Life

Grieving Without God: How Atheists Deal with Death

Relying on a supernatural deity to have a plan, the promise of an afterlife, and perhaps even reuniting with deceased loved ones can be comforting for believers—but atheists need to find other ways to cope.
April 14, 2021, 11:51am
​A silhouette of a sad person
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As part of an unabashedly Catholic family, I was shaped and moulded for a life of guilt from a young age. 

My Colombian grandmother, who was taught by nuns, lived by reminding us to give thanks to Jesus and avoid all sin. Just to play it safe, she often Our Fathered herself to sleep. It seemed everything ordinary deserved gratitude, and whatever I desired required penance. 

In Miami, I often went to St. Richard Catholic Church on Sundays, but I never prayed, only wished for things. Without question, I received my first communion, then confirmation. By paper, action, and words, I identified as a believer. 

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But beginning high school, I never verbally doubted God, only my devotion to Him. I started refusing to attend Mass except on holidays or Grandma's birthday when it felt mean to argue. For my church's Easter Sunrise, my brothers and I, as youth leaders, were tasked with leading the resurrection of Christ at 5 AM. "He has risen," my brothers chanted, welcoming guests. Meanwhile, hungover, I embraced a nap in the car, considering it enough that I’d showed up. Folks preached blind faith like an act as simple as taking a daily supplement, but the belief failed to manifest when it came to applying it. 

One day, browsing Facebook, I noticed an unusual amount of students posting single heart emojis on my best friend Sam's profile. When I called her, her aunt answered on the verge of tears just from hearing me questioning where my friend was. I immediately hung up before she could verbalise what I refused to let become real. And just like that, my closest friend became the first person I knew to cease to exist. 

Before that, the concept of death, like God, I understood but did not know. My mother came to comfort me that night by assuring me it was supposed to happen. “It's what God wanted,” she said—on the lines of how people usually comfort those who’re grieving. It’s kind of like “They’re in a better place” or “God has a plan.” 

But the notion infuriated me in ways I couldn't explain, so I simplified it with a “Fuck you.” That was the first and last time my mother has ever slapped me, ironically providing more relief than any hollow sentiment. 

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During Sam’s funeral, I heard other close friends remember her in the same universal platitudes that scriptwriters mourn fictitious characters on television. “Infectious laugh,” they said, “Nice to everybody, always smiling, always happy,” they insisted, even if it didn't reflect the moody, opinionated girl I knew, who occasionally snorted after a heavy chuckle. Even when her boyfriend of only a few weeks described her sneaking out of the house at 5 AM, it wasn't to smoke weed but “to watch the sunrise.” They suffocated Sam's memory with ideologies as if that would give her limited 15 years more purpose. These selfish bastards all agreed “Heaven” gained one more angel to watch over them.

But I abruptly stopped feeling sorry for myself when I witnessed her mom desperately try to jump inside the grave, begging to get her daughter out. “Please, Sam can't breathe in there,” she said, collapsing to the floor as family restrained her. As proprietary as grief feels, it's humanity's burden to share. 

How could I move on knowing the truth: Sam wasn’t in a “better place”; she was dead. This loss cemented what I’d instinctively believed all along, what all religions appeared to share in common: They're practical and man-made. 

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Maybe I'm an emotional masochist, but it didn't feel right turning Sam into an angel for personal comfort. If you love someone, shouldn't losing them internally tear you apart? These empty phrases from outsiders seemed to silence grief rather than support it. When it came to my faith, Sam's passing acted almost like catching your parents placing presents under the Christmas tree. It revealed not only the absence of God's involvement but my lack of faith in Him. As every condolence further pushed this narrative, inherently diminishing the gravity of what felt like my world ending, I stopped preaching blind faith in youth group meetings, encouraging peers that it's okay to read the Bible and come to their own conclusions. 

11 years later, grief has collectively united the world during a pandemic. I considered myself spared because no one I loved was gone. When a friend I've known since adolescence, Aliyah, confided she lost her father, I asked the most rhetorical question to exist in loss: “Are you okay?” Coincidentally, non-Covid related, it saddened her more that it happened so randomly. One day he walked outside and suffered a heart attack.

“I'm so sorry to hear that,” I said, wanting to throw myself in front of traffic with every mediocre word. With God out of the equation, what else was there to say? "I'm here if you need anything," I followed, overwhelmed by the cliche hypocrisy pumping through my veins. 

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“It's OK. I've always known that we can meet our Lord at any moment,” Aliyah, who is Muslim, finally comforted me. I replied, “Right,” determined to be genuine, “I just don't really believe in that. He shouldn't have died.”

This was the last time I saw Aliyah before she returned to live with her mom's side of the family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, their hometown. She explained Islam actually places a heavy emphasis on reflecting on the brevity of life and on how death can come at any moment. So when death visited her family, she was not consumed by questions such as “Why now?” or “Why him?”. I later messaged her, baffled by this, wondering how she was not drowning in rage. She responded, “I appreciate you're trying to be there for me, but I accept that everyone has their own time to go, and although I feel sad about all the goals he couldn't see happen, I have accepted that this is a possibility of life and that everyone dies with some number of regrets. What helps me cope with my dad's loss is knowing that the afterlife is a better place for people who do good, and that is also a place where we all can be reunited again.”

This made me remember Grandma's reminder of the vows I’d once made to God like it's never too late to believe again. Perhaps, that may be true, but that still wouldn't prolong the consequence of death. I couldn't change my faith any more than I could get Aliyah to express her grief in a way that satisfied me. 

I asked a friend I’d made in college, Chunxiao, if I had been insensitive. “Beliefs and respect are two different things,” she replied. “When I lost my grandma while studying in New York, my parents didn't even expect me to fly back to Shanghai because she was already gone. She had been in a lot of pain for a year, so it was a blessing for me. Like many higher educated families in China, we're not religious. But she was, so I flew back knowing her wish would be a proper ceremony.”

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It surprised me she had never verbalised her loss. As a fellow atheist, I questioned if others pushing their religious condolences on her grandmother annoyed Chunxiao. “Isn't that what you're doing with Aliyah?” she asked me, over the phone. “I think, who cares? When someone dies, words and wishes are just people's way of paying respect.”

And that’s when it struck me that it wasn't enlightenment I was exerting over others but control. 

When I apologised to Aliyah, she sent me a link to an article about Ravi Kumar, an Indian man who tattooed “Atheist” on both forearms as part of his fight to be seen in a culture that shames Godless people. “I think you will relate to him,” she joked. After a two-year legal battle, Kumar received the “no caste, no religion” certificate, issued by the tehsildar's office in Tohana. But he also lost his job and faces daily discrimination. “The situation had worsened to such an extent that people even refused to drink the water served by me,” he had confessed to the press. 

There are 450-500 million atheists globally, which equates to seven percent of the global population. Yet, atheists and religious skeptics can be executed in at least 14 nations. I can't change my beliefs any more than my sexuality. And, as a gay man from a religious family, I wonder if growing up accused of being “wrong” in various ways has misled me to push against the opposing side with brute force. My grandmother no longer comments on my faith any more than she asks about my boyfriend, but she always says, “I love you.” 

It made me wonder where do you turn if you live where tolerance is not guaranteed? What happens when dissenting beliefs with your community doesn’t make you just strong minded but actually brands you a criminal? “You go online,” replied the moderator of the Facebook group Rants of a Pakistan Citizen. In Pakistan—an Islamic republic—atheism is not technically illegal but apostasy (an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognise a religious faith) is deemed to be punishable by death in some interpretations of Islam. This means that most atheists do not publicly announce their choices, a move that safeguards them against blasphemy (a capital offence) and other life-threatening situations.

“You have to be very careful. There are a lot of things you can never say and a double life is sort of given,” the moderator who asked to remain anonymous in this piece for safety reasons, told me. “It can be very frustrating to live in silence and your mental health suffers. But it gets better if you have someone trustworthy you can talk to and the internet makes it easier to find communities.” Like him, the growing community of Pakistani non-believers often turn to social media to find other atheists, and even meet up in real life. “Around the time I was losing faith, social media was growing really fast and there was a new way to connect with other people. I know of Facebook pages and subreddits which existed and still do for Muslims questioning their religion. I also started this page around 2010 (the original page got deleted) when I realised I can say whatever I want if I am anonymous. And to my surprise, I found many people who agreed with me on religion, social issues, and politics.” 

Unfortunately for the moderator and many of their 41,000+ page followers, their opinions and beliefs can only exist anonymously online. What you believe in is less important than having the freedom to express it fully and without fear or judgment, a privilege I never considered. But death, grief, and wondering what comes next bridges the gap in the differences of our respective cultures and existences. Though, unlike me, the moderator tries not to think too much about how others cope. 

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“I have actually not lost someone too close to me,” he admitted. “But religious language is intertwined in our culture, even the 'hello' in our language comes from religion so I do not get offended over it. I understand that it's something more cultural now. As long as someone means well.” Instead of holding a grudge towards the religion he was born into, he focuses on intention and pushing forward. I too am no longer the young boy wearing someone else’s identity, but I still struggle with moving on. Instead of embracing independence, I emulated the hatred that I fought against. Since there’s no God to be mad at, I misplaced this exasperation on those only trying to console me. 

Aliyah shared a concept called “Sadaqah Jariyah,” which loosely translates to “Ongoing Charity,” which are good deeds and knowledge left behind that continue impacting even after a person has passed away. For example, building a well that continues to provide water to people, or teaching a person a piece of knowledge. Every time someone drinks from that well or uses that knowledge, it is counted as a good deed for the person who’d made it but has passed away. 

“This concept in my religion really gives me something to look forward to because I want my father to continue receiving good deeds by passing along everything I learned from him or was inspired by him,” said Aliyah. “He used to tutor many kids in the community for free, and he used to plant many fruit trees in different areas. I wish to also tutor kids on his behalf and additionally give away fruits from these trees, among many other things.” 

Like most religions, she believes If you show mercy to people for wronging you, God will show mercy to you. If you do good things for others, God will do the same for you. I can practise this by accepting all the colourful ways of mourning without being shy to vocalise my own. Perhaps I live with more resentment towards death because when a loved one's heart stops beating, they're just gone for good. But, regardless of belief, we all feel their absence. I might not act out of the fear of being condemned to eternal suffering, but I like the story of kindness and compassion for humanity. 

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