By Sikivu Hutchinson
The American death industry pimps heaven hard, squeals like a stuck pig about redemption, then tasks the faithful with collecting the bloody dividends. For the believer the death of an atheist or agnostic loved one is a theological crap shoot. It invariably inspires fantasy, creative license, and outright bullshit betrayal of the dearly departed’s principles. Such was the case with my friend “Miguel”, who tragically collapsed during a basketball game at his school, went into a coma, and never regained consciousness. One afternoon when I went to visit him in the hospital I stumbled right into the middle of a raging prayer circle. Heads bowed, hands joined, voices hushed, three friends and family were deep in the throes of spiritual reconnaissance over Miguel’s bed.
Thanks, but no thanks, he would have said. At a vibrant 54, Miguel was a hardcore skeptic, an agnostic-atheist who never took anything on faith and made it his business to slash sacred cows of all stripes with a wink and swagger. As an esteemed educator for nearly 25 years he ruled his classrooms like a prize fighter, inspiring all who entered to think critically about the sociopolitical conditions of communities of color, institutional racism, classism, and sexism. His lessons drew on everyone from Bob Dylan to Toni Morrison to Tupac to Shakespeare to Sandra Cisneros; using their explorations of social justice, morality, and life’s paradoxes to turn on Black and Latino students who’d had it drilled into them that they weren’t cut out to be intellectuals or scholars.
But none of this passion for freethought was captured in the marathon orgy of Catholicism that was his memorial. During the ceremony, Miguel’s ashes were paraded down the church aisle in a little urn while the pastor declared to the faithful that “our brother has been called home.” It was a spectacle that he would have certainly parodied—he, the Chicano blasphemer who once wrote (in response to one of my pieces on death and religion) that “this rips the covers off the hypocrisy and the monarchical role that religion plays in our society. It (religion) swears out its conformity and power to the downtrodden it shackles every day. Let’s examine the nexus between corporate obscenity and the hand holding of their gospel spewing brethren in the tax free halls of America. Neither pay taxes, both exploit and we the benighted beg at their altars for alms, or forgiveness, or both.”
When my twin infant son Jay died ten days after his birth I was spared the prayer circles but got sprayed by the angel talk and the Jesus juice. Jay was going to be a Black angel with white wings hurtling up to take his place with the Lord. He was going to be one of the elite gold card cherubs that “God” had watched suffer and die. In a candid moment he would get to ask God, “Why did you fuck me?” And be told “Membership has its privileges.”
In death faith is the easiest breeziest coziest bromide fondue. Snatch it away and there is savagery. The savagery of outliving one’s young child. The savagery of a “Christian” nation that lets communities like mine bury its children week in and week out while spending billions on immoral imperialist wars. The savagery of the good dying young and the evil wanking into dotage. The savagery of organized religion that only makes the death of a child assimilable through fraud deities that, as Epicurus sagely protested, have neither the power nor the will to give or spare life in the first place. In her Free Inquiry article “Grief Beyond Belief” non-believer Rebecca Hensler talks about the difficulty of dealing with God talk after the death of her son. Seeking solace in other bereaved parents she says, “I found myself alienated by (their) constant talk of being reunited with their children someday. I had no patience with credulous stories of signs from beloved sons and daughters.” The experience motivated her to start a Grief Beyond Belief Facebook page for those who need secular spaces to mourn. Secular grieving and its rituals are still a nascent enterprise. In communities of color where hyper-religiosity and “spiritualism” become the default categories to memorialize death, secular spaces are virtually non-existent.
Non-believers refuse to waste time and energy on an afterlife but the abyss is still emotionally perilous. All of the rituals of religious redemption, as Miguel might say, have been ripped to shreds, delivered up to the cold light of day as a Disneyland front for the bloody, ugly, untamable, Sisyphean TKO of the right here right now—the dead “immortal” in the memories, deeds, and lived experiences of the living, the living slouching each second toward the dead.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.
25 thoughts on “Death of an Atheist Friend: Let the Faith Pimping Begin”
I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend and of your son.
So your friend ruled his classes like a prizefighter?
How did the religious students feel when he denigrated religion?
Were they free to talk back?
Sure. Sure they were.
He did not “denigrate” religion in the classroom. Unlike the Christian fascists currently highjacking human rights, women’s rights, civil rights and science public policy to try and ram their medieval sexist/homophobic/racist version of the universe down the throats of the American electorate he encouraged his students to respectfully challenge, question and engage in rational civil discourse about sociopolitical issues.
Sikivu, thanks for another thoughtful blog post.
The idea that religion offers real solace, even to the religious, is questionable to me.
Having been to the funerals of a sister and both my parents (all Catholic) in the past few years, at each I got a full dose of religious comfort. Fully 99% of the sentiment was cliched, such as, “she is in a better place now.” Even for a believer, having 200 people say the same thing really wouldn’t help beyond the first handful of times.
In the case of my father’s death, the most meaningful comfort came from a guy who had served in the Navy with my father back in the 50s. Sadly, they had been living a few miles apart for many years, but neither knew it. This gentleman noticed my dad’s name in the obituary section and showed up. His kind words about my dad and what a good guy and friend he was meant more to me than everything else. Notably, what he shared was purely secular.
My condolences as well.
My brother’s funeral was led by a local pastor, despite my brother’s long-term atheism, because a handful of very religious relatives would have been offended otherwise. The pastor said, after nearly every speaker, “I did not know him, but I wish I had, seeing what a difference he made to so many people…”
Well, there were two reasons you did not know him. The first is, he was not in your church, or any church. He was serving his community on Sunday mornings as he was the rest of the week, at work in the community gardens in summer, shoveling his elderly neighbors’ driveways and sidewalks in winter. He was working to make the world a better place for his family and friends, and for people around the world. He did this because he knew there was no god to do it for him.
The second reason you did not know him, pastor, is that *you* were not among those at the community garden, or canvassing the streets for environmental issues, or attending community meetings. Why were you not? There is no reason you could not have been, unless perhaps you thought that praying was sufficient.
Most of the speakers spoke as friends, family, or co-workers, and as such knew my brother and referred to this common knowledge to speak appropriately for the group gathered there. One person, and only one, spoke of him as “in a better place” (using a bible verse that pretty much said that we, the friends and family gathered there, were pond scum compared to where my brother was now–interesting, since as an atheist, my brother would not have made the cut according to my fundamentalist relatives). I’m sure this speaker meant well, but I saw the look on my niece’s face.
Thanks for that reflection. What kills me about M’s ceremony was that there was never any fucking allusion to his world view. All those who truly knew and shared/respected his principles were expressly excluded from the official memorial.
Sorry for your losses.
“But none of this passion for freethought was captured in the marathon orgy of Catholicism that was his memorial.”
I’ve been to so many funerals like that.
Miguel sounds like he was amazing; sorry for your losses.
Thanks Frederick. Yes, he was.
I am sorry to hear of your loss.
I have had 2 atheist friends die, but luckily they had planned their funerals in advance and they were 2 of the most personal and touching funeral services I have been to.
I only wish everyone was allowed have the funeral they would have wanted.
Have you heard of the group Grief Beyond Belief?
I have just seen your post on their site. Ignore the last past of my reply.
I am sorry for your losses and the memorials of lies which you had to endure.
You speak of these things so well; a dangerous poet in prose.
I am so sorry to hear about your baby and Miguel. My father died last year but he was 82 and had been ill for a long time, so while it wasn’t pleasant it was not in the same class as the death of a baby. All my birth family are atheists but my mother-in-law seems to have some kind of vague belief that she is far too important to actually cease to exist and therefore there must be an afterlife. At the first family function we had after his death she felt impelled to make some foolish comment about him “watching us”, everybody else just pretended she hadn’t spoken and carried on but it was still unpleasant. I’d have enormous difficulty with endless religious crap about better places, I would inevitably crack at some point and say something rude and to the point about the finality of death and stupidity of pretending it doesn’t mean the end. Glad I didn’t have to put up with that. The funeral celebrant was a family friend who was instructed to include no religion but she had a hard time without the platitudes she usually relies on. She did her best though and mostly succeeded. In the end it was all quite pleasant, but as a previous commenter said, the greatest comfort came from a man I’d never met who had nice things to say about stuff my dad had done for returned servicemen, none of which I knew anything about.
“The funeral celebrant was a family friend who was instructed to include no religion but she had a hard time without the platitudes she usually relies on.” Well said and thank you.
I think that is the essence of the hypocrisy — the utter vapidity at the core of religious prescriptions about death and the afterlife. Strip all of those bullshit homilies about eternity away and they stumble ignominiously.
Death is the greatest stronghold of the religious. That is where the non-theist must fight the hardest for space. You have stated the problem very eloquently, Sikivu.
When my mother-in-law passed away, there was a visitation at the funeral home the evening before the funeral. That was where the most significant ceremony took place. Family and friends talked about her wonderful life and deeds and how she affected them personally. No superstitions, no invisible deities. The funeral was just empty religious ritual.
Thank you for the compliment and I wholeheartedly agree that death is their greatest, most tenaciously guarded stronghold. Dismantle it and their traditions are exposed as fraud, thuggery and parasitism.
it’s time for the “very religious relatives” to be confronted and if they insist,”offended” by their pious prating not being accepted just to keep the “peace”. They need to be told that they are disrespectul and wrong because pandering to them only extends the reach of their religious poison. I find *that* to be a fitting memorial to any freethinking person, to stand up for what they found important and to stand against those who would continue to affect me and others with their myths and lies.
I am deeply sorry for the loss of your friend and your son.
This is a hell of a good post, and one which addresses something that’s been on my mind a lot this year. In March, a friend of mine died in a freak occurrence that I would regard as kind of goofy if it hadn’t ended the life of someone I loved; she was in her early 20s. She was as irreligious as could possibly be–something we bonded over fairly early on–although I’m fairly sure she wasn’t “out” to her very Catholic family. The funeral wasn’t as over-the-top religious as I would have expected (due, I think, to some logistical issues resulting in the service being held at the cemetery instead of a church, without a priest), but nevertheless the standard platitudes were out in full force–“she’s with God now,” “she’s in a better place,” “part of God’s divine plan,” and the rest. At the time, part of me could picture the two of us trying–and failing–not to snicker at the religious wankery on display, but mostly I was just trying to keep from bawling in front of a few of my coworkers in attendance. It was hard on me knowing that this nerdy, awesome, ridiculous person I cared for so much, whose company was frequently the only thing I looked forward to at an otherwise shitty job, who was sometimes the only person I’d see on a regular basis that treated me as if I’m capable of so much as dressing myself, is really gone for good. It was hard on me seeing her family–whom I didn’t know well, but we’d met a few times and were on friendly terms–had to clutch frantically at straws for their peace of mind. And I was bothered a little at how little the service represented who she was.
I don’t know if I was going anywhere with this, but I’ll just say, for want of anything more meaningful–bugger.
Condolences on your losses, Sikivu. I also lost my mother and brother within the last couple of years and, while I was resigned to attending a religious ceremony for my religious mom, most of my family and I refused to attend the religious ceremony my very OUT atheist brother’s widow decided was appropriate. We also had to endure loud and insistent prayer services over my non-believing brother’s comatose body. At the memorial the family held for him, we celebrated his life in the way he lived it – with laughter, song, poetry, food and wine, and without the pathetic platitudes and lies he found ridiculous and hateful.
His widow was offended, and that’s a shame, but I agree 100% with “vel” (#10) that this was a time to take a stand and I am so glad we did.
Thanks. It sounds like you were able to carve out some safe secular space in an otherwise untenable situation with your brother’s spouse. That was actually the scenario with my friend’s passing — a defiant spouse who commandeered and destroyed what could have been a meaningful gathering of friends, colleagues, family AND former students of all ages. Fortunately an alternative memorial is being planned for M.
I hope the memorial for M goes well and that those that love him are also able to carve out your own safe secular space to celebrate his life and grieve his loss.
Ouch. That is really horrible.
DO they still publicly read wills before the relatives of the deceased? Maybe I could get in some good posthumous guilttripping or something?
This was a powerful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing.
It is so disrespectful and hurtful to insist that the religious views of the living trump those of the person whose funeral it is. When a loved one passes on, we must remember them as they were and celebrate their lives and memories. To plaster a fake veneer of religiosity over an atheist’s memorial service renders those memories false and hollow. It defeats the purpose of a funeral or memorial–to celebrate the person’s life, to share stories of their best moments, their passions, their pain and joy–to pander to the sensibilities of others.
Just another example of how religion makes good people to awful things to each other.
[…] when some atheists die, believers insist they have religious funerals which don’t represent their lives and which they wouldn’t have wanted. For some attendees, this […]