Religion: A question of comfort?

I had breakfast with an old friend yesterday whose father died recently. The tragedy, the brutality, of the experience was all too clear on her face and in her voice. I wouldn’t call her super religious, but she’s definitely found some comfort in prayer and counseling with religious authorities. There’s no way I’d go an atheist rant in a discussion like that, and I doubt she’ll ever invite one. But let’s say hypothetically after the worst of the pain has passed, someone you know in that position did.

What would you say? Or more to the point, if you could persuade someone suffering a terrible loss that there are no supernatural beings, and by extension places where their loved ones live on in some way, would you? Should you?


  1. says

    Personally, I have never tried to persuade anybody that there is no supernatural being. I see that as a personal decision. I do argue against creationism and other sorts of nonsense from the religious right. And I do point out flaws in arguments for god. But I don’t try to press people on the question of whether there is a deity.

  2. Randomfactor says

    I wouldn’t unless invited. I would consider it an invitation if I were asked a question like “don’t you find it empty not to believe in a heaven?” or some such.

    I’d try to explain about things such as how many who believe in a heaven believe just as strongly in a hell, and often feel that the MAJORITY go there. That it would be far worse to arrive at heaven oneself and find that loved ones had been condemned to such a place. That to me the heaven/hell concept doesn’t make sense: a deity capable of transporting us to a heaven after death would be just as capable of doing so at birth. Which leads to the possibility that THIS is heaven, the chance to explore and wonder and love others, and it will go on as long as our consciousness does. There will never be a time when we experience nonexistence.

    My late wife was a weak Christian when we met, and gradually grew to accept an agnostic/atheist stance over several years of severe illness. I have no hope of being reunited with her after death, but death will release me from missing her.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    If they don’t mention religion, I don’t either. If they introduce the subject I quickly tell them I don’t believe any of that nonsense and I’m surprised that they do. If they decide to continue on the subject I show no mercy.

  4. Karen Locke says

    When my parents died, I often wished I could believe I would see them again. But I can’t. I would never be so cruel as to try to deny that belief to others.

  5. says

    ‘They will not be forgotten.’

    I think that is best sentiment, it is what I say (and practice) in such situations; certainly appropriate after my own dad died. I still love telling stories about him and he will never be lost to my memory.

    *Shout up to you dad, you crazy magnificant arsehole!’

  6. pixiedust says

    My spouse is Jewish. Observant in some ways, not so much in others. (I managed to persuade over a decade or so that dietary laws were simply ridiculous. Now we get to eat pork ribs at home.) As to god, my spouse is best described as a Deist.

    When my spouse’s father died, we sat shiva. A few dozen people from our synagogue came. (Yes, I’m a member. I promised upon marriage that I would be supportive of children being raised Jewish. I’ve kept my word by in deed and in spirit). My spouse drew great comfort from the ritual. Far be it from me to argue with that.

    And now for a favorite joke in our house: An elderly Jew is on death’s doorstep. People are bringing food to the house. The man somehow manages to get out of bed and slowly, slowly makes his way to the dining room. Everyone is silent, watching him. He slowly, slowly reaches out for a cookie. His wife slaps his hand and says, “What are you doing? That’s for sitting shiva!”

  7. says

    When someone is dealing with an immediate loss, I think “whatever gets you through the night” is the order of the day.

    I have a good friend who just lost her husband of 10 years, and she had well-wishers making fatuous remarks about “well, he’s in a better place, and you’ll be together again some day” which drove her nearly to the point of trying to rip their brains out with a spork. So it goes either way – I think that as a friend of a mourner it’s not my place to inflict my beliefs on them unless they ask me. So, usually, I wear a tear-absorbent sweater and bring some good scotch if they’re drinkers (unless they’re extreme drinkers) – In dealing with a loss of my own I found that getting absolutely shitfaced helped dull the immediate memories of the day.

    A year after my loss that I refer to above, my buddy Mike said, “You’ll always have ‘m with you as long as you remember them. That’s really all you get and, if you think about it for a second, that’s as good as it gets.” And I realized that he was completely right. Our afterlives are other people’s memories of us, and they’re usually more rosy and generous than our mortal lives were, unless we were completely horrible beings. And the closest thing I could imagine to “hell” would be knowing that history (or my acquaintances) was going to record me as a horrible asshole or a failure, or worse. So I imagine proud assholes like Donald Rumsfeld are already living that… And the flip side is some of the people who I’ve lost who, if you mention them, everyone smiles and says, “I sure miss them; they were awesome.” That’s as good as it gets. And a ghost? I have two ghosts that haunt me, whenever I’m walking in the woods on a snowy winter, I remember how much my two best friends and I used to love hiking in the fresh snow together, and I cry, and then I smile and say to myself, “I sure miss them; they’d have loved this” and sometimes I’m able to remember vividly what it was like when they were there and they sort of are.

    In terms of comfort, unless you’re dealing with someone who’s got addiction problems or is likely to form them, jack daniel is much more of a comfort than jesus ever will be.

  8. raymoscow says

    I usually just talk about good memories and the sadness of the loss. I just avoid the ‘afterlife’ and ‘god’s purpose’ nonsense. I think most get the hint that we don’t endorse the ‘they’re in heaven’ idea.

    If he/she asked, I’d say that this life is all we have, and that’s what we have to treasure and make the most of.

  9. left0ver1under says

    A mildly religious friend did once raise religion with me after a death in his family, and I plainly said (paraphrasing myself, I forget my exact words),

    “I’m an atheist and I’m not someone who’s going to comfort you with religion. I’m not here to tell you what to think. I’m just here for you.”

    While it killed that part of the conversation, the candor and honesty were appreciated. We went back to discussing other things.

  10. yiela says

    When my mom passes away I was really creeped out by much of the christian comfort I received. One person said that if she believed in the lord than she was in heaven, knowing full well that she didn’t believe in the lord so it felt more like they were using this time as an excuse to say she was in hell, in a nice way. The other was a from a Jehovah’s witness who assured me that she was in the dirt and would be resurrected at some later date for judgement. Nothing says comfort like zombie resurrection and judgement. These people seemed to intend to be comforting but what they said came across as crazy and ghoulish. I find plain old nothing a lot more comforting. When I’m dealing with trying to comfort someone I just try to stay away from the religious stuff and be there for them, maybe tell some stories and remember the person with them.

  11. susans says

    I can’t imagine arguing against someone’s dearly held beliefs when they are in mourning; that would make me a jerk. If asked, I would say that I’m an atheist and don’t see things the way they do, but would listen to anything they have to say because that’s what you do when in that situation, whether they want to talk about religion, cooking or the weather.

    And I would add what @5 said. Just right.

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