I’ve been thinking about the perceived benefits of faith. The claim that religion provides morality is false but is there anything else positive that religion can offer someone? I’ve been able to identify two possibilities. One is a sense of community, however, atheists do a great job of building local meetup groups and online forums. The other possibility is comfort when dealing with death and mortality. The idea that you will see your relatives in an afterlife can soften the blow of their loss. It might also make you feel more comfortable about your own death. But does faith in some form of heaven offer real comfort? Or is the illusion of immortality a poor substitute?
I’m heading to the airport early tomorrow to pick up a longtime friend from Oklahoma. She’ll be visiting for two weeks and to be honest, I’m nervous about it. I’m friendly, but I’m not the most sociable person. I’m used to being alone and making my own schedule. It’s going to be difficult to entertain someone for fourteen days.
This particular friend is very religious. She attends church regularly, talks about god every time we talk and puts a lot of faith in the afterlife. She’s had a tough year. She lost her best friend in a car accident in January. Her grandmother died in March. Then she was hit hardest when her older brother died in a traffic accident just a few months ago. She’s suffered a lot of loss in a very short period of time. I think the only thing that keeps her from breaking down is the expectation of a joyous reunion after her own death.
I’ve hinted strongly that I’m an atheist, but she’s not picking up on it. I’ve been reluctant to tell her directly, which I realize is not very bold. The reason is that I’m not sure I want to have to explain why. I can be very convincing with my arguments against faith, but I’m worried about shattering her illusions. What would a loss of faith do to someone who is barely holding it together already? I’m trying to be sensitive. But two weeks is a long time and I’m not known for keeping my mouth shut when confronted with bullshit. There’s only so much god and Jesus I can take before I say what I really think. If I made her doubt her faith, would I be doing her harm?
I also have to wonder if the comfort religion provides is real or if it’s just a coping method. I haven’t experienced many hard losses in my lifetime. I lost my great-grandma when I was 11. It was unexpected for me, although my older relatives were prepared, and it hit me hard. I got in trouble a lot as a kid, but my nana was always in my corner. She was never angry, never upset, she just loved me. When I lost her I felt like I was all alone in a way. My dad explained that she was with Jesus in heaven and that she would be watching over me. When I died I’d see her again. I very much wanted to see her again, but the thought of her always watching me freaked me out. I had an irrational fear of her seeing me in the bathroom or when I said cuss words at school. At the age of 11, it was scarier than it was reassuring.
I lost my great-grandpa in my twenties, but it was expected. He had a lot of health problems and his mind had gone long before. It was almost a relief because he didn’t have to suffer anymore. I suppose the idea of seeing him in heaven was a pleasant thought, but only in a vague sense.
I use to try to imagine heaven. The Bible doesn’t give us a clear picture at all. I thought about seeing my family and friends again. I couldn’t quite picture what we’d all be doing. I suppose you wouldn’t have a job and eternal hobbies would get boring quickly. Would we all just be singing to god about how great he is all the damn time? There had to be more to it than that. That would be like church – forever! That would suck. And what about all the shitty Christians I knew? I didn’t want to hang out with those assholes for eternity. Ex-girlfriends? My ex-wife? That could be awkward. How comforting is that? There have been plenty of people in my life I’d rather not see again.
Heaven lost its luster for me long before I lost my faith. I thought it must be better than hell, but I really hoped there was more to it than the Bible tells us. Otherwise, non-existence would be preferable.
Now that I’m an atheist, this is exactly what I think. Immortality would be cool for a thousand years or so. Eventually, you’d succumb to boredom. There are only so many things to do and learn and experience before you’re just done. Seeing family again would be great, but if extended holiday visits are any indication, you’d probably get sick of each other after awhile as well. Sometimes things need to end.
Death can hit atheists harder because we know the truth. We can honor those we’ve lost by cherishing our memories and sharing our stories. It’s important to realize we only have one life to live. We have to make the most of our time here. We can focus on loving people, experiencing new things, leaving behind a legacy of kindness.
Have you experienced a difficult loss? What helped you get through it? Share your story in the comments.