A religious friend once wrote to me, asking how I coped with death as an atheist. Her father had just died a week or two earlier, as mine had years ago. She wrote:
He's dead and in the ground. I take great comfort in thinking that he's in a good place. Do we just become fertilizer, end of story? I am not questioning your beliefs and the why or where of it. I'm just asking what you think is the next step. If you think it's fertilizer, please lie to make it more interesting.
For all the talk of rationality, intellectual honesty, and objectivity we engage in as atheists, this is one of the most uncomfortable questions we have to wrestle with. What can we offer as a substitute for the emotional comfort religion offers believers in facing their own death, or that of their loved ones? What should we say to our believing family and friends when they are acutely grieving these losses?
My friend's note jolted me. Not because I didn't have a response. I did. I just wasn't sure how to articulate it in a way that was both accurate and emotionally supportive, her loss being so recent. It also forced me to revisit the death of my own father, who I had a very close relationship with.
Processing a horrific experience like the loss of a loved one using rationality and logic does help when you're trying to make sense of things, but not as much during those times you're feeling helpless and emotionally vulnerable. I can see how believing in God can help there.
That said, what do believers do with this God? Do they rage at him for cruelly taking their parent, spouse, or child away from them? Or do they surrender to their helplessness, thanking him for putting their loved ones "in a better place", begging him to reunite them one day?
Written By: Ali A. Rizvi
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