Friday, April 27, 2012

Only Atheists Get to Grieve

I'm gonna write an angry post. I haven't slept well this week and can't get my thoughts together well enough to write something I'm not immediately invested in, so I'm gonna write this instead. If anyone is offended by it (and quite a few people ought to be) I can't apologize in all honesty. Five months ago I might have been able to, but not right now.

A few weeks ago I went to my great-grandmother's grave alone for the first time. I'd been there before with my family, but this was the first time I spent any great length of time there. It was a bizarrely warm March day, with a bright sun and green grass, rather than the usual Minnesota Spring blizzard. I sat by my grandma's grave for an hour that day. When I first got there, I was just looking around, making sure it was tidy. I thought about the prosaic aspects of being at a graveyard, of my bike ride from Minneapolis to Falcon Heights, of the previous times I'd been. Then I stopped avoiding my real purpose in being there, and I started trying to articulate my thoughts and feelings, for the first time, four months after she had passed away.

Up to that point, from the day she died December 4th, I hadn't cried. In fact, I hadn't really cried outside of watching movies in about a decade. And I hadn't cried at her funeral, or at my subsequent visits. And I didn't cry right then. But I sat down on the grass and started talking. I started saying mundane things about missing her, and finally coming to see her, and how strange it felt for her not to be around. And then the same part of my brain responsible for writing this blog kicked in, and I started drawing straight lines. Straight lines are what I do. I don't curve around inconvenient ideas (in as much as I can help it — we all have our biases). I try to think straight through all the relevant information I have in my head.

And a line of thought began to develop. My grandma was dead. Her body lay six feet beneath me in a coffin in the ground. This was a physical reality. Everything that had ever been her was in a box beneath the earth. I pictured her brain, as it was then, several months after her death. It certainly was not a pleasant image, but that was what everything referred to as "her" was now. All we are is a subset of the pattern of neuron firings in our heads. And that pattern had come to an end.

That pattern hadn't gone anywhere. It hadn't transcended matter. It wasn't part of a soul, or spirit, or chain of reincarnation. Everything that had been my great-grandma, that had experienced love and life and war and migration, all of that was now a pool of gray mush inside a very slowly crumbling skull. It had been sustained as part of a self-perpetuating chemical process for nearly a century, which had quickly degenerated and ceased to be. Now, for some people, that is an ugly and horrible thought, that that is all we are. But to me, it's heartbreakingly beautiful: this pile of gray mush pushing electrons around via sodium and potassium exchange wrote the Bible, built St. Peter's, painted the Sistine Chapel, and composed the Ave Maria. That is a miracle.

And then my mind took the next step forward: all of that ability and potential and memory and personality was gone for my grandma. It had gone out like a candle, with barely even a wisp of smoke to show for it. It was gone. She was gone. She was gone, and she was nowhere, and she never would or could come back. There's a physical law that says as much. The laws of physics literally dictated that my great-grandma had ceased to exist for eternity. Except a huge host of high deluded people thought that she wasn't.

Religious people believe in the eternal soul. They hold it that there is some essential, everlasting part of us that continues to exist before life and beyond death. They believe that we are never really gone, and some of them even believe that we will join our loved ones in eternal paradise after death (or judgement, or whatever fairy tale they wish). But they're wrong. And they know they're wrong. How do I know that they know they're wrong? Because they grieve.

If I had the slightest shred of belief that my great-grandma was not well and truly gone for all eternity, I would not have shed a single tear that day. But as I came upon the above line of reasoning, I started crying. Sobbing. Huge, painful dry heaves. I sat on the grass for forty-five minutes straight and cried into my hands. I cried because I knew my grandma was gone. I knew she was gone. I knew it right down to my bones. I knew it the way a baby zebra knows its mother is gone after finally finding her lion-eaten corpse. It was beyond thought, beyond culture or memory or ideology. It was chemical.

And in my grief came also anger. Outrage, in fact. Outrage at the fact that religious people would dare to grieve at a funeral. That they would dare to wail and moan about the supposed "loss" of a loved one. The hypocrisy of it galled me. Had I any hair, I would have been tempted to tear at it. To claim that there is an afterlife where your relatives wait for you before an eternity of bliss, and then to bemoan their passing struck me as obscene. And on clear-headed reflection, I can do nothing but stand by that line of thought.

If a religious person thinks that a deceased person is merely in another place, where they themselves will eventually go, then grief is not simply unnecessary, but nonsensical. We do not grieve when our loved ones move away. We do not grieve when the brother we're angry at leaves town and we know we likely won't speak to him again. We do not grieve when we leave a job, knowing we'll never again see our coworkers. We might be sad, or disappointed, or upset, but we do not grieve for separation. We grieve for death. Because we know right down to our DNA what death is, and all the religious platitudes in all the holy books read by all the priests and sages can't stop us knowing it. And I think that claiming that "it's God's plan" and "she's in a better place" is the absolute worst of sanctimonious, hypocritical delusion.

If you want to claim that you are religious, and believe in a God, or a Soul, or an afterlife, then you do not get to fucking grieve. You get to be sad and annoyed and impatient, because you won't get to see your loved ones for a little while. But what is the remainder of your life compared to eternity? Nothing. Literally, mathematically nothing. So just don't. However, if you accept your grief for what you know it to be, give up your childish insistence on magical thinking and ancient fairy tales. Accept that the universe is a system of particles interacting in infinitely complex ways, guided by blind, stupid natural laws which still somehow manage to produce the absolute miracles of thoughts and songs and love and life. If you insist on keeping your holy books and imaginary creatures, I won't judge you. But only atheists get to grieve.


  1. Well, if being an atheist who has lost someone also gives me magical control over other people's psychology and neurology, I say everyone "gets to" grieve.

  2. Thank you Boris. I agree with you that grieving is fundamentally built into us when we experience a loss - and that religion tries to smooth that over with thoughts of an afterlife.

    However, I believe that there is an afterlife for grandma. I see it all around me almost everyday. It's definitely stored in the patterns/memories in my brain. It's almost as if she was transferred into my brain. I think therefore I am. I think about grandma, therefore she is.

    The rest is just atoms.

  3. You can grieve when a loved one moves across the world. You can suffer deep sadness because you can no longer speak with a loved one, hang out with them, to have them as part of your daily life. You can grieve for a loss even if you believe that loss will be restored in the future.

    1. It's entirely possible that I'm just wrong about the depth of emotion people have about non-death-related separation. But I certainly have nothing like that feeling when I am merely separated from others.

    2. Maybe what you are calling grief is something else. It might be despair, and you have no hope in an afterlife of being with the deceased again. So perhaps you would be more accurate to say "only athiests get to despair," which is something I don't think any theist would disagree with.

  4. Boris, this is an absolutely stunning point. As someone who's inescapably unsure about her own belief (or disbelief) in a higher power or an afterlife, it certainly gave me a lot to think about. I have to thank you for that.

    So.. yes. Thank you.

  5. Boris thank you for saying what many of us have thought. What I did find after I lost my husband, I saw in my then 8-year-old when he said something that could have/should have come right from his father's mouth. Yes, they are gone, but I cling to the lessons learned and with my eyes wide open saw his influence on not only those of us under his roof, but those he had contact with in the world. Your grandmother is gone, but she has sprinkled "fragments" of herself freely in the world. In that way she is still with you and always will be.

  6. As a person who believes in an afterlife, I am not in anyway offended by your thoughts. Actually, I thought your blog was very interesting and touching, especially, since I was just talking to a friend about souls and energy this morning and asked, "I wonder what an atheist thinks when they loose someone."

    As a mother who lost her son at the age of 10, I would like to share some insight on why I grieve. I grieve because my husband will never be able to teach his son how to shave, because I will not be able to see him graduate, and because my daughter will not be able to laugh with him at her wedding. In all honesty, if I were to allow myself to dwell on the memories that I will not have with my son, I could easily fall into despair, but I choose to remember all of the beautiful memories that we did share. Not because of God, nor faith, but because that is what pulls us through the loss of him.

    For over a year, I questioned the existence of a higher power. Not to ease my pain, but as a mother, I wanted proof that my son was safe. I did receive proof that he is not gone to me and that I will see him again. I doubt that I would be able to convince anyone of my proof and that's ok. For me, I am content to know that I will see him again.