There’s an interesting piece up on Vice by Simon Davis, my friend and colleague and Vice’s death correspondent. He’s writing about the research that recently came out, suggesting that part of the reason for anti-atheist hostility is people’s fear of death. In these studies, a subtle reminder of death increased disparagement, social distancing, and distrust of atheists — and asking people to think about atheism increased the accessibility of implicit death thoughts. (For the record, I think the research is very preliminary — if for no other reason, the research only looked at a few hundred college students at one particular college — but I do think the findings are plausible, and are worth further study.)
Simon interviewed me for his piece on this question, asking how often the issue of death and mortality had come up in my research for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. He quoted me in the article, but was only able to quote a small portion of my response. I thought some of you might be interested in my full response.
Yes. In the over 400 “coming out atheist” stories I gathered for my book, the subject of death came up a lot. When atheists come out (to Christians, anyway), the first reaction is often about Hell. Sometimes it’s manipulative or hostile, an attempt to scare atheists back into belief. More often, though, it’s genuine concern or fear — they sincerely believe atheists will burn in Hell, and they don’t want that to happen to the people they love.
Even if they don’t talk about Hell, believers do often respond to atheists’ coming out by asking about death. They ask what we think happens when we die, or how we cope with death, or how we think life can have meaning if it’s finite. Again, sometimes this is just hostile, a way to dismiss our humanity: in one of the ugliest stories I read, a military atheist taking a class was told that his grandfather had died, and the officer teaching the class told him, “Well, since you don’t believe in god I guess you won’t have any need to go to his funeral, I mean you believe he is just going to rot in the ground, right?” But more often, it comes from concern, or curiosity. If someone has used religion to cope with death for their entire life, it can be upsetting, or simply confusing, to imagine their friends or family living without that coping mechanism.
Interestingly, death or mortality is often the catalyst for atheists’ coming out. Death or serious illness is often the time people discuss religion and religious beliefs, even among people who aren’t very religious. It’s not the ideal time for the coming-out conversation, of course: in fact, this is one of the reasons I recommend that atheists come out sooner rather than later, if they can so so safely. When a family is stressed over death or serious illness, it can be extra hard on everyone to add the conversation about “Hey, by the way, I don’t believe in God or Heaven.” It’s generally better if that conversation is already behind you, and everyone’s already adjusted. But I understand why it happens. If atheists know that their coming out will be upsetting, they often don’t want to rock the boat — then all of a sudden, someone’s sick or dying or dead, and things like funerals or last rites become an issue, and everyone’s praying and asking you to pray, and you can’t just put it on the back burner anymore.
Here, by the way, is ordering info for Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why. [Read more…]