This post is about grieving as an atheist and the complications caused by doing that while also having to interact with Christians and Christian beliefs. My father was undergoing cancer treatments for about 3 months before dying a few weeks ago from a massive stroke. The process of dealing with his diagnosis, treatment, complications, and eventual death has been an emotional journey, to say the least. My father was a fundamentalist Christian, as is much of my extended family. This made things harder for me in a variety of ways as I went through the grieving process, though on reflection I’ve been able to learn a lot from those experiences that I hope to share with others.
I’ve written a little about how my relationship with my father strained when my wife and I were forced to reveal that we were no longer Christians. Once our first daughter was born, there would be no more hiding our apostasy given the lack of a baptismal/christening.
Through the reveal and subsequent conversations, I learned he was even more theologically conservative than I recall when we lived together when I was a teenager. He was a young earth creationist, believed in a global flood, the 900 year old humans described in Genesis, and thought evolution was a lie. He joked he was a “six point Calvinist”, just so he’d be ready in case they ever added a 6th point (there are only 5 points of Calvinism).
That last part always troubled me. We were Catholics, then Baptists. That generally meant one wouldn’t be a Calvinist, though apparently the Calvinists have made headway in the Baptist denominations in the last few decades. As I grew in my own theological knowledge, I was repulsed by Calvinism even when I was a believer. It rejects the libertarian free will common among evangelicals, and instead teaches that god pre-destined the elect (those who are saved and go to heaven) and the reprobate (those who burn for eternity in hell).
My father’s mention of Calvinism hurt mostly because I know it meant he now had to accept that I was in the reprobate, destined for hell. I can’t imagine the pain that caused him, even if I know that such beliefs are false.
That all said, my father and I still loved each other and though it took years, it feels as if our relationship had improved.
My True Feelings
My father was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer at the end of August, he was to go through 7 weeks of radiation and chemo, telling us that he had 70/30 odds to beat the cancer. He started treatments at the end of September. By mid October he suffered a mild stroke, causing him to miss a week of treatment and spend 3 weeks in the hospital. The doctors said that if he made it through the cancer treatments, he could restore the vision, speech, and mobility problems with therapy. That said, I didn’t really accept that my father could very well be dead soon until that first stroke hit. I couldn’t keep the thoughts about him really dying out of my head any longer, and it was horrible to see him suffer because of the cancer and the stroke’s imposition on his abilities. He fought against it all, taking risks moving on his own without aid that made it all the worse.
Processing all of this, what shocked me was the thought that I should pretend to be a Christian, or try as hard as I could to believe it again. This wasn’t because if I was a Christian I’d believe that I’d see my father again someday after he died. I am prepared to face the finality of death and the loss of never seeing him again.
The motivation to try to believe or at least pretend to believe was based on the idea that it would make him so happy now when he is suffering so greatly. I wanted to do something to really make him happy, and that was probably the one thing that would mean so much to him.
That was not going to happen. Immediately after the thought of pretending to believe again came a fresh wave of revulsion so strong that I was shocked by it. I simply couldn’t believe in Christian doctrine again. Philosophically speaking, I know doxastic voluntarism is false – we can’t choose our beliefs, that much is largely uncontroversial. What shocked me was how repulsive I found the thought of it, and what was worse, the thought of my children believing that horrible religion.
If I was to pretend to believe again, I’d have to start going to a church in order to keep up appearances. A big part of making my father happy would be him knowing I went to a church. This means I would start indoctrinating my daughters with Christian beliefs, and it was that thought that caused the most revulsion in me.
It is one thing for me to pretend to believe an abominable doctrine such as Christianity, but it’s another for my children to be put under it. As a parent, one of the strongest instincts I feel is the desire to protect my daughters, and boy did the idea of sending them to a Christian church set off that protective instinct.
I didn’t realize exactly how hostile I was to Christian doctrine. I don’t just not believe it, I loathe it. The question I wanted to explore is why.
Christianity promises salvation, redemption, a glorious afterlife for the saved. Most versions, including the most widespread versions also include eternal torment for the non-saved. The main part of what makes Christianity so repulsive is what is embedded in its premise: that we need saving from eternal conscious torture, or at least from ourselves. It teaches we are fundamentally broken, evil, and sinful and the most common versions teach us that we deserve eternal conscious torture for even the smallest single moral infraction. I’m not sure who expressed this idea first, but I find it apt: In order to sell you the cure of Jesus’s atonement, Christianity must first sell you on the idea that you are sick.
What this really does is center goodness on god and conversely evil/brokenness on humanity. As someone who has studied the moral argument and it’s counters, meta-ethically this is perfectly in line with Christian beliefs: Goodness is ontologically grounded in god’s nature. This is contrasted with my preferred metaethics: goodness is about what is good-for something, and goodness for humanity is about what is “good for” humans. There are objective facts of the matter about that in any given situation, determined by the brute facts of our biology collectively and individually.
These are fundamentally irreconcilable views, and as a result the embedded premises of Christianity is triggering my moral revulsion. Psychologically speaking, that’s one of our strongest instincts, which explains my intense reaction.
Tempting as it is to end this section here, I am compelled by my humanism to go a bit further. As much as I disagree with my relatives (or other people in general) about Christianity, they’re still people I love and at least empathize with. As strong as my moral revulsion is, theirs is likely all the same towards my own view. This doesn’t make our views equally valid, only one of us can be correct after all, and I am still as firmly convinced of the falsity of Christianity as I am sure that water is wet.
It is too tempting, too easy, to just ‘other’ the opposing faction, forgetting our common humanity. While I can’t reconcile our beliefs, I can at least prevent reducing them to an ‘other’ by clearly recognizing the parity in our emotional responses to each other’s core beliefs, the respective strength of our convictions, and the fundamental differences in our views that are dividing us.
This will be the key lesson I use to reconcile my anger at Christianity’s imposition of itself during my grieving process as an atheist.
Making it Harder than Necessary
Eventually my father was sent home from the hospital after his first stroke. Then with only a week left worth of cancer treatments, my father had a second, more massive stroke about three weeks ago. He was effectively brain dead that night, but it took 3 days for an official evaluation when he would be removed from life support and the rest of his body would die. It was during that first night, three days, and then the funeral that I would have Christianity impose itself on me as I was going through my own grief.
Much of the problem came from my own family, though most of that was in ways I can’t blame them for. Often talking about how “this isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later” or about how as Baptists they’ll be “by the pool in heaven”. I get that those are their beliefs and it’s how they were coping with the tragedy and loss, I can’t legitimately be mad at them for constantly making such comments, but it is certainly something that made my own process much harder. It fosters a kind of contempt for such beliefs, since everything I know tells me that it’s nothing more than wishful thinking. Still, I had enough respect for my family members to keep my mouth shut during such sessions.
Then there were all the prayers. Pastors (there are multiple at their church) coming by the hospital, or prayers at the service. Calls to prayer among the group when I’m there, when I’m grieving, were frankly sickening. I didn’t make a fuss, I was quiet, but I didn’t bow, I didn’t fold my hands. I sat and looked ahead. If anyone had opened their eyes during the prayer, they’d know I wasn’t participating. I resented having to feign participation via silence, to have to sit through it. I realize that to my family and these other people, it is meaningful, but to an outsider and an atheist it is the equivalent of talking to the ceiling. There’s no way around that irreconcilable fact.
Where things were harder was instances where I wasn’t respected. I don’t expect beliefs to be given respect, I disdain their Christianity and they disdain my atheism. What I expect is respect to not cross boundaries. When I’m told “I know you don’t believe it but pray anyway!” when I’m driving in the middle of the night to get to the hospital, that sure as hell doesn’t make the situation any easier. It’s an insult, one given out of desperation and fear rather than malice, but it reveals a lack of respect. I can’t be angry at the person who said it, but I can be hurt and disappointed. I would like to point out that this situation isn’t the only time I’ve had this said to me. Other people in completely different, less stressful contexts have used that line on me, and it is grating every single time.
Beyond that was the funeral itself where I had to endure sitting through a sermon in my father’s fundamentalist church. I had the honor of giving the eulogy, making a joke about how I should go an extra 20 minutes to make the minister sweat to fit in the sermon. Even the minister laughed, given the way my father would regularly fall asleep during services and the minister would tease him for it, the joke seemed appropriate.
However as we sat through said sermon, my Christian (though non-fundamentalist) sister joked with me that I really should have gone for the extra 20 minutes because the sermon was so terrible. It was literally nearly every rehashed pitch to be saved, over and over, for nearly 45 minutes. What galled me the most was that during the sermon the pastor referenced how he had just read an article about a scientist admitting that “while he didn’t want it to be true, and worked hard to disprove it, they’ve concluded we all descended from just two people: Adam and Eve.”
The constant proselytizing while I’m grieving at my father’s funeral was bad, but to have a blatant lie, such an straight forwardly disprovable statement be made at my father’s funeral, while also trying to make it look like “science confirms the word of god!” was enraging. It took every ounce of restraint I had to not make a comment from the front pew. I only kept quiet because I didn’t want to further upset my stepmother.
Later, after the burial at the lunch back at the church I told the pastor he shouldn’t say such things. That we had to come from a minimum population size of about 10,000 due to genetic diversity, he asked what that all meant. I told him it meant we couldn’t come from just two people. He replied simply that “yes we did”, and that he really did read an article saying so. That the scientist wasn’t a Christian, but you can be a Christian and a scientist. I told him the article must be misrepresenting the study, I know enough about biology to know it’s physically impossible for our species to have descended from just two people. He told me he goes with the word of god, and we simply parted ways.
I did find the article, multiple in fact, that were published around the same time just before the funeral on right wing websites (Fox News and the Daily Mail UK), referencing a study released in June about populationbottlenecks and rapid population growth. The study doesn’t support what the right-wing articles claim, as referenced here, and it certainly doesn’t support the conclusion that all human life descended from just two people. At most it says that we possibly could have gone through a bottleneck of two people, followed by rapid expansion in population, though those two people would have been preceded by the thousands required to get us the genetic diversity we have present.
Still, as angering as that was, could I really be mad at the pastor? Or to a lesser extent, my family? No. I can’t really be mad at them, not in any morally justifiable way. Pastors are going to proselytize, it’s in their job description, grating as it is for those of us forced to endure it given social situations. He didn’t misrepresent science; the authors of those articles did. He was merely relaying information from sources he trusted.
As for my family, they were just being true to themselves as Christians. I can’t be mad at them processing the death of a loved one by referencing an afterlife they believe in, or for praying. Perhaps I could be mad at my stepmother for asking me to pray even if I don’t believe it, but that’s something said in the most emotionally devastating moments of her life. Empathy demands that I not hold a grudge for things said in such a situation.
This reinforces my point of view that situations like this one are where I can’t be mad at the people around me, but I can be mad at the situation. There probably is no way for Christians to make things better for the atheist in these situations, and socially I don’t think it’s possible to avoid this poor situation. We have fundamentally irreconcilable beliefs, someone is always going to have to go the hard way through collective grief.
Ultimately, I’m the minority in the situation and have to cope as best I can, likely by writing things like this to help process it all.
How to handle the grief
Even though I started the three day journey with a little hope my father might recover, by the second day I had caught enough cue’s from the doctors that we were just waiting for the 72 hour period to be over before we’d take him off the life support and the rest of his body would die.
That made waiting for the final day all that much harder. The night before I found solace in some ancient philosophy I had read fairly recently:
"Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And once it does come, we no longer exist.” – Epicurus (paraphrased)
That simple quote doesn’t solve every problem with death as an atheist, but it is at least some comfort when you’re thinking about death. I don’t want to live forever, but I know I will die before I’d probably prefer to. Still, I’m not overly in a state of fear of my own death, probably because I’m privileged enough to think it very likely I won’t be dead for some time.
That said, my mortality does motivate me to live my life to its fullest, here and now. My life is all the more valuable due to its fragility and its limitations.
When I think about going on without my father, I am of course sad. It isn’t the most pleasant thought that I will never see him again, but I know in the grand scheme of possible human lives, he lived a good one.
I loved him, he loved me, and he loved my wife and his grandchildren. That’s ultimately what matters to me about his life. So while I am sad he’s gone, and I do have some sad memories, I don’t really have any regrets - the things that cause the sad memories were beyond my ability to control. Stoicism teaches us not to concern ourselves with the things we cannot control.
That all said my own feelings aren’t the end of my concerns when it comes to my father’s death.
Out of his three grandchildren, two of them are only a year old. The oldest is my first daughter who turned six two days after his death. Probably the hardest thing about his death was having to tell her. She’s young enough where she can’t be too traumatized, but old enough that it will hurt her. I wanted to be the one to tell her, it felt like my duty. I spilled a lot of tears every single time I thought about having to tell her because I didn’t want her to suffer.
When I finally made it home the day my father fully died I held her and told her. I told her that he died, that he no longer existed. I told her what was important was that he loved her, and that she loved him. I told her that as the oldest of his grandchildren that she should try as hard as she can to remember him and all the good times they had together.
She was sad, but when we asked if she had any questions all she asked was if my stepmother would be OK by herself in their house. I’ve got a pretty good daughter.
As the funeral approached, I knew my daughter was going to be surrounded by religious talk and concepts of heaven and life after death. I know that’s all false, but she is young and so I explained to her how those concepts are false, there is no god, and how silly it is to think someone could see with no eyes, hear with no ears, etc. To my surprise and comfort, my daughter laughed when I explained that last part; saying how silly it is.
Later that night, after I told her, I saw a tweet asking atheists what they’d tell their young children about death. I tweeted my experience, having just had to do just that. This was apparently a mistake, since it set me up for a round of some very special “Christian Love” online.
My tweet got picked up by a Calvinist blog, where I was rather insensitively insulted by the commentators there.
In the post, the author only asks: “And what would he tell his six-year-old daughter if she was dying?” This in turn got picked up and tweeted back out at me, asking effectively the same question, albeit far more insultingly.
Here the Christians believe there’s some blood in the water, and want to press what they feel is an advantage for their worldview by forcing uncomfortable questions on a grieving atheist. That’s not something I’d be able to let stand, so I’ll take up their question. To answer them about what I’d say to my six year old if she had contracted some fatal illness – it’d depend.
If I felt my daughter could handle the knowledge emotionally, I’d tell her. I’d comfort her with Epicurus’s words. I’d make her as comfortable as possible, I’d spend as much time with her as possible, staying with her till the end. I’d let her know how much she’s loved and try to give her as much joy as I could in what time we had left.
If I felt she couldn’t handle the knowledge that she was going to die, I wouldn’t tell her. I’d just say we’re trying to make her better and then do all the above. I’d alleviate her suffering as best I could, let her know she’s loved.
I think that this is the response of a loving parent.
That’s not really the point of their questioning though. I think what they’re trying to achieve is to make atheism look bad, since the only answer we can give does contain a hard truth: when people die, they’re gone forever.
However I’m not really sure that the religious alternative really is any better in the given scenario of a young child with a fatal illness. What religious comfort is there if my child was going to die but couldn’t emotionally handle that knowledge? Tell her that she’s going to die and be with a god that let them get sick and won't heal her, taking her away from the parents she loves? As if that'll make her feel any better.
But let's step back from the specifics of this question and look at the ultimate issue with what is being asked of me on the blog – it’s a classic case of poisoning the well.
The problem isn’t with answering what happens when you’re going to die. The problem is having to reveal hard or uncomfortable truths to young children who may not be emotionally ready to handle those facts. That’s why they didn’t ask me “what will you tell the 50 year old diagnosed with terminal cancer will happen when they die” but instead frames it in terms of a 6 year old girl.
The same kind of well poisoning can be done right back to these Christians. Since I know the writer of the blog believes in hell, I wonder what would he would tell a three or six year old child who asked what happened to their Muslim/Hindu/Non-Christian teacher or relative that died?
What if the child asks what happens if they didn’t convert to Christianity before their death? Will the parent tell them that the person is going to burn for eternity in hell, that their sweet, kind, loved one deserves such punishment and that don’t worry, you won’t see them again when you die, because you’ll be too busy partying up in heaven while they burn in hell?
Most of the time, they probably won’t. A common escape route from this kind of hard question is to say something about how “only god knows the state of someone’s soul and how you can’t know if the person didn’t have a miraculous deathbed conversion” to avoid telling their child that someone they love is in hell.
My point here is that the real problem in each scenario is having to reveal an uncomfortable truth to a young child before they’re emotionally ready to handle that fact. Both Christianity and atheism have this problem, just in different ways.
That said, I would at least like to point out that if we are going to get into the game of comparing “hard truths” on our respective worldviews, I’ll take the silence of the void for all over the screams of the majority of humanity emanating from an eternal hell as the price to pay for a minority in heaven any day of the week. Atheism is far preferable to the kind of Christianity espoused by these people.
In the end, I think I’ve handled breaking the news to my daughter as best I can. I haven’t sugar coated anything, but at the same time I’ve tried to provide her with the thoughts necessary to try and comfort her. She clearly understands that death is the end, and hasn’t been troubled by it.
I do think that is possibly what upsets the kind of Christians who lashed out at me so much. If children are taught that this life is all we have and are raised with that expectation, the evangelistic tool of avoiding hell or living in paradise for eternity doesn’t carry the weight it otherwise would in a cultural background where belief in an afterlife is the default.
That said, the fact that this is the only life we have isn’t the main lesson I want her to take from all this. The primary lesson is to value life because it is short, and to be kind to others because we have empathy and life can be so painful.
For my own part, I think I’ve managed as well as I can, given the circumstances. The random bouts of grief have gone down over the weeks and life seems to have returned to normal thus far. That said, this ordeal has renewed my interest in studying Stoic philosophy in particular. I intend to read more of one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, Massimo Pigliucci, who has taken to championing Stoicism to a popular audience. It seems healthy to use this experience as an impetus to learn more and grow as a result.