NPR Explores How Atheists Grieve

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Zugswang

    I was listening to this on my way into work; I think the segment focused more on people who’d recently lost their faith as a result of a significant personal tragedy. There was a lot of emphasis on the, “I wish I could believe, but I can’t” line, and while it’s not indicative of a lot of atheists, it does capture the power of the pain of loss, and just how alluring the idea that our loved ones might not be lost forever (or even that those who have wronged us so intimately will receive a justice they will not receive in this life) really is.

  • Dorothy

    where i live (Canada) that priest could be charged for interference. I work in a hospital. All patients are asked on admission ‘do you wish to have your name placed on the list for clergy visits?” and IF YES please provide your religion. If the patient (or next-of-kin) answers no to the first question, the patient’s info is not released to the chaplaincy department because of the rules of the Personal Health Information Act. End of story.

  • Ed

    There is something simple about atheism that makes it attractive. It’s as if I decided to stop eating and drinking. There’s something simple about that, and perhaps courageous. The problem is that one starves to death.

    • ortcutt

      You need food and water to live. Belief in gods and religion aren’t necessary in the slightest. More than a billion people get along just fine without them.

    • Question Everything

      I can show you evidence of the glass of water in front of us, assuming you and I could meet. Sight, touch, taste, smell, even hearing as it’s tapped on something else. I can point out why you need liquids to live, and even as you say, how people die without it. There’s something pleasantly evidence-based about that. I can also show how drinking water works better than some of the alternatives, like sand.

      Unlike the above, I have yet to see a religion proven by evidence, nor have I seen an explanation of why one religion is better or more appropriate for the soul (or whatever) than another.

    • Barbara

      You’re comparing apples to oranges. Eating and drinking are essential to life; belief in a deity is not. When grieving over a dying loved one, an appreciation for the life one has gotten to live can be just as comforting as belief in an afterlife. Another thing that helped me personally was knowing that my deceased loved one’s atoms will still be able to serve a purpose for the universe.

    • Sven2547

      One of the silliest comparisons I’ve ever heard.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Atheism says: Think for yourself.
      Religion says: Don’t think, don’t plan, just follow.

      Now, which one is simpler?

    • RobertoTheChi

      There is something simple about religion. You check your brain at the door and blindly follow archaic stupidity.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      Analogies are like things that can be very useful, or just plain dumb.

    • blasphemous_Kansan

      As Penn said in an episode of “Bullshit”:
      “before you use analogies, you should understand how they work. Kind of like a pig on a tightrope.”

    • baal

      Atheists are also not nihilists. We find meaning in relationships with real people and in our worldly acts. There is no spirit nor spiritual death for being an atheist. The Truth even seems to be exactly the opposite. Once you realize that you have only this one short life and its on you to live well, then you wake up and start living. Please consider dropping your fear, leaving religion and get on with being the best person you can be.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      There is something simple about trolling that makes it attractive. it’s as if you decided to stop thinking and using evidence. there’s something simple about your mind, and perhaps humorous. the problem is that reality really will bite believers like you on the ass one day.

  • advancedatheist

    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.

    Instead, atheists need to push – and push hard – for progress in cryonic suspension and other technological means of preserving the human brain so that we can have at shot at revival and rejuvenation by the advanced health care of future societies. We would score a decisive victory for a materialist world view by showing that we can turn death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state Refer to:

    http://www.brainpreservation.org/

    Consider the example set by a young atheist woman from Missouri whose story should become national news in a few days. (I have inside information.) You can find contact information for interviews and background information at this webpage:

    http://venturist.info/contact-us.html

    • ortcutt

      Oh, Jeebus. You’re free to do what you want with your time and money, but I have no desire to live forever. Expecting future generations to resurrect me seems very self-centered. I would rather do something with my three-score years and ten so that future generations will live well, not so that I can personally live forever in a futurist fantasy world.

  • Ed

    There’s something simple about atheism that makes it appealing, almost seems courageous. It’s as if I said that I wouldn’t eat or drink any more. The only problem is that one starves to death.

    • ortcutt

      I’m pretty sure you already said this 2 hours ago. It didn’t make any more sense the first time.

    • allein

      You said that already.

    • Sven2547

      Are you a bot?

    • J-Rex

      Maybe if you post it a few more times it will suddenly become true. Worth a shot, right?

  • Ed

    Over 90% of Americans believe in God. So it’s a little odd for NPR to run this series which kind of celebrates atheism, no?

    • ortcutt

      Mormons and Jews each make up 2% of the US population. I don’t remember anyone complaining when journalists do reports on either group despite their relative rarity in the populace. Why do religious people find acknowledgement of the existence of Nones and atheists to be so threatening?

    • Eli

      So we should only ever talk about the majority groups? They’re the only ones who matter?

      • keynescoase

        Have you seen the news? We only ever talk about how christian groups are “persecuted” because they can’t force their beliefs on everybody else.

        • Eli

          Yeah, I know we DO, I was trying to make a point about SHOULD…

    • Sven2547

      The point of the piece is to show Americans a point-of-view they may be unfamiliar with. Only an idiot would run a piece teaching people about a point-of-view already shared by 90% of the population.

    • coyotenose

      Your sense of privilege is rather sad.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    I recently visited a friend in the hospital.

    She has a short first and last name, such that on her hospital wrist band, the word CATHOLIC was more letters than her entire name, and was all caps.

    The wrist band did NOT say her blood type, allergies, next of kin, diagnosis, but made a huge point that she was (just nominally) CATHOLIC. This was a state hospital. Why was her religion so relevant??? If she had a seizure, would they have called an exorcist or something??

    • ctcss

      You might want to consider that the hospital, realizing that many people view religion to be an important part of their life, would want things done for them in a certain way should something go fatally wrong. A Catholic might want last rites to be performed. A Jew might wish to be interred as quickly as possible, And even if something wasn’t going fatally wrong, the patient might still want to be able to have the relevant clergy member available to them to help them cope with the situation they are facing.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

        Oh, I totally understand that religious folks might want a visit by a clergy person or something.

        But is their medical wristband the place for that? Are the various clergy denominations going to pop in every room and look at everyone’s wrists and see which beds they should then stay at?

        Does one’s religion deserve more prime real estate on the medical wrist band when it fails to list the person’s blood type, for example?


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