledge that, in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on, and you will be reunited with her.”

Not really. It’s pretty logical to be an atheist. Prager doesn’t believe in any gods outside Jehovah quite easily yet thinks we have to make massive leaps to not believe in his god.

What is the difference between “Your Child Lives On and You Will be Reunited With Her” and John Edward? Money? Does the priest who does the funeral service do so for free? Is the Church free? So saying that the personality of their child will live on in some nebulous paradise is unacceptable if you take money for it but is encouraged if you are doing it for free unless you are a priest?

John Edwards is a fucking tool because he flogs his bullshit to people who are sad, lonely and want closure. He has made an entire career out of pretending that there is an afterlife and the only reason he gets called out on his bullshit is because it’s so fucking bullshit that anyone with a little understanding and a little skepticism can call him out. To call it a magic trick is to insult the art of magic encompassing mentalism. It is a terrible trick yet people believe it and defend him as “making people happy”.

Religion does the same thing and it’s earnings are Tax Free. John Edwards may prey on the gullible but he isn’t in the same league as religion which is doing precisely the same thing. That your loved ones are in “heaven” and that they are watching over you and you can send them messages. Especially if you have their funeral in this “nice church” with a priest who will pray over your loved one’s remains so that they can live on through eternity with “style”. These aren’t cheap, it’s hundreds of dollars for such a service.

So tell me this, what’s the difference between a relatively cheap ticket to see a man who pretends that he can hear dead people and a institution that takes money from the bereaved because they claim they are the sole method of accessing eternal life? Why is that man the biggest douche in the universe but not your friendly priest?

And this is a non-existent god. We may as well hold an enquiry into the location of the Justice League during the tragedy.

What we have here is an intellectual unwillingness or a psychological inability on the part of Susan Jacoby and just about all atheist activists (including the New York Times, which featured, not just published, her column) to confront the consequences of their atheism. If they did, they would have to say something like this to the parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook: “As atheists, we truly feel awful for you. And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten, as if we never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence are flukes. And you will never see your child again.”

No… Because that’s not what an atheist would have said. That’s not what I would have said. That is such a straw man that I feel it should hang out around a heartless tin man and a cowardly lion and go on an epic journey with a witch murdering girl from Kansas and her little dog.

What’s there to say? I am sorry for your loss? You know as well as me that it’s just something people say. Some hollow platitudes about these kids being in the arms of Jesus/Allah/Yama/________? About them not suffering? About them getting an eternal reward? About how I understand your suffering? Would you like me to say something poetic about how we are all made from stars and we will forever live in the molecules of the planet that we were made from?

I cannot understand the suffering of those who lost a loved one on that day. I cannot claim that these kids are in some sort of paradise now. I cannot claim that they are off to live on a farm. There is nothing me or anyone can say to these people that isn’t hollow because it’s not our place to say anything.

So I won’t say anything. Instead I will listen. Because everyone wants to tell you things but no one really wants to listen. I will listen to the stories of those who wish to tell them. How we die isn’t as important as how we live. We remember humans beings and how they lived. Because we are human and that’s all we can do is be there for each other. I don’t remember granny being the decrepit old woman ravaged by Alzheimers. A woman so far gone that I would have to correct her when she used to think that I was her son rather than her grandson. I would remember her for the stories she told and the smile and how she would sit on her chair outside with her dog feeding the ravens, not how she died making mewing noises because her mind was so far gone that that’s the most she could do. I remember her food, her smile, her big stupid glasses and how she used to sneak coca colas with me when I was on holiday. Or how we used to sit on the beach. Or how I learnt to eat a crab with no tools or how to eat with my hands or how to stumble through Tamil… This to me is what is important. Her life, not her lying emaciated on a bed smelling of urine and bleach.

An atheist with the courage of her convictions would have written that. But the New York Times would not have published it. All this column did for me was reconfirm this insight of the Bible: “Wisdom begins with reverence for God.”

No God, no wisdom (witness your local university). And certainly no consolation.

If you were truly wise then you would listen to the stories of those who grieving. Not telling them about your god, especially when they are at their most vulnerable


  1. says

    This was very relevant to me. We had to put a family dog of my girlfriends down Friday night. This was all discussed. It really is comforting to know that death is a line, and acknowledging that line helps you focus on the correct side of it. I like the following sentiments:
    Don’t be sad they’re gone, be happy you had them at all.
    They hole they leave isn’t nearly as big as what they added to you.

    I don’t think those sentiments are possible if you think death is just some transition and they’re waiting for you. I can tell you, in a way that is very fresh, that being free of religious delusions has made dealing with the loss of something so beloved much easier.

  2. smrnda says

    No god(s) no wisdom (witness your local university.) What? (O yes, it’s the ignorant Bible college graduate who has to knock the people who studied real subjects at real colleges.) The local university in my town is a very good research school and many people there come up with new ideas and technologies that actually make life better.

    The problem with religion is that it sees some higher purpose is awful things – in death, suffering, whatever. If you don’t believe in gods, these things can just suck and there can be nothing more to say about them.

    Plus, what does anybody say when tragedy strikes total strangers? I prefer to be silent since I don’t know the person and I don’t pretend that I’ve got some insight to say. Leave comforting people to those who know them.

  3. Daniel Schealler says

    Give them a hug, tell them you’re sorry for their loss, offer to help. If their body language indicates they want you to stick around for the company, then do so. If their body language indicates they want privacy to grieve, then give them that – but check up on them regularly to make sure they continue to be okay.

    Just, well, be there for them.

    In life as well as in grief, genuine companionship will trump pretty lies any day.

  4. Mary in Austin says

    My best friend was murdered. That was on August 8, 1996. It still hurts every day. Fantasies about him going off to a big friend in the sky would not help at all. What Daniel Schealler says, people being there for me, does help.
    The aftermath of violent crime is permanent.

  5. Igor says

    NPR had an interesting and very pertinent piece about bereavement from the perspective of quantum physics.

    When a relative who was a father like figure to me died, I recall dealing with various religious requirements of Judaic funeral, which to date anger me since they appear to pressure the relatives of the decedent to make important financial and personal decisions within a short period of time while under severe emotional duress.

    However, serving the function of something similar to a pole-bearer, gave me some insight into the purpose of a ritualized funeral. It was a send away where I was able to say goodbye, unable to do so at the precise moment of death. I felt the cathartic effect with each step I took carrying the coffin,that sadness pressing down on my chest becoming lighter and dissipating.

    Having said that, I don’t think individual approaches to coping with grie of loosing loved ones require any religious actualization or underpinnings. The effect described above can be accomplished in many ways that have nothing to do with faith or supernatural, and are personal in nature and vary from person to person.

    Atheist have a lot to say that is very consoling. I find it extremely consoling to shift emphasis from the individual in death and focus on the mark the person left in life. It is only in the context of billions upon billions of years we did not exist and will never exist again that our brief existence becomes special and meaningful enough to be remembered and cherished after our passing against the backdrop of eternity. So what if life is random crap shot. How we spend our winnings is what determines everything.

  6. estraven says

    The past three years have been very tough for our family; we’ve lost three people, including my sister, to whom I was so very close. Never once has the thought of an afterlife seemed like some sort of consolation. All I can do is to be there for those who have suffered this kind of loss, and that’s all I ask of my friends and family. My other sister lost her husband in August and I try to be there for her with phone calls, invitations to spend the day with me, etc. What else can we humanly do? I’m not so sure that telling people about the Great Beyond and how they’ll be reunited with their loved one some day is all that consoling. The loss is so very sharp and knifelike, the grief so immediate, I’m just not convinced that such “promises” are all that helpful. Maybe as time passes, maybe if the person is quite devout, but any number of believers have been flattened by the enormousness of loss regardless of the thought of an afterlife and reunion.

  7. says

    As an agnostic that grew up in a strict Catholic family, I can say that Catholicism has been quite toxic in our family the past ten years or so.

    About 10 years ago, and uncle of mine committed suicide. He was severely and deeply depressed. He committed suicide literally right after the holidays ended, on January 2nd, 2004. My aunt….his wife…found his lifeless hanging from the basement ceiling. They were married for about 30 years, and had two grown kids with successful career, and young children of their own. I have never seen her younger son, my cousin Steve, since the funeral. And my aunt never talks about him. It is also extremely awkward talking about my uncle who committed suicide, because the rest of my family, being deeply Catholic, obviously must think that his ever-lasting soul is burning and being tortured for eternity because suicide is the one sin that can never be forgiven according to the Catholic Church.

    Yeah, nothing worse than a supposedly “all-knowing, almighty, all-loving god,” torturing a poor human soul who already suffered so greatly in life, that they had to take their own life in one of the most grueling ways possible. My uncle was a very good man. He worked hard his entire life, in order to raise both of his kids in a very nice house, in a very nice neighborhood; provided for them an excellent private-school education. And raised both of them so well, they are even more successful than he was, with great kids of their own! It disgusts me what his own wife, and my other aunts and uncles must privately think of what his ultimate fate has to be.

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