How nonreligious people cope with tragedy

NPR’s series ‘Losing Our Faith’ that is running all this week is turning out to be a remarkably thoughtful treatment of the reasons why people are leaving religion. I wrote about the first two parts here and here, and on the third one today they talked about how tragedy affects belief and how nonbelievers deal with them.

It echoes what I wrote about recently about what others should not say in the wake of someone they know suffering a bereavement. Carol Fiore describes what happened when her husband Eric lay dying in a hospital as a result of a plane crash.

On Oct. 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed upon takeoff. When Fiore arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had sustained burns over 50 percent of his body.

“Then I found out they had given him his last rites,” she says.

That wasn’t a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Fiore announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.

“I think that was a turning point in the whole religion thing for me,” Fiore recalls. “That was the point when I said, ‘You know what?’ — and I told Eric this when he was laying there on the bed — I said, ‘Eric, I don’t care anymore that we have to pretend not to be atheist.’

” ‘We respected people’s religions our whole entire life and I can’t do it anymore,’ ” she told him. ” ‘People are going to respect you now, and you told me you didn’t want them praying over you, and that’s it.’ ”

Fiore told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. “God has a plan,” they told her. “Eric is going to a better place.”

“When he was in the hospital and they said that, he was lying in a bed with tubes coming out with 50 percent burns and no face,” Fiore says. “Is that a better place?”

Fiore continued to hear the sentiment after Eric’s death. “I’m an atheist,” she says. “Eric is in the ground, rotting. I know it sounds horrible to say that, but that is where he is. How is that a better place?”

The report goes describe efforts by nonbelievers to find more and better ways to find consolation and console others. A researcher on grief Joanne Cacciatore who herself suffered the loss of a child is quoted.

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

The report describes a mother whose son was shot dead and being so angered by her Catholic priest saying things like “We all have our crosses to bear,” and, “It was time for God to call Michael home” that she left the church and eventually abandoned belief in a god altogether.

It is all very sad and moving. The comments on each episode are also worth taking a look at.


  1. Jockaira says

    “And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,”

    This is not surprising. It seems that most “spiritual leaders” (priests, pastors, etc) have other more pressing duties:
    1. Protecting the interests and images of God and their respective religion.

    2. Raising funds to ensure the continuing solvency of their organisation.

    3. Proselytisation to ensure successful future fund-raising and to staunch defections from religion.
    Comforting those in grief may not even be among the Top Ten© mission objectives of church personnel, after all, raising money, new churches, and new converts, as well as defending the church against allegations of sexual misconduct can keep a guy so busy that he doesn’t have time to learn how to deal with the problems of ordinary people.
    Then of course those in grief should be content that God is completely in charge, has our destinies all planned out for us, and will provide all that He deems necessary for our brief journey through life on our way to our final reward. Included in these necessities is a timely death that suits God’s purpose, but somehow makes everyone else quite sad.

  2. bcmystery says

    When I was watching Obama’s speech after Newtown, I remember thinking, “If one of my children had been killed and he tried to tell me God had ‘called them home,’ I would have spit in his face.” I couldn’t listen any more after that.

  3. twosheds1 says

    I thought the same thing. If God wanted to call them home, couldn’t he have had them die peacefully in their sleep, rather than in abject terror? What a dick. (God, that is)

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