by Tom Flynn
This was originally published in the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Vol. 11 No. 3 (Fall 1995) as Thank God I'm an Atheist.
Does Secular Humanism Equip Us To Deal With Death?
My mother died ten days ago. She was still at least nominally Catholic; her death at home was immediately followed by the whole conventional round of open-casket viewing, a memorial service at the funeral home, the funeral Mass, and a graveside service. For my father's sake, I attended it all, even the Mass. (Need proof there's no god? The church did not collapse.)
Over and over, the priest conjured the image of my mother in heaven, embarking on her new life with Jesus. "She's not dead, she's merely elsewhere," was the underlying message.
The mourners, mostly Catholic, seemed to draw comfort from the repeated denials of the reality that lay before them - a life snuffed out, consciousness and memories and emotion and cognition annihilated, a pattern that had danced inside one skull for 64 years but never would again. No, they were assured, none of that means what it seems to. Death is not an end, just a transition.
Somewhere behind my own immediate sorrow, I found room to pity those believers. If asked, I am sure most of them would have said that their faith was a source of strength for dealing with adversity. Yet that day, they were using their faith to do anything but deal with death. What death? My mother had just shuffled on. She was with Jesus and Mary and the saints now. (Never mind that after years of illness she had taken her own life, which by most interpretations of Catholic doctrine would exclude her from heaven.) If the mourners wanted denial, the liturgy would supply it, protecting them from any need to confront mortality honestly.
The religious often say we secular humanists live in a harsh, sterile world, a world without an architect, without plan or purpose, and without any fulfillment beyond the grave - by their lights, a world without sunshine, without hope. Yet I have never heard anything more profoundly hopeless than the litany of dishonesties that passed for "comfort" at that Catholic funeral.
Believers always told me, "Wait till you're having difficulties in your life. Then you'll see that secular humanism isn't enough, that you need a higher power to sustain you." Well, I've been through one of those times of difficulty. I went in a secular humanist, I came out a secular humanist.
More, I came out grateful for my unbelief. Secular humanism not only sustained me through my loss; it enabled me to deal with my mother's death more authentically than the believers around me seemed equipped to do.
Because I don't believe in God, I didn't need to wring my hands and wonder why my mother had more than her share of suffering in life. I don't assume that the universe has an author, that the events in one's life happen the way they are "supposed to," or that the world is under the control of a good and powerful force that cares about our welfare. Unencumbered by theological expectations that that life will be fair, I am able to confront life's unfairnesses on their own terms, without experiencing them as assaults on my metaphysics.
Because I don't believe in life after death, I know that my mother's passing is final. On the downside, I cannot deflect any pain by pretending I'll see her again. On the upside, with no fantasies to hide behind, I had to dive in and cope with reality. Nor need I torment myself worrying about her welfare in the next world: Is purgatory unpleasant? Do suicides really go to hell? Will things go better for her if we say more rosaries? (Yes, many Catholics still worry about stuff like this.) For me, null questions all. If death ends all, then all is over for my mother - including any chance of further suffering.
You never altogether shake growing up Catholic. Staunch as I was in my unbelief, I had never surmounted one final uncertainty: How would my humanism sustain me through a serious life crisis? Under sufficient pressure, would I crack and reach again for the crutches of the cross? Today I know. I surfed one of the big ones, and my secular humanism sustained me just fine. Indeed, when I reflect on the conceptual gymnastics believers were performing in order to operate their supernaturalist support systems, I realize that unbelief did far more than just get me through. It got me through better.
No, no one planned the universe; it just happened. No one intended us; in Bertrand Russell's words, we humans are just "an accident in a backwater." At death, everything that comprised our being and consciousness is totally dissolved. And there's nobody to run to with a complaint when things don't turn out the way we'd hoped. Some might call that cold comfort. But it's real. And when one of life's painful transitions took me by surprise, it was enough.