Category Archives: Sympathy for the atheists

What do you say to a grieving atheist?

I went to my first Meetup with the Atheist Community of San Jose last night (what a hip group!). The guest speaker was Rebecca Hensler, founder of a project called Grief Beyond Belief.


Rebecca has founded a “faith-free” online community for people who are grieving over the deaths of people they love. It seems fairly obvious that ‘reassurances’ about God, angels, and heaven cannot give comfort to people who don’t believe in such things. But as Rebecca shared her experiences and insights, it became clear that such expressions can be worse than unhelpful — they can compound a grieving person’s trauma.

Her talk contained a few examples of things that believers had said to ‘comfort’ her about the loss of her son Jude, who had lived only three months. These utterances ranged from lame apologetics (e.g., Jude’s death was God’s way of prompting Rebecca to start a grief support organization) to absurd speculation (e.g., “[My adult daughter who died] is holding Jude in her arms right now.”)

She also identified some expressions that are hurtful to anyone who is grieving — chief among them, “I understand how you feel” (especially when followed by “because my cat died”!).

It was especially valuable to hear anecdotes from her life and from online conversations she had moderated, illustrating how deep and debilitating grief can be. This made it even clearer why religious or superstitious ‘comfort’ affects nonbelievers the way it does.

During Q&A, I asked Rebecca for her thoughts on “gracious and constructive” ways for a secular person to respond to well-intended faith-based statements, such as “She’s in a better place” or “You’ll see him again in heaven.” Her response was enlightening. I will paraphrase:

  • A person dealing with the death of a loved one may feel little compulsion to be gracious, and this is understandable.
  • An important function of Grief Beyond Belief is to keep its members out of situations where that kind of graciousness is necessary.

As Rebecca’s answer sank in, I realized I had been viewing these hypothetical believer-nonbeliever conversations from the perspective of an activist or evangelist. It’s true that any conversation with a person of faith is an opportunity to help him or her on the path to a more reliable epistemology, but who says we have to leap at every opportunity, regardless of our feelings, needs, abilities, and circumstances? Expecting fellow nonbelievers to be perpetual ambassadors, always on duty, at the expense of their own well-being — well, that’s the kind of irrational values system that drove so many of us out of religion in the first place!

One more take-away: In her talk, Rebecca said that people tend to open up when they are asked to give details about the person they lost. That is not surprising, and it helps illuminate why statements — particularly fantasy-based statements, but really any kind — are so unhelpful for people experiencing grief: They are conversation stoppers. “She’s in a better place [and that’s that].” “You’ll see him again in heaven [so stop being sad].” Giving a bereaved person the floor — to talk, to cry, to be silent — seems much more compassionate than delivering a tired sound bite.

I admire Rebecca for starting and running Grief Beyond Belief, and I’m grateful for what I learned from her talk.


It’s the amount of thought that counts

The conclusion you arrive at is less important than how you got there.

When a believer who never gave it much thought becomes an atheist without giving it much thought, or vice versa, so what?

But that’s not what happened to me. I went from contemplative believer to contemplative atheist.

When I was a believer, I was really into it. I did mental gymnastics over the logic of Christianity because I needed confidence that I was believing the right thing, and I agonized over the moral implications of Christianity because my walk had to match my talk (it didn’t, and I really felt a lot of grief about it).

I did not reach an atheist conclusion arbitrarily or hastily. I coped with a strong cognitive dissonance (between faith and facts, and between ‘Bible morality’ and my real conscience) for about ten years, until it became too stressful. At that point, I started allowing myself to objectively consider all the information I could find, instead of looking for information to support a conclusion I had already chosen. I began following the evidence where it led.

My conclusions say something about me, but how I reached my conclusions says a lot more. I actually have more in common with a contemplative believer than I do with a non-contemplative atheist.

The central question? It’s subjective

To a person who believes he or she has encountered extraterrestrials, the question of the existence of extraterrestrials is  central.

To a person who believes he or she has encountered a deity, the question of the existence of that deity (or of any deity) is central.

To a person who has never encountered anything he or she would consider supernatural or paranormal, the question of the existence of supernatural or paranormal things may be trivial.