What Not to Say to an Atheist When They’re Grieving

086b16bebf7132e2b4770016186d4b25So I’ve had some time to process this, and I’m ready to talk about it.

When well-meaning people say that “There is no comfort or hope without Jesus” or “You can’t get through loss without faith” when addressing people who may not share those beliefs, what’s essentially happening is that they are putting down other people’s beliefs and methods of dealing with grief in order to promote their own. It’s exactly what a salesman does- they belittle their competition so their own product is more enticing.

You may personally need Jesus for comfort and hope. But I do not. And that’s ok.

As an atheist, I don’t need prayer or faith to get through sadness and loss. I’ve lived in both belief systems, and I can tell you from extensive personal experience as an ex-Christian that neither offers a superior method of comfort. They’re just different, and some people may do better with one method over another. We all grieve and find solace in different ways; what works for you may not work for me and vice versa. I acknowledge this, and I don’t tell religious people that prayer is useless as a comfort method just because I personally find no solace in it. That would be incredibly rude and hurtful, and also untrue since prayer is a great comfort to many. It used to be for me too, after all. But lately I have heard so many well meaning people say or imply that their faith and their beliefs are the only way to get through difficult life circumstances. And given recent events, it’s been incredibly frustrating- especially since these exact things were said at the funeral. I sat there, listening to people blatantly say that their method of hope and comfort is the only one that works. No hope without Jesus. No comfort without their religion. Anyone who isn’t a Christian must have hopeless, meaningless lives and couldn’t possibly get through this grief. But it’s not remotely true.

Not gonna lie, hearing those words in that context was so hurtful that I felt like punching a wall or leaving the room. Having the loss of my loved one be so blatantly used to push someone else’s belief system on me in my time of grief was nearly unbearable. But I don’t like making scenes and the focus of the day was supposed to be about our loved one, so I held my peace. Afterwards I went to the bathroom where I bawled my eyes out in a toilet stall because one again my beliefs had been belittled and put down so others could promote their own- and right when I most needed support and to feel emotionally safe and accepted. Once again it was made very clear to me that some Christians will never see my beliefs as worthy of recognition and respect and validation; I will always be their project in need of fixing, the heathen in need of conversion. The only beliefs that mattered were Christian ones.

It would have been far easier if all the many people who have said these things had bad intentions. I could have just written them off as rude, but they were well-intentioned people just trying to help. They genuinely thought this was the best way to act. I’ve always tried my best to give people the benefit of the doubt; that hasn’t changed.

I’m bringing this up now because the people who say these things usually don’t realize how hurtful it is to those who don’t share their beliefs. If nobody ever makes them aware of it in a way that fosters respectful conversation, how can we ever mend bridges and learn to get along better? How will they ever learn to stop pushing away the very people that they’re trying to win over?

I’m also sharing this because if I say nothing, people will assume that I’m perfectly fine with them assuming that it’s ok to act this way towards me. I’m not. I am just to polite to make a scene in the moment.

I don’t hate anyone for saying these things, and I won’t hold a grudge, but I’m really (really!) not ok with it. I waited so I could express my feelings without allowing too much hurt to affect my ability to address this without lashing out.

There is nothing wrong with finding comfort or hope in prayer or a religion or in spirituality. It really doesn’t bother me when I see people pray for their own comfort or when they pray for others who want to be included in that, or if they give thanks for their food without expecting me to join in. That’s fine! Go for it! However, the superiority and exclusionary ideology that puts certain Christians’ beliefs and methods on a pedestal above everybody else’s does bother me- especially when I’m grieving and would like for my beliefs to ALSO be respected and acknowledged as valid and important, even if it’s just done by keeping things more neutral when in potentially mixed company. I don’t expect religious people to do atheist things to make me feel comfortable. I want to make that very clear. I don’t need others to participate in my personal traditions in order to feel respected and validated. Honestly I’d much rather try to make everybody feel welcome and accepted no matter what their beliefs are, and to focus on the life of the person who has passed, rather than focusing on ideologies and people’s personal beliefs which people are surely going to disagree on. It’s the exclusion and the implication that my beliefs are inferior and useless that makes me angry and hurt, not the fact that others believe in God and pray.

Please, hear me. Do not ever tell a non-believer that they have no hope or comfort just because they don’t believe like you. It’s pretty much the most hurtful thing you could possibly say to an atheist when they are grieving. Your good intentions may help us look past it, but they don’t make the words any less hurtful or exclusionary.

 

Are you a believer who is unsure how to act around non-believers in these situations? Feel free to ask here. I promise I won’t bite. I’ll just be happy that you care enough to try to learn how to interact with us better. 🙂 Are you an atheist or someone of another belief system who has experienced similar things? Share them if you wish. Everyone must be respectful, however. I wrote this to try to build a better understanding between those who so often just do not understand each other, not to facilitate pointless arguments. We can share our frustrations and grievances in a reasonable manner. Anyone who resorts to name calling or attacks other people personally will be banned.

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