A few months ago, I was happy to engage in an interfaith dialogue with my friend Dr. Ejaz Naqvi, who writes for the Patheos Muslim channel. We have continued this discussion with a few more questions and covered areas of coping with loss, mental health, morality, and even the “War on Christmas!” You can read Ejaz’s answers to my questions here.
Ejaz: Dealing with death of a loved one is hard no matter what faith tradition one belongs to. Believers in God and an afterlife have long latched on to their faith when coping with the death of a loved one. “She is in a better place”, “may his soul rest in peace”, “hope to meet them again one day (in the hereafter)” etc are often uttered. This brings a lot of solace to the grieving families, along with prayers for the deceased. As an atheist, how do you deal with death of a loved one and console yourself or someone else?
Matthew: The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult things we can experience. As an atheist, I don’t believe I will see them again or they are in a better place. They are simply gone. To cope with my loss, I try to remember the fond memories I have of them. I try to be grateful for the impact they had on my life and others. I try to live my life in a way that would make them proud. I also would rely on the support of my friends while I’m grieving. Grief Beyond Belief is an excellent resource that offers secular advice and support for those who are grieving.
For consoling others, I’m fine with doing whatever can help. I would ask them how I can be supportive. For me, it doesn’t matter what their faith is. If they are religious and want to say a prayer, I definitely don’t think it is the time to get into an argument. I’m fine with just sitting their quietly as they pray. People grieve in different ways and I think we should care about reducing their suffering as best we can.
Ejaz: How do you react to the winter holidays with a heavy focus on religious holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah? Do you wish others with ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah’, ‘Eid Mubarak? Why/ Why not?
Matthew: I don’t mind saying “Merry Christmas” back to someone if they say it to me, but I usually say “Happy Holidays” if I don’t know their religious beliefs. I was brought up Christian so Christmas being everywhere doesn’t feel foreign to me. Now as an atheist, it doesn’t feel any different because Christmas has always been heavily commercialized in the US. It feels like Christmas is more about Santa Clause than Jesus Christ anyway. I still celebrate Christmas by buying gifts for people as a matter of tradition.
So I get frustrated with the artificial “War on Christmas” because much of it appears overblown. I don’t think many atheists care if you say “Merry Christmas” to them. They just don’t want religion forced on anyone or endorsed by the government. It seems like some Christians are offended that people are trying to be mindful of different religions instead of having Christianity as the default.
Ejaz: Most religions have some sort of a guide book/Scripture to help them how to live a “good life”, describing what “good” and “bad” is. Is there a “code of conduct” for atheists? If so, what’s the source or the origins of it? What/who defines “good” and “bad”?
Matthew: There is some philosophy literature on secular humanism that discusses ethics and morality, but we definitely don’t have any official “code of conduct.”Because we don’t have a holy book or official leaders, atheists often disagree on what is “good” or “bad” regarding social issues. However, theists often share a holy book and still have many disagreements on what is good or bad as well!
But as far as general ethics, we know that people develop beliefs from their social environments. Sociologically, we can investigate the social forces that teach people what behavior results in a reward or punishment. Our views of what is “right” and “wrong” is often shaped by the other people we associate with. Even more generally, human beings possess the ability to be mindful of the mental states of others with our empathy.
So while I don’t have any explicit code of conduct that tells me right and wrong, I do learn how to treat others from interacting with them. If someone tells me they are hurting, I don’t want them to hurt anymore because I know what pain feels like. I don’t have any grand theory of ethics, I just try to reduce suffering when I see it.
Ejaz: Research shows that people with strong faith tend to have fewer incidences of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD and even suicide. (Though they are still prevalent in “religious” communities”). When facing, and dealing with life challenges, how do you cope with anxiety, depression etc, in addition to the “secular” coping skills as taught by psychologists?
Matthew: Religious belief can absolutely help with mental health and I’ve written about that before! While we can observe this effect in many cases, it’s also important to try and parse out some nuance. First off, religiosity doesn’t always have a positive effect. If someone’s faith makes them feel anxious or guilty from a tenuous relationship with God, it can have a negative impact on their mental health.
Also, it appears the amount of certainty someone has in their belief system plays a large role in one’s mental health, whether the belief system is religious or not! Atheists who are confident in their worldview are just as mentally healthy as confident theists. Those who are uneasy with their worldview tend to struggle with more mental health issues.
So medicine and therapy can help everyone, but yes, understanding the specifics of one’s worldview is important as well. For me personally, I do feel comfortable with my worldview. I identify as an agnostic atheist. I acknowledge that I can’t know with certainty if there is a God (making me agnostic), but based on the lack of evidence, I don’t believe there is a God (making me an atheist too). For my general worldview, I believe we create our own meaning as there is not any greater meaning for us to find (this is also a type of philosophy called absurdism).
While I try to embrace uncertainty in my life, I admit absurdism doesn’t always give me very fulfilling answers. When something bad happens, there is no absurdist God I can pray to. My human mind is sometimes driven to search for patterns and meaning when the reality is that none exists. What I can do is work on self-compassion and mindfulness techniques that allow me to better accept and process through the chaos in our world. Such practices have helped me immensely when dealing with negative events.