Greta Grieves Without God

Recently Greta Christina lost her father. She’s bravely keeping a public diary of her grieving process. Yesterday her thoughts on grieving without God came up:

I do love my family sometimes. My brother especially. We’ve had ups and downs, of course, it’s far from idyllic… but most of the time, we can tell each other the truth. I’m beginning to realize how rare that is in families, and how valuable.

Speaking of the truth: I keep waiting for the moment when I wish I wasn’t an atheist, when I wish I believed in God and an afterlife… and it keeps not happening. I’m beginning to think it’s not going to. This surprises me somewhat: Dad is the first person I’ve been close to who’s died since I abandoned any belief in any sort of religion or any sort of afterlife. (There was Jude, Rebecca’s son, who I loved; but he wasn’t around long enough for me to get really close to him. And there were cats, of course, but that’s not the same at all.) I’ve been assuming that this was going to be hard, that I’d be having a hugely hard time accepting the finality and the permanence of this death. So far, that’s not how it’s playing out. So far, facing this death without God feels totally normal. Beneficial, even. I’m not twisting myself into knots trying to make a nonsensical story make sense. Godless grief is hard, but it feels clean.

I get that this isn’t true for all atheists, that some grieving atheists do sometimes wish they believed. That’s totally fine, it makes sense… and, of course, for the zillionth time, we have the repetition of the grief mantra, “everyone does it differently.” But so far, I’m not having that reaction, at all. Some of that may be because Dad himself was a big old atheist, and facing his death without God feels like a way of honoring him and remembering him and keeping his memory alive. And some of it may be because my own atheism is now so deeply ingrained in me, such a central part of my philosophy. Falling back onto religion just seems alien. I’m way too familiar with all its weaknesses to see it as a useful or desirable crutch.

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My heart goes out to Greta.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Melanie

    My grandmother died six months ago. During the memorial service, the pastor talked about how she was in heaven, waiting for her family to one day join her. I found that thought in no way comforting, in fact I found it disturbing. How could she be happy in heaven if so many of those she loved (most of all my grandfather) weren’t with her?
    All my female cousins got together the night before my Grammy’s memorial service. We talked about our memories of her, things we had in common with her, and things we have in common with each other. She lives on in the people we are, our creativity, our strength. Knowing she created such an amazing family is far more comforting than believing she’s sitting in heaven, waiting for my grandfather, watching him mourn her every day.

  • Eamon Knight

    I went to a number of funerals during my United Church years (I was in the choir, and we always tried to assemble a respectable chorus if the family requested it). One of the nice things I recall is that the memorials mostly talked about the life of the deceased, with little if any reference to the afterlife where they now presumably abode (which is typical of the diversity of belief, half-belief and unbelieving social religion to be found in the denomination).

    By the time my (agnostic) parents died, I was an atheist and had left church behind. I wrote and delivered both eulogies — because who knew them better than I? — basically organized around the question: What did they give to us? (Especially me, their only child). Their ashed are now scattered, some in their native England, and some in the wild country of the Lake Superior north shore.

  • Gordon

    I lost a grandparent before I was an atheist and another after. It was harder to accept the loss the first time. When you think the universe is run by magic then death is very hard to accept. And when you believe in an afterlife with more than one destination, you have to pretend that the others don’t exist.

    Grieving as an atheist meant knowing that my loved one was not suffering, a comfort theism could not offer.

  • John Moriarty

    sorry for your loss, have been there, soon to be again I fear. After many years of plain sailing through life, waters are stormier now. Grief normally takes time to work through, no short cut that I know of. All the best.

  • ctcss

    I think one’s thoughts or beliefs about death (and life) have a great deal to do with how one deals with the passing of a loved one. I’m a Christian, and I lost my dad a few years ago. I do miss him and wish that I had spent more time with him while he was still here. (Do we ever learn this lesson, I wonder?) But the particular teachings I was raised with don’t actually focus on the afterlife, just eternal life. In other words, whether one is still here or has passed on, the demands made on us are still the same. Life (at least as I was taught about it), is actually entirely spiritual and eternal, just as one’s relationship with God is entirely spiritual and eternal. (Psalm 139 gives some interesting thoughts on this, as does Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom of heaven being available to us right here and now.) Thus life never actually has a beginning, nor will it ever end. In fact, the human sense of life is simply another incorrect concept about life that needs to be put off and to be replaced with what it is that God knows about life. I am still learning more about God here and now, and after I pass, I will still be doing the same. (Ditto for my dad.) My experience may be altered, but until I put off all of mortality and ignorance regarding God, I will still need to continue on.

    Thus, with such a concept regarding life, concepts like death appear rather differently since the experience of death doesn’t lead to paradise, doom, or non-existence anymore than leaving elementary school for middle school or middle school for high school (etc, etc), leads to paradise, doom, or non-existence. One simply continues on and continues to grow and to learn. The constant is one’s ongoing eternal and spiritual relationship with God. God’s relationship with us doesn’t change, but one’s understanding of their relationship with God should, as one learns more about God along the way.

    I realize this probably doesn’t sound like a typical Christian take on life and death, but I thought I would bring it up to show that it’s the concepts that one has about such things that affects how we feel about them. I am sorry for Greta’s loss, as I am for others losses. Losing someone close can hit a person hard. (I certainly didn’t enjoy losing my dad.) But that’s why I personally find it helpful to focus on one’s ongoing relationship God. The demand on me is to love God and to love others, and that demand is always a here-and-now one no matter where here-and-now finds me.