“There are no atheists in foxholes,” goes the famous aphorism. It’s meant, I suppose, to get at the idea that when you’re face to face with darkness and death and horror and suffering, atheism suddenly becomes a less credible option. The reality of death makes believers, or at least desperate hopers out of us all. When our lives are under threat, God seems more palatable. That’s the idea, as I understand it at least.
(I don’t think it’s true, mind you. I think there are people who preserve their unbelief even as they stare their own mortality straight in the face. Christopher Hitchens comes to mind as one person who seemed quite determined to face his impending death with his atheism resolutely intact. But I imagine there are many less famous examples. I have no reason to believe that it isn’t possible to die with one’s atheism alive and well.)
Plenty of ink is spilled on the question of putative atheist deathbed conversions. But what about those unbelievers who are left behind? Whatever we might make of the question of if/how atheism fortifies one to face the yawning jaws of death themselves, what about the question of the resources for grieving loss afforded by atheism? This is the subject of a recent reflection called “Grieving as an Atheist: A Surprising Dilemma” by Tiffany White over at The Guardian. It is an interesting piece, part criticism of religion, part probing of its “empty” language around death, and part acknowledgment of the inadequacy of atheism in the face of death.
Part of me wanted to go after epistemological questions after reading White’s post (How do you know that these religious expressions of hope are empty or without meaning? Answer: You don’t). But I think the more interesting point her piece raises is the simple fact that our lived experience is worth paying attention to. When there are yawning gaps between our professed convictions about the world and how we experience the world, this ought to cause us to sit up, to pay attention, to inquire as to whether or not there might be something more going on. Ms. White notices this in the discomfort she feels with the substitutions she offers for “empty” religious platitudes:
I started to realize that the life of an atheist was a tad bleak. The more I spoke, the darker the conversation became. As I drawled on about how “there was nothing you could have done” and “it is what it is”, I started to feel like a black hole.
In his new book, The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart begins his first chapter with these words:
An absolutely convinced atheist, it often seems to me, is simply someone who has failed to notice something very obvious—or, rather, failed to notice a great many very obvious things.
Hart claims not to mean this as a negative accusation. I’m inclined to believe him because I think I understand what he is getting at. Hart talks about a “universal grammar of human nature” whereby all human beings are endowed with a longing for beauty, truth, goodness—none of which can be reliably supplied/justified via consistently naturalistic presuppositions. There is a longing for life and a hunger for hope that find expression across time and space and human culture—longings and hungers that seem to far transcend brute survival instinct. For Hart, these features (and others) of human experience only make sense with reference to some transcendent reality—a reality he names as God.
I think that it is when we are confronted by death that some of these “obvious” realities that we are so good at ignoring begin to thrust themselves back into the spotlight. What resources do we have to deal with death without God? What words are available to us? What comfort can we offer? Where do we go from here? What do we do… What do we say in light of what we say we believe? These are the questions all of us must face—even atheists—when confronted with the loss of a life. I agree with Hart: to describe religious hope in the face of death as wishful thinking is, in a sense, to fail to notice something very obvious. What I want to say to people like Ms. White and other atheists who struggle with how to cope with death from an atheistic perspective is not, “well, just do your best to believe and hope, no matter how implausible you find it all.” My advice, with Hart, would be much more simple: Pay attention. To the world, certainly. To others and their experience, sure. But perhaps most importantly, to yourself.
Tomorrow morning, I will make the trek across the Rockies to attend the memorial service of a family friend. I am sad for the life that is gone, but I am glad to be able to point to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’ve been to many memorial services where hope is tenuous, confused, incoherent, or just plain absent. I am looking forward on Thursday to being able to point to the empty tomb which proclaims that death, while a part of life, is other important things as well.
A defeated enemy, for example. An adversary that has lost its sting. A shadow that will one day darken our steps no longer. A momentary affliction whose destiny is to be swallowed up by life.
It is articles like this that I think the church needs more of. We spend so much time on the happiness and light and rainbows and fluffly clouds of “I’m saved! I have nothing to fear!” (good stuff, on one level, mind you) that we neglect the very real, very human, very ugly darkness and clouds and storms and sadness of reality. And it is in failing to speak honestly and robustly theological about that reality that I think is the true critique from atheists. We don’t talk about it well, as believers, and, therefore, we have no real, credible thing to say to those experiencing those dark times… and if there is nothing credible to say about a very real reality, people will ignore us when it comes to the more unreal realities we believe in.
Thank you, Ryan…
And, I assume, the family friend is the Lenshyn family across the way? If so, carry my greetings to Chris and all.
Thank you, Robert.
The family friend is not connected to Chris—I believe his family is in Winnipeg. This service will be for a good friend’s father. We got to know him well during our six years in British Columbia, although I’ve known him since I was a teenager. He and his wife kind of adopted our family as their kids while we were out there—we even lived with them during my first half year of graduate school.
Ouch… an even deeper pang of loss then…
My God uphold you and comfort you…
Thank you, Robert. And I will pray the same for those whose pain at this loss is far deeper than mine.
I’ve experienced more than a few times when I firmly believed that I was about to suddenly die and I can think of nothing else with such power to instantly shock one’s mind into stark reality as the prospect of eminent death does. For instance, during these frightful few supposedly ‘last seconds’ my apparently shallow confidence/faith in the afterlife is revealed to me by the sense of horror expressed on my face. The REAL Truth is, most of us professing Christians are in fact practical Atheists, we can go to church and quote all the right scriptures and pretend to believe them.. but in reality, our lives tell a different story. …..God have mercy on us all.
Interesting stuff, Mike. For you, near death experiences exposed a perceived lack of faith where for others, death drives them toward faith. Others’ experience would, I suspect, contain a bit of both.
Death is a strange and mysterious thing.
“….where for others, death drives them toward faith.”
I failed to mention that whenever I feel I’m about to give-up the Ghost, I Always begin to repeatedly whisper the name of Jesus, not Buddha,Mohammad or Krishna 🙂
In the end when we are facing sudden or imminent Death, our souls are laid bare naked ….and at that instant we are exposed as having nothing and no recourse of Hope but to call on The Name of Jesus.
It’s funny, we only know what we know of each other, through this space. Is it enough to say, “yeah, I think I know something true and important to know, about that guy”…maybe… 🙂
I imagine that I see you as having crossed the plain of your own disbelief. The last 2 paragraphs of this post are powerful/essential understandings. The root of all joy, the irrefutable truth that affirms hope, that sustains love…if we are willing….
You made it to the other side. From the first few times I read you, I knew you would…( yeah, you’re allowed several minutes for a “wtf moment” here)… Now go back and gather up others will ya!!
Thank you, Paul… I think :).
(Do I dare ask which side I am supposed to have crossed over from?)