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Aug 17 2011

Memo to Religious People: Many Atheists Don’t Want to Hear That Their Loved Ones “Are in Heaven” — New Group for Non-Believers Helps Atheists Grieve

Grief beyond belief logo In a society that reflexively copes with death by using religion, grieving atheists are turning to each other.

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 sub-culture… for grief support, or anything else?

Grief Beyond Belief was launched by Rebecca Hensler after the death of her three-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. (Conflict of interest alert: Hensler and I are friends, and I actively encouraged and supported her in launching this group.)

So about a year later, she started a Facebook page, Grief Beyond Belief. And the group grew and flourished far beyond her expectations. Once the atheist blogosphere heard about the group, news about it spread like wildfire, and membership in the group grew rapidly, rising to over a thousand 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. And 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 that their dead loved ones are in a better place with the angels, you’re welcome to join.

So why do atheists need this?

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet: Memo to Religious People: Many Atheists Don’t Want to Hear That Their Loved Ones “Are in Heaven” — New Group for Non-Believers Helps Atheists Grieve. To find out more about this grief support group for atheists — including why we need it — read the rest of the piece.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Azkyroth

    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.”

    This is an important point and one that’s not touched on enough. Twelve Step groups and their fans are particularly bad about this. >.>

  2. 2
    Stephen

    So how about something for those of us who are Facebookphobic? Not really the right term, but close enough to describe my reluctance to be joining certain online social networking sites. I would prefer to have as little online presence as possible, so joining places like Facebook just to join another site (within that social network) leaves me cold.
    Will there be a choice for us (me)?

  3. 3
    Dhorvath

    I grew up atheist, my parents were agnostic at best and openly areligious so the idea that when someone dies they continue and that should be comforting was not one I encountered in general, nor even at funerals until my mother died. After the funeral, one of my aunt’s friends tried to tell me something about how my mother was in a better place now and it was so odd, so contrary, and so silly that I didn’t know how to respond.
    I knew my mother’s body was in an urn waiting to live on my father’s mantle, I knew that her brain had ceased to function days earlier and that anything that could be cognizant of better or worse had ended with that, but most of all I knew that she had been to the same damn funeral that I attended. The funeral where no one mentioned an afterlife, no one mentioned spirits, no one mentioned deities, and no one tried to gloss over the fact that someone who had been alive and interacting was now dead and just a memory.
    Did I feel anger? Pity. Pity that she was living in a made up world where she could pretend to continuance, pity that she found insufficient comfort in the very real people who were around her, pity that she was so attached to the past that she couldn’t join us in the present, pity that she didn’t notice this, and I think mostly pity that she wouldn’t be aware of how she changed her memory of her lost friends and family to suit her present needs. Belief in afterlife is not a comfort to me, it angers me because of how it hobbles people, but the people who hold that belief I pity.
    I know this is my privilege, I didn’t have every other person trying to push belief at me as a shared ritual occlusion. My sympathies to those of you who find that your views are the minority and afterlife the assumption.

  4. 4
    Rieux

    And the group grew and flourished far beyond her expectations.

    …In part because it was promoted on this very blog, of course.
    (This is not a criticism.)

  5. 5
    Doug Kirk

    @Stephen
    You could always join it under a pseudonym with a newly created email account.
    My grandfather was similarly paranoid about having an identifiable online presence (also facebook and the government tracking his every move and reporting to roving Obaminators, but hey, to each his own) but still wanted to have a facebook page and that’s what I set up for him. Never used his real name or contact information once, and now he can keep up with family far away.

  6. 6
    vel

    I find the assurances by theists that a loved one is somewhere “better” to be just more fishing for validation of their myth-based beliefs. Prating about heaven also means prating about hell (sorry universalists, don’t buy it either) and as one of the folks in GC’s article says, we know that’s what they have to be thinking.
    I also find nonsense like “they are in a better place” to be an attempt to invalidate grief said to anyone, atheist or theist. Accept the grief and remember the person well, not some bogey man in the sky.

  7. 7
    DSimon

    @Doug, @Stephen: Theoretically, Facebook prohibits registration under a false name, and can kick you off their network for that. In all practicality, they have no good way of checking if your name is real or not since they don’t have your credit card or anything, so you just need to make sure your pseudonym is fairly real-sounding.

  8. 8
    Blondin

    I decided a long time ago that funerals are for the living and I would be in no position to tell anybody how or when to grieve after I die. I told my kids that I have no expectations – if they want to have a service or memorial it’s entirely up to them. I have recorded my own eulogy and they can use it or not as they see fit. That way, if anybody is offended, they can blame the dead guy.
    Here is what I recorded (with proper attribution to the Digital Cuttlefish):
    When we are dead, we’ll feed the worms
    And other stuff that writhes and squirms
    And if you cannot come to terms
    With that—well, use your head!
    There are no ifs nor ands nor buts:
    Bacteria within our guts
    Will start to eat us; that is what’s
    In store, once we are dead.
    Yes, life is short and full of toil,
    And when we’ve shuffled off this coil
    Our carcasses will start to spoil—
    There’s nothing wrong with that.
    Our share of fish or pigs or cows,
    And all the chicken time allows,
    Is done. It’s only fair that now’s
    The worms’ turn to get fat.
    Should we die young, or old and gray,
    The laws of nature we’ll obey
    And spend our heat in mere decay,
    Replenishing the Earth;
    “Three score and twelve” may be our years
    For love and laughter, hope and fears
    And then—mere smoke—life disappears;
    No heaven, no rebirth.
    And with no heaven up above
    Nor hell we ought be frightened of
    It’s best we fill our lives with love,
    With learning, and with fun!
    Don’t waste a lifetime while you wait
    For halo, wings, and pearly gate—
    This is your life, so get it straight:
    You only get the one!
    I’ll have no moment lost to prayer,
    To cleanse my soul and thus prepare
    For passage to… THERE’S NOTHING THERE!
    Those moments, all, are wasted!
    I’m only here a little time
    Before it’s bugs and worms and slime;
    I’ll eat and drink my life so I’m
    Delicious when I’m tasted!

  9. 9
    Eclectic

    DSimon: I’m aware of that, but what it boils down to is I detest their privacy policy (remember their entire fortune is made selling what they learn about their users to advertisers; that’s the core of their business), so am unwilling to agree to it.
    With two exceptions, plus businesses I exchange money with, I’m much more hardline: I don’t use web sites that require registration in any form. I contribute to Wikipedia but not OpenStreetMap. I comment here but not on Pharyngula.
    Occasionally I’ll grab a user ID from BugMeNot, but I usually can’t be bothered.

  10. 10
    Rootboy

    Vaguely related to this, I’m never sure what to say to a grieving religious person.
    A relative of mine’s wife has a fatal brain tumor; it’s a matter of months at this point. I’ve never met the woman but I have met her husband, so I wanted to send a sympathy email. Problem is, EVERYONE else in the family is saying how she’s in their prayers and to pray for her and stuff like that. I’m stuck awkwardly trying to communicate “this is terrible and I feel bad for you” to someone I know but am not close with, and I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb by deliberately avoiding the word “prayer”. And then her husband bounces right back with “please keep her in your prayers”.
    There’s some important social function that relgion is serving here that I haven’t figured out a good substitute for yet.

  11. 11
    DSimon

    Rootboy, regular human sympathy would be an excellent substitute, but the problem is as you point out: being secular under such circumstances sends its own weird message, and is often interpreted as hostility. There’s no good reason for that, but that’s the way things currently are. :-\

  12. 12
    Victoria

    I agree with the poster above about facebook. I too detest their stance on privacy issues and flat out refuse to be a part of the group (frequently at the expense of potential friendships with people I meet at college).
    With that said, I would really like to be a part of this group. My grandmother passed recently and I’ve been really struggling with her death and thinking about deaths of future loved ones. Is there any chance of Ms. Hensler moving this to an actual webpage?

  13. 13
    Ashley

    Thank you for this Greta. (First time commenter here; I’ve been a reader since December). Very timely, as my grandfather died two days before you posted this article. My family is Catholic, and although the younger generations aren’t that into it, my grandfather and his second wife were quite devout. It has been fairly alienating to sit through all these religous rites and listen to his wife insist, “He’s with us, I know he’s with us”, and tell me he’s in heaven helping me with my job search. Ugh. I suppose I’m luckier than many people who’ve commented here and on AlterNet, who are just surrounded my religious messages coming from everyone. Most people around us are just saying “sorry for your loss”, and that isn’t considered “weird”.
    I think that stuff would be easier to take if non-belief were more socially acceptable. In that case it would be easier to have that attitude mentioned in the article: being grateful for the intent behind the message, grateful that someone was at least attempting to comfort you. When you’ve received messages all your life that if you don’t believe, there is something wrong with you, it’s a lot harder. You feel like you have to smile and nod and pretend to agree, and if you don’t agree you’re lost and incomplete at best, and a force for evil at worst. It’s terrible for a grieving person to feel this pressure to pretend, to cover up who they are, on top of everything else they’re going through.
    I got to serve as a pallbearer during the ceremony, and I was glad for that. I was afraid I’d be asked to read a Bible passage about heaven and Jeebus, which definitely would have felt dishonest and wrong. This way I got to be involved in a way that didn’t require me to feel phony.
    As for the Facebook group, I also second the idea of moving it to a webpage. In addition to the privacy concerns, I think this would be better done on a web-based forum or something.

  14. 14
    Rebecca Hensler

    This is Rebecca Hensler, founder of Grief Beyond Belief.
    First of all, Grief Beyond Belief’s success owes a great deal to Greta and her blog. Not just for her advice and for her work helping promote the site on other atheist blogs as well as on her own, but also for her willingness to be awoken in the morning by my pre-launch panic attack :-)
    Secondly, Grief Beyond Belief will eventually expand to its own website. However, creating and administrating a website will involve additional work, and until there is a functional team working on the project, rather than one individual, the FB page will have to be enough. The current timeline is for a website to launch next summer. (The paid summer break afforded public school educators is the only thing that made this project feasible in the first place. Hooray for the teachers union.)
    Thank you all for the kind comments and support.

  15. 15
    JAY CARRIGAN

    Poor Greta,
    Your understanding of progressive religious thought is still stunted by not understanding what its all about. It’s OK for you to be an atheist. Stop feeling so guilty that you have to write, write, write about it. You seem not to understand that faith is not a function of mind, but of will. Thinking just doesn’t do it.

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