Death, Dying, and My Atheism
I had to attend a funeral yesterday. I am quite sure that just about everybody finds that to be an unpleasant experience. Since recognizing that I am an atheist, I find them particularly difficult to attend. For me, religious concepts and answers death, dying, and what happens when we die were always problematic. This is significantly more so now that I reject, as nonsense, what is coming from the pulpit. Yesterday’s funeral no exception. Let me explain.
First—some background info. The deceased, John, was in his late 70’s. Just last Wednesday John was told by his doctors that after two years of battling, that his cancer was in remission. What a happy occasion. To celebrate this joyous news, John decided to fly (he is a pilot and so flew his own plane) to visit his son in a different state. Things were going well. Take-off was smooth, flight was smooth, the landing too was also smooth. Then something happened on the tarmac, I am not sure what exactly, as details are still forthcoming, the plane crashed and John did not survive. I had only met him only twice, but am quite good friends with his wife, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, children, and an assortment of nieces and nephews. That is how I found myself in a Catholic Church for his funeral yesterday.
At this point in my life I expect to hear what I consider nonsense when I enter a Catholic church. One sentence caught my attention more than any other. The priest stated:
“We were all so happy for John last week…all of our prayers were answered when we learned his cancer was in remission. Yet, we cannot know why god would call John to him and away from us two days later. God’s ways are not our ways and remain a mystery to us. But we can find solace in the knowledge that John is in joyful bliss with god now, as is part of god’s plan. We must praise god and be thankful for giving us all the opportunity to have shared our lives with John”.
I almost fell out of my pew. The priest wanted us to thank god for bringing to our attention and, in the priests own words, causing one of the most tragic stories I have heard in a while? We are to thank god for the emotional roller coaster “he” has put this family through? We are to thank god for giving John’s family hope that their husband, father, and uncle would be around for years to come—only to rip that away from them as part of some plan “that we can’t possibly know”? Was I the only person in the packed church who struggled not to yell out “Bullshit!” upon hearing this remark? When I looked over at the first two rows of pews in the Church and can visibly see the suffering inflicted by this “god” on that family, I am supposed to give him thanks?
In short, I have always found the words that religions offer at the time of death to be hollow. I know they mean well, but they have never had any meaning to me. When I was a child I thought they were bullshit and still do today. At this point in the service here is what I thought next—“Is there anything I can do in the next few days to help this family out?” I concluded that there is not much other than to offer my support, which I did. It doesn’t much matter that they do not particularly need my help or really anything from me, I couldn’t help but think that thought. To be honest, I find that to potentially far more meaningful and helpful than any “thanks to god” is going to be.
I think, in some ways, I am a bit different than many others when it comes to death. Death has only once really held any sway over me. I have never feared my own death, and only once feared for a close family member (my wife). Other than that one traumatic time, death has never really bothered me. I have always accepted it as a part of life. When someone close to me has died, I have surely been sad, but have always focused on my memories of that person, and celebrated his/her life in my mind. I think this attitude or lack of fear regarding death makes me a bit abnormal. I recognize and am okay with that. However, one of the questions that atheists often get is “how do you deal with death?” I hate that question because my answer is already screwed up in a sense, in that I don’t really deal with or think about it at all. Heck, if I were a theist, my answer would still probably be worth a psychological inquiry.
Anyway, I am curious to know how you, my fellow atheists, deal with or view death and the dying process.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.
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