Yesterday I attended a memorial service for a friend’s mother. She was only 50 and the last several years of her life were spent battling a disease that she knew she couldn’t defeat. I was lucky enough to meet her a few times and was able to immediately sense what a giving, loving, positive person she was. I also know that her children and grandchildren adored her and she loved them unconditionally. Her friends and family talked about all of these things but, in spite of the abundance of wonderful things that could be said about this lovely woman, the majority of the service wasn’t about her at all; it was about heaven.
Heaven is the concept that makes it difficult for many people to give up religion. It is one of the things that holds me back from confessing my atheism (or pushing the issue after a confession) to a few important people in my life. It was also one of the last things I was able to let go of during my transition. The idea of heaven is so important that a few books (each of which are laughably transparent in their use of emotional manipulation, IMHO) have soared to the best seller list lately. People who are not religious by any stretch of the imagination are still preoccupied with the idea of heaven.
I don’t believe this preoccupation is because people want their mansion or streets of gold. I don’t believe it’s because they want eternal life. While immortality is probably a significant factor, in my experience it isn’t the driving force behind the idea of heaven. The thing that makes heaven nearly impossible to release is the idea of letting go of our loved ones and accepting that we will never see them again. It is accepting that their last moments, no matter how horribly painful or confusing is really the end. It’s difficult for me to stand my ground and try to convince people otherwise because it seems too cruel when someone is grieving. When my friend, who knows I’m an atheist, looked at me imploringly and wanted to know if I believed her when she told me her mother-in-law sent her a sign that she was taking care of the baby she’d lost five years ago I could not bring myself to tell her no.
Instead I found a way to be honest but still, hopefully, comforting. I told her that I believed in the possibility (though in my mind I qualified this with very slim) and that I don’t know everything. This is the same thing I say to my husband about his parents. He is far from religious but is also not an atheist. The idea of his parents simply being gone seems too much to bear so I don’t push the issue. My mother, who is also not overly religious, clings to the idea of not only seeing friends and family again but also that they are somehow happy and secure now. I can’t possibly be the person to take that away from her so I remain silent about my beliefs. There is a part of me that feels dishonest when I do this but another part that feels it is the right way to handle things, at least for now.
I’m sure I don’t have many readers at this point but for the few who’ve stumbled upon this post who are also atheists, I’m curious: How do the rest of you handle these situations? Do you stand firm in your beliefs, even with the grieving? If so, how do you handle it compassionately? If not, do you feel dishonest or guilty about holding back?