Morning Edition on NPR is running a weeklong series on “Losing Our Religion” and today’s story focuses on how atheists cope with tragedy… and what a heartbreaking pair of stories they use to discuss it:
On Oct. 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed upon takeoff. When [Carol] Fiore arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had sustained burns over 50 percent of his body.
“Then I found out they had given him his last rites,” she says.
That wasn’t a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Fiore announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.
Fiore told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. “God has a plan,” they told her. “Eric is going to a better place.”
“When he was in the hospital and they said that, he was lying in a bed with tubes coming out with 50 percent burns and no face,” Fiore says. “Is that a better place?”
The piece doesn’t really go into the available options for atheists who are suffering a loss… probably because there really aren’t any great options. When false hope is no longer an option, you really don’t need a priest. You need family, friends, and maybe even a third party to talk with about your pain.
Richard Wade just talked about this on Monday, so I would encourage you to read his answer. He mentions both The Secular Therapist Project and Grief Beyond Belief as two of the options available to non-religious people looking for a way to deal with tragedy.
Atheists won’t provide you with a false sense of hope like a church-goer can, but we won’t lie to you and we won’t throw meaningless platitudes in your direction. What someone needs in a time of grief is compassion, and when you’re an atheist, hearing your loved ones tell you about how the person you lost is in Heaven or with God is about an uncomforting as it can get.