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Ask Surly Amy: Atheism, Death and God Talk

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Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,

We found out Saturday that my partner’s cousin is dying. She is 54, but mentally and physically disabled her whole life. She has always been cared for by her mother, who is now 75, so finding out that she is going to die soon is in some way a relief to her mom. She’s at home being cared for by her mom and hospice nurses, which is good. But I’m having so much trouble with all the God talk. She’s going to meet Jesus… great. I’m actually ok with death, it’s natural and all, but you know, if there was a god, why would he let this poor innocent person scream in pain when the morphine isn’t enough? I want to be mad at someone, but I don’t believe anyone is to blame for this. What do you do when your emotions are overwhelming your logic? I’m not trying to talk anyone else out of any belief that comforts them, but it’s hard to not make a comment when they talk about “mercy” and shit like that.

~Angel

Dear Angel,

I have found myself in similar situations and I completely understand your frustration. A part of me has wanted to scream out:

“BUT THERE IS NO AFTERLIFE! THIS IS IT! STOP WITH THE FUCKING FANTASIES AND THE LIES! THE MADE-UP BIBLE BULLSHIT DIDN’T WORK IN THIS PERSON’S LIFE AND IT WON’T WORK AFTER! WAKE THE F-UP, PEOPLE!!!”

Cough. Ahem.

Yeah…

You can sorta get an idea of how completely inappropriate that type of outburst might be when someone is about to lose a family member.

I have also been known to abruptly leave church services for departed friends when I just couldn’t stand to listen to another paragraph of the orchestrated fairytales warning the audience of fire and brimstone if (enter friends name here) hadn’t converted on their deathbed or been such a good Xtian. And this fiery hell can happen to you they warn! I found it very offensive and personally insulting but you know what? In retrospect, I could have left the room quieter because I feel it is very important that we all try to do our best to cause the least harm possible.

See Rebecca on the topic of atheists taking things a bit too serious.

There is no one to blame.

There is a time and a place to have discussions about the rationality of life and the irrationality of faith and there are times when we need to rise to our feet and shout out about the injustice of organized religion but the times when we are surrounded by grief and when people are desperately trying to deal with the tragic loss of a suffering family member is simply not the right time.

Life is hard. Death is one of the most difficult aspects of life and it is very difficult to deal with loss whether your are atheist, agnostic, secular, or part of a faith based religion. We often act purely on emotion when driven by grief and yes, religious people lean hardest on their faith at these times. It’s what they have been taught to do.

Just be there for your partner and the family. Be a kind person. Be loving. Be helpful when you can. Try to understand where they are coming from in this difficult situation. Ultimately, just being supportive will set a far better example of atheism than anything you could ever say about it at a time like this. And there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss your worldview later on down the road, when people will be in an emotional state where they are able listen. Then you will have credibility in their eyes because you will have shown yourself to be a kind and caring person in times of need.

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

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26 Comments

  1. Same goes for weddings…I wanted to walk out of my cousin’s wedding when the preacher started to ramble about true happiness only coming from christ and how we’re all christians here in attendance (a bit presumptuous), but from what I understand, he was a compromise choice since my cousin doesn’t really give much thought to religion. The earlier choice (a favorite of one of our many aunts) was more of the “everyone MUST participate in the mass” variety … so I probably dodged a bullet. In any case, I sat through an uncomfortable hour or so before shaking it off with an open bar and some nice hors d’oeuvres.

  2. Good answer, Amy. If you feel the service will become a problem for you, sit near the back on an aisle seat so you can slip out quietly. I call that basic manners. No need to make a display – it’s not the right place or time.

    Personally, I want an Irish wake followed by a Viking-style cremation on a longboat pushed out to sea, accompanied by the screams of anguished Klingons warning Sto-Vo-Kor that a warrior is coming, but that’s just me. ;-)

  3. The main thing I have to add is to keep in mind your own emotional well-being. While the relationship is a bit distant for you (your partner’s cousin as opposed to your cousin), there’s still going to be a lot of emotional turmoil around you, and a lot of emotional demands. Take time for a walk away from everyone, or with your partner.

  4. @QuestionAuthority:

    My boyfriend was raised catholic and while he’s no longer religious and doesn’t really believe in a god, he’s commented that he kind of wants the whole casket/burial shindig because it’s apart of his historical tradition.

    I argued that he’s half Scandinavian and that when he dies I am going to launch his body in a boat onto Lake Erie and light it on fire. Hopefully, I don’t catch the water on fire.

  5. Amy gave a good answer, but if you want to express what many atheist feel about death to your partner I would recommend George Hrab’s song Small Comfort off of his album Trebuchet.

    It is about the loss of his dog and the conflicted emotions that death can bring.

    I am not a softie but I cry every time I hear it.

  6. I wouldn’t say anything because I sort of know how it feels to be hurt when you’re already grieving.

    I was very close to my grandmother, who finally died after suffering with Alzheimer’s. I was one of the last people she could recognize. My mom is also an atheist and had spent so much time doggedly making sure my grandma had the best care. Taking care of her own mother!

    She’d written in the past that she wanted a Catholic funeral, despite being awfully lapsed, which is fine — except that the priest (who of course didn’t know her at all) just talked about how it’s only important that my grandma was a Catholic, because otherwise she’d be in hell and Catholicism is the most important thing about anyone. Something to that effect.

    That was worse than losing her, hearing some jerk suggest that religion is the only important part of her life and that my mother and I are worthless because we’re atheists.

    So, TL;DR: That’s a really cruel thing to mess with when someone’s hurting. You may not agree but it’s not going to help anything to say so at such a time.

    I hope that was semi-coherent and that I have a point somewhere in there: just thinking back to the funeral makes me want to cry.

  7. My brother-in-law died four years ago (melanoma) and I sat quietly through the religious service. It was not over the top but there was certainly a lot of “we’ll see him again one day” consolation going on.

    I noticed that amongst many of his own family, he was my wife’s-sister’s-husband, a belief in god and resurrection appeared to be the only thing keeping them in one piece. It would have been wrong to have even attempted to remove that blanket at that time.

    On weddings: My wife’s cousin got married last year in a full blown catholic ceremony. Complete with sermons about which gender is the master. My wife and I rolled eyes at each other the whole time. Killer reception though.

    Mike.

  8. On the flip side, I went to a Christening, and I was a god-parent (those are the terms, whatever). I was silent the whole time. During the godparenting ceremony where we were suppose to recite ‘I will do this by god’ (or whatever) I couldn’t bring myself to say anything.

    And during one part where the preacher was preaching, he actually advocated a more agressive stand against non-Christians to convert them to the right religion!

    The only sentiment in the whole service I agreed with was when people went around saying “Peace be with you”. Right on that, at least!

  9. On weddings: As an ordained minister (and atheist) my favorite period of time was when my niece was engaged and asked me to perform the ceremony (part because I’m the best uncle ever, and part to honk off her mother). I had a blast telling people, “Yup, I’m gonna marry my niece next summer.” Unfortunately, never went through. Guy was an asshole.

  10. My sister is a vicar of the Danish Popular Church (basically an office of the government, and a very encompassing church, ranging from really sensible moderates like her to fire-and-brimstone purveyors), and performed the funeral service for my late sister-in-law when she died rather suddenly of cancer. (They gave her three months. She died after two weeks.)

    I found myself actually very impressed with what she said – she addressed the whole sense of unfairness of it all (my SiL was in her early forties), and what she said was comforting without being God-bothering. It had a certain catharsis to it.

    I guess I just wanted to give an anecdote of how something difficult like that can be handled tactfully and well, to the point where atheists in the room (that would be me) didn’t feel uncomfortable about it.

  11. The worst is when they retro-actively apply their beliefs at the deceased’s funeral. My granddad was as atheist as they come, and yet his funeral was ALL KINDS of holy-mified. Danged xtian fuckers didn’t even wait for the body to be cold before they started proselytising. It was about that point, that I fervently started wishing that zombies really existed, so he could come back and eat their brainz. /face palm

    AND they played “My heart will go on”. Talk about adding insult to injury.

  12. It can feel so isolating to be trapped in these situations, emotions are so high all around. I have been at a couple of funerals for people that lived lives with mental and physical disabilities. There is always the ‘mercy talk’ like it was God’s merciful act that they died. WTF! I try to combat this, so I don’t freak, prepared. Instead of joining in the heaven/mercy talk, I share a happy memory I have of the deceased.

  13. @BeardofPants: ‘My Heart Will Go On”? I would break all the laws of reality were that playing at my funeral, rise from the dead and destroy that recording.

    Or more sensibly, I would leave money behind for someone else to do it with explicit instructions to be as openly derisive and infuriated on my corpse’s behalf.

  14. I think we should just suck it up and realize that this is a source of comfort for these people and that no good can come from debating the existence of an afterlife under these circumstances. Just be polite. I guess if someone really pushes the issue one-on-one with you, just say something benign, like “I don’t believe that, but it’s a beautiful thought.”
    My living will says that I am an atheist and I do not believe in an afterlife or any rites associated with death, but that if my family wants any such rites to be performed to bring them comfort, they may do so. I don’t know if my parents would have a Catholic funeral for me. I guess I’ll never find out.

  15. A couple weeks ago, the mother of one of my childhood friends, whose family is quite religious, passed away. I hadn’t seen my friend or her mother in a long time, but it was jarring, because she had been such a part of my childhood. Anyway, on my friend’s Facebook page, she posted things about how her mother (a talented musician) was playing a golden guitar in heaven with a chorus of angels behind her. It’s a beautiful thought, but to me, completely make-believe. I kept my thoughts to myself, because talking about how Christianity is just another mythology seems like a needlessly cruel, presumptuous, self-serving thing to do to someone when they’re taking what comfort they can in that sort of situation.

    Conversely, when my great-uncle died a few months ago, the funeral was so Jesus-tastic that even my dad, a secular-ish man who generally tolerates his crazy Pentecostal family, was offended. There was a bit about how my uncle only survived WWII because his congregation back home was praying for him (see, Holocaust survivors, THAT’S where you went wrong! You should’ve been part of the Assembly of God!), and then there was a part where the pastor was all “Anyone who wants to be saved, RIGHT NOW, RAISE YOUR HAND!” Dude, come on, have a little taste. If you MUST proselytize at a funeral, at least ask anyone who wants to be saved to come see you after the service or something. Time and place, dude.

  16. I get it and I agree. The funeral is not the time or place for a debate. Yet I am so freaked out by the magical thinking. How CAN they believe it? Do they really? They will all meet in heaven? I used to wish I could believe. Then I wished I could wish to believe. Now I just can so not relate it feels hypocritical to even listen to the god talk. I think religion is a mental illness.

  17. @mrmisconception:
    Thank you. I have said before that I am a veterinarian. And a very important part of my work is helping pet owners make end of life decisions for their beloved pets. I am also a stupid in love pet owner myself. Wow. George Hrab is great. My little furry best friend is snoring next to me right now.

  18. I come from a family of atheists, or at least, non-churchgoers. When my aunt found out last year that she had terminal cancer, she took my mum to one side and told her that when the time came, she wanted a humanist ceremony. She specifically said that she did not want to be taken into a church and my mum reassured her that she wouldn’t be.

    After she died, my uncle (her widower) completely ignored her wishes. He booked the church, and when my mum objected and pointed out my aunt’s wishes, he ‘put his foot down’, and basically said I’m paying, I decide.

    The worst part was that he is not even a practising Christian. He never goes to church usually. He was doing it purely because he didn’t want people in their small village to whisper about him for not doing the conventional thing.

    My mum and I were furious and my mum said she wasn’t going to go into the church for the service (I couldn’t make the funeral). Other family members were shocked and tried to persuade her to go, along the lines of: ‘Well I know none of us really believe, but can’t you just pretend?’ Cue lots of heated discussions about atheism, god’s non-existence and why ‘just pretending’ isn’t possible.

    It wasn’t the fact of being an atheist in a church that upset my mum though, it was the fact that her sister’s wishes had been so thoughtlessly ignored. I think had it really been my aunt’s wish to have a religious funeral, my mum would have politely put up with it.

    In the end, my mum did go to the church service. The only thing that swung her decision was my grandma, who wanted my mum there for support. She’s the only person in my family who still believes in heaven (even though she doesn’t attend church either), so it’s likely she was the only one who got anything out of the church service.

    I agree that if a dying family member is very religious and wish for that to be a part of their funeral, it’s not the time or the place for an atheist to start a debate. However what really gets on my nerves is the idea that convention = religion. That people conduct their life ceremonies and events in churches purely because it’s the done thing and not because they believe. It’s the convention aspect that keeps churches so strong in my country (UK) at least.

    So I think in those circumstances it is appropriate for an atheist to politely point out the family’s lack of belief and suggest the alternative, a humanist ceremony.

  19. When my Aunt died, I was a member of a UU church at the time, so I shared that (her death) during ‘candles of joy and concern’ which was custom.

    Later during coffee hour, someone casually said ‘I was sorry to hear of your aunt’s death’ – And I really took it the wrong way, saying something like ‘So why were you listening?!’ I don’t think this woman got it.’

    Saying something to me like ‘I know it’s difficult, but I’m glad you were able to share that’ might have gotten a better response. – But it was a very emotional time.

  20. One thing is for sure: Funerals tend to bring out the worst in people.

    I been to some funerals/wakes that were very well-handled. So YMMV. I never know what to expect, so I’m very selective about which funerals I attend. I lurk a lot and just listen. Depending on how close I am to the family, I might pay my respects quietly and discreetly at the funeral or afterwards.

    I’m getting to the age where, as someone put it, “I get invited to more funerals than weddings.” I’ll have opportunities to practice my discretion, I’m sure.

  21. I went to a Catholic funeral of my wife’s friend. He was a lawyer who served on several non-profit boards on behalf of the disabled. He died of MS in his 30’s after several years of steadily declining function. I didn’t know him well but my wife had long spoken extremely highly of him, praising his generosity and general “good-guyishness”. During the funeral the priest barely mentioned him or any of his good works. It was all about the Catholic church and how great it was. My wife, who is not a rabid anti-theist like me, was near tears at the end of it…sad that her friend was so completely ignored at a ceremony in his honour. Even some of the religious folks there commented on the inappropriateness of the priest’s words. It was an awful experience.

  22. I found that while my mom was dying of cancer, what pissed me off the most was when people would tell me how god answered their prayers. One lady in particular was telling me how her earring back fell off in the shower, and she started praying hard so it wouldn’t go down the drain, and it didn’t, because god answered her prayer. I work with the public, so I do a lot of lip biting, and that one about took me over the edge. And even if my mom wasn’t dying at the time…wtf, seriously, who prays over earrings?

  23. That’s my letter. Thanks everybody. We’re still waiting for her to die, which is the weirdest thing ever. I understand that the part of her brain that tells her heart and lungs to work is still operating, but nothing else is.

    It’s really hard to watch. She is like a cousin to me, and she seemed to find me very entertaining. Since she is a mentally challenged adult, I don’t know what she believed, but I know she loved to go to church because she could have coffee there :)

    Thanks for all the great comments. You guys are terrific.

  24. My dad, a rabid christian, died last year and we (all his family together) put together a private service to honor him. It took place at his house. The amazing thing for me was that I, a confirmed atheist, ended up leading it. Turned out I was the only person who would volunteer.

    Having been raised a catholic, I’ve had enough of church rituals to last a lifetime. But I love the kind of ritual we put together for my dad. Actually, he’d done a lot of the work by writing down what he wanted to have happen. The service consisted mostly of individuals talking about what dad meant to them and how much they missed him. There was plenty of “god” talk and some bible readings, but it never took the focus away from dad. Maybe I helped set the mood a bit because, needless to say, I wasn’t doing much talking about god.

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