This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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?
Salt in the Wound
But for many non-believers, these comforts are actively upsetting. They are the antithesis of comforting. They rub salt in the wound.
For many grieving non-believers, the “comforts” of religion and religious views of death present a terrible choice: Either pretend to agree with ideas they reject and in many cases actively oppose… or open up about their non-belief, and start a potentially divisive argument at a time when they most need connection and comfort. As GBB member William Farlin Cain said, “I was still very much in the atheist closet at the time [my mom] passed away, and I was surrounded by believers saying all the things believers say, and I had to say them too just to keep the peace. It was hard.”
Religious ideas about death can also make atheists feel alienated: hyper-aware of their marginalized status, and of the ways that atheists in our culture are invisible at best. As I’ve told believers who were pressing their religious “comforts” on me even though I’d explicitly said I didn’t want that: If you wouldn’t tell a Jewish person that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus Christ, why would you think it’s appropriate to tell a non-believer that their dead loved one is in Heaven? And yet many believers do think this is appropriate… to the point where they not only offer nonbelievers the “comfort” of their opinion that death is not final, but persist in doing so even when specifically asked not to. They’re so steeped in the idea of religion as a comfort, they seem unable to think of any other way to comfort those in need. And they seem unable to see that their beliefs aren’t universally shared by everyone.
But the reality is that spiritual beliefs permeate grief support — so much so that it’s invisible to believers, who often perpetuate it without even thinking. As GBB founder Hensler pointed out, even in the non-religious Compassionate Friends group, “so many of their members are religious or spiritual that there is no real way to participate without being constantly exposed to comments about god, angels and signs. And when I posted about my son and my grief on the page, commenters frequently projected those beliefs onto me, with offers to pray or reassurances that Jude is in heaven. Half the time I felt understood and supported, and half the time I felt like screaming.” GBB member Kevin Millham echoes this sentiment. “The hospice in which my wife died has a wonderful bereavement program, and I now belong to a grief support there. Everyone tries to be supportive and not proselytize, but the other members are Christians without exception, and we often hear in group meetings how their faith is helping them get through (though I notice they’re having every bit as hard a time as I am…). What helps them does not help me, however, and I find that talk of an afterlife I do not believe in is a way of minimizing my attempts to deal with the finality of my wife’s death, however well-intentioned the ‘better place’ comments may be.”
Even supposedly secular memorials often get infused with religious or spiritual content. And this tendency is so deeply ingrained, the people planning these events aren’t even aware that the content is religious, and might be unwelcome to non-believers. Hensler tells the story of a memorial held for a number of children, including her son — a memorial that was explicitly described as non-religious. “A book was read to all the children in attendance,” she says, “who were mostly grieving siblings. The book was written from the point of view of a dead child, describing ‘where I am now’ in vague, stars-and-rainbows sorts of terms. It disturbed me, particularly because my late son was one of the children honored at the ceremony. How can they say an event will be non-religious and then teach the children who attend about a version of afterlife?” And before you ask… this didn’t happen in a small town in the Midwest, or the deeply religious South. It happened in San Francisco — one of the most secular, least traditionally religious, most diversity-supportive cities in the country. As Hensler noted, “A whole lot of people seem to think that as long as you aren’t talking about Jesus, any support you provide is universally welcome.
But even if none of this were the case — even if grieving atheists were never confronted with religious ideas about death in upsetting or alienating ways, or even if no atheists were upset or alienated by these ideas — the need for non- faith- based grief support would still be powerful.
Because in a time of grief, the need for others who understand, others with a similar outlook on life and death, is powerful.
So for many grieving non-believers, the comfort offered by religious believers is, at best, not particularly comforting. Even if it isn’t actively upsetting, it simply doesn’t connect. And so the comfort, perspective, practical guidance, support, and simple “I’ve been there and know what you’re going through” offered by the Grief Beyond Belief network has been intensely welcomed. As Hensler says, “One of the hardest parts about the first few days of Grief Beyond Belief was the number of people who said, “I wish this had existed when…”
Even people who currently aren’t grieving are finding Grief Beyond Belief valuable — because it helps them support the bereaved non-believers in their lives. GBB member Julie Downing Wirtz says, “As a trained Funeral Celebrant, and Life Tribute Specialist, serving only non-religious families, I find the posts at GBB help me to serve my clients with a better understanding of the various thoughts that go through people’s minds when they are grieving, many of which are very different from my own experiences.” And GBB member Christine M. Pedro-Panuyas concurs. ” I haven’t lost anyone close to me, but what Grief Beyond Belief has really done for me is it helped me know what to say to those who have lost someone. It helped me learn the words to say that are comforting and are comforting in a powerful way because they are true.”
When The Trump Card Fails
Many atheists reject this assumption passionately. We point out that many religious beliefs about death are far from comforting — Hell being the most obvious — and that many former believers welcome atheism as a profound relief. We point out that religious beliefs about death are only comforting when you don’t think about them very carefully. We point out that a philosophy that accepts reality is inherently more comforting than a philosophy based on wishful thinking… since it doesn’t involve cognitive dissonance and the unease of self-deception. And we point out that there are many godless philosophies of death that offer comfort, meaning, and hope — with complete acceptance of the permanence of death, and without any belief in any sort of afterlife.
But it’s one thing to face the general idea of death with a godless philosophy. It’s another thing entirely when someone you love dies, and you’re dealing with the immediate and painful reality of grief.
That’s what the burgeoning atheist community is about.
So if you ever wonder why atheists need our own space — our own meetup groups, our own student groups, our own online forums, our own organizations, our own support networks — remember that.
And if you need it yourself — please know that it’s here.
You can join Grief Beyond Belief by going to the Facebook group and clicking the “like” button.