Athiests and Loss: Comforting A Loved One Who Doesn't Believe in God
Do's and Don'ts of Comforting Non-Religious Loved Ones
- Focus on what you have in common as a friends or family
- Respect the way they see the world as you expect them to see yours
- Spend time together doing non-religious activities that you both enjoy
- Reminisce, remember, and talk about the experiences you shared that give your lives meaning
- Keep in mind that values for atheists center around people, loved ones, and relationships
- Try to comfort them with religious wishes, prayers, and suggestions
- Use their moment of crisis as an opportunity to "show them why they need God in their life" (this will only generate more hostility and alienate them)
- Incorporate religion into mourning and together time, even if you cope using religion
- Pressure them into attending church or sacrificing what they believe in order to receive your love and support
- Treat them as though they don't feel loss the same as religious people (loss often hits atheists much harder, as their ideals center around people and relationships)
"It would be nice, wouldn't it?"
I had been spacing out, staring out into the grey Northwestern March.
"What's that?" I asked. My buddy shifted, turned to stare blankly out the same window as me.
"It would be nice," he repeated. "To somehow be able to convince yourself, to really, truly, 100% believe, without any doubt, that he had magically gone to a better place. That he was just in some awesome land where he would be happy forever. Instead of just...gone." I reached over, patted him on the shoulder.
"Yeah man. That would be great." I patted him again. We both went back to staring out the window.
One my very best friends had just come from his grandfather's house, where the man who had been a huge part of his life had just died.
His grandfather hadn't been super religious, and was perfectly aware that his grandson placed even less stock in religion than he did. In fact, part of the reason my friend had learned that it was okay to believe what made sense to you was because of his grandfather.
His grandmother and mother, however, were very devout, and it had always bothered them that not all of the family saw eye to eye on the matter. Throughout his childhood, my buddy had endured endless comments and attempts to "bring him back".
This conflict had boiled to the surface in the last few days. Visiting relatives insisted that the family pray frequently and together, in spite of his grandfather's objections and insistence that they stop. Shouting matches had broken out about the existence of heaven, God, and the afterlife, between family members that should have been comforting and helping each other.
In the end, my buddy and his grandfather had retreated to a quiet bedroom, where they spent his grandfather's last few days quietly playing cards, reminiscing, and sharing each others' company. My friend left the morning after he had passed away, to escape the forced sermons, prayers, and arguments, all of which his grandfather would have hated.
He sat now on the couch with me in our house we shared with a few other college friends. The most common thing his family had told him to comfort him, he said, was "Grandpa is in a better place now." All that had done was make him feel more distant from his family, more alone. Because in his heart, he could never believe that, no matter how many other people might.
Great Reading to Help Better Understand Athiesm
Mourning Is Not The Time For A Fight
How can someone not believe in God? How do they explain all the wonder and magic in the world? How do they know what it means to be a good person? Why would you want to live like that? Why do they keep trying to get me to admit I have faith in something imaginary, it isn't to me! Of course there is a heaven and hell, why else would it all matter? Why can't they see it, when it's so obvious? What kind of person has no faith in God and His Plan? I can't believe we're related!
How is it possible, in this day and age, to still believe in God? There's no evidence at all, are these people insane? Why are they always trying to force me to believe in something that isn't real, just because they believe it? Don't they see that what matters is the people that are right in front of you? Why are they always talking about holding out for something better than life, do they not understand that they only get ONE? If somebody quotes one more hypocritical, self-righteous bible verse, I'm going to scream!! Why in the world did I even come home to be with these people?
No two people believe exactly the same thing. About relationships, about God, about politics, about anything. A viewpoint is built on experiences, influences, personality, and hopefully some strong critical thinking, and therefore is not something that changes quickly or easily.
This is double true during a time of crisis, when many people retreat into themselves to find a source of strength to deal with the challenges looming ahead. How a person perceives their world is both their grounding and their compass to help them steer through challenging times. Grief and loss often turn people back to their core beliefs, to try to orient themselves and prepare to move on with life.
Unfortunately, this centering on core beliefs can polarize a person in the short-term. We tend to cling to our core beliefs much more tightly in the face of huge changes, like clinging to a rock in a flood, and become very defensive about the refuge our values provide. Having retreated to such a fundamentally personal level, anything attacks directed at our beliefs will seem exceedingly personal.
In a more real-world sense, this means that family and friends with religious beliefs tend to rely more heavily on their faith in times of crisis. Similarly, non-religious people will depend much more heavily on their views of the world and their relationships to see them through hard times. Therefore something as simple as a passing "You're in our prayers," is likely to feel like a personal attack to an atheist, as much as "There is no Heaven," would inflame a mourning Christian.
With this in mind, it's easy to see that mourning is easily the worst time to discuss contentious issues such as personal religious views. If you are religious and accustomed to reassuring people with affirmations of God's will and the afterlife, you need to recognize that such comments directed at non-religious loved ones do far more harm than good. Even with the best of intentions, a reassurance that their loved one "...is in a better place/in heaven/with God," will come across as self-righteous at best, and a commentary on their belief structure at worst.
Many atheists find comfort and support in their relationships, the bonds and experiences that they share with the people they love, and the unconditional care and support that they provide each other. Rather than being comforted by the belief that they are being cared for by a superior being, they tend to focus on the joys that life provides, and the wonderful people in their life who care for one another.
To avoid endless fights, comforting non-religious loved ones should center around affirmations that the family is there for them. They won't be comforted by prayer or being prayed for, but they will find comfort in knowing that you want to spend time with them.
Remember, nobody is saying that faith is a harmful thing. You don't need to feel like you must hide your faith from them. Just avoid directing religion-based comfort at them as a bare minimum. There are plenty of wonderful things to say to and about a person that don't have religious undertones, things which everyone finds comforting. It will surprise you how respectful atheists can be of religion in other people when they understand that their own beliefs are being respected as well.
By way of example, here are some one-liners that can be substituted to show respect for atheists or observers of different religions. These "translations" express a similar message, just not from a religious standpoint. There are endless ways to use this idea, of course. True comfort shouldn't be an endless string of one-liners anyway, these are just for illustrative purposes.
"It's part of God's plan." ----> "Death is as much a natural part of life as birth."
"They are in a better place now." ----> "They're not in pain anymore, we're happy they aren't suffering any more."
"They will always be watching over us from Heaven." ----> "Their presence will always be felt through all the influence they had on each of us. We've all incorporated parts of who they were as who we are."
"They have so much to look forward to in Paradise." ----> "They led such a fantastic life with so many great experiences."
"We can always pray to keep them in our hearts and mind." ----> "They will always be remembered by all of us, every day."
"You'll see them again, someday." ----> "We were all so lucky to get to spend so much time and be so close with such an amazing person. We got so much more time together than many do."
Don't Make Them Choose Between Your Love and Their Beliefs
One of the most painful parts of being an atheist in a religious family is the feeling of being completely alone. During crises, that feeling is magnified, particularly if the family is grieving religiously together.
For many atheists, an implicit choice is presented: lie, tolerate, and pretend you believe to receive the love and support of the family, or stay true to what you believe and mourn alone. A religiously-toned offer of support carries that implication whether intentional or not. Holding a family prayer session is just as alienating; an atheist feels like a liar if they stay to feel like part of the family, or they feel like an outcast who isn't welcome with their mourning family.
One of the major objections most atheists have with religion is the hypocrisy inherent in many faiths, and being forced to pretend to believe in prayer makes a non-religious person feel like the worst hypocrite imaginable.
It also taints family comfort by turning it into something they must "pay for" by sacrificing what they believe to be true. Imagine if the only way you could feel like part of the family was by mocking God to gain their approval, and you can experience how it feels every time an atheist is invited to pray with the family.
The center of comfort for most atheists is their family and relationships, and for that reason, it is especially important that these are not relationships they can only maintain at the expense of their beliefs. If that is the case, and they cannot be truly accepted without feigning faith, they will move further and further away from those relationships.
To keep a non-religious loved one from feeling increasingly alienated, it is important to have your relationship with them be separate from religion. This can be as simple as doing things together as a family like cooking, helping out with chores, going for walks, or anything else that doesn't revolve around prayer or religion. Going out to brunch on Sunday is much more inclusive than spending the morning in church or with the congregation. For an atheist, family time should be spent in consideration of the people that make up the family, so activities that exclude one or more members isn't really "family time" at all.
Lastly, don't let your desire to have the family mourn together lead you to employ peer-pressure tactics. It is easy to disregard this one, but it can be the worst way to try to pull the family together.
Most parents raise their kids to be resistant to peer-pressure approaches to keep their kids safe from harmful influence, drugs, and other dangerous things as they grow up. If the same tactics are used to strong-arm an atheist into participating in religion, not only will they be immediately resistant, they will subconsciously put religion in the same category as everything else people have tried to pressure them into doing. There is very little difference between "The rest of the family is doing it..." and "All the cool kids are doing it...".
The Person You Love Is Important, Not Differences
In the end, the thing you need to remember in times of crisis is that you love the person. You don't need to love all of their views. Using painful times as an opportunity to spread one's faith will certainly lead to conflicts, which only serve to push people further apart. Remember, a person who is atheist is neither evil nor "lost", but rather views the compassion that humans have for each other as more inspirational than the idea of an all-powerful being.
For that reason in particular, your non-religious loved ones need you more than ever in trying times, not as someone to pray for them and show them the way to religion, but to provide the human support that they value so much. With respectful support, people with different views can help each other rise above difficult times, and benefit from their difference in perspective.