Sunday, December 16, 2012

Enduring tragedy without the consolation of religion

As with every other news outlet, NPR this morning was mainly about the mass murder in Connecticut. A rabbi was interviewed. He said how he consoled the parent of one of the twenty children who died. He told her that he believed souls were eternal and that she would see her child again someday.

Which is fine if you share that belief. But if you're sure your child is gone forever--erased by a vicious madman--stuff like that just rips the scab off.

People who are grieving don't want to get into theological disputes, so they rarely say something to their well-meaning religious friends who are trying to comfort them the way they'd want to be comforted. Such reticence fails to hold the tongues of some well-meaning religionists who apparently believe your loss is their opportunity to bring you into the fold if they know you're not religious.

I shouldn't have to tell you how unlikely that is to have the intended effect. Instead it may feel to the bereaved atheist as if you're being callously opportunistic. Of course with America at least 80% professed Christian, they have statistics on their side if they assume you're religious.

As it happens, in last night's episode of the sitcom Malibu Country, the daughter tells Reba McIntyre's character's mother that she doesn't believe in God any more because before the parents' divorce she'd prayed every night for God to keep them together and He didn't so she didn't believe in God now.

Mom says "Faith doesn't keep bad things from happening. Faith is what helps us get through bad things when they do happen."

Which is the right thing to say if you have faith--and if that's the daughter's only reason to lose faith it's the wrong reason.

If the shoe is on the other foot, I seriously doubt that any atheist would try to share their religious unbeliefs with the bereaved. Odds are they'd even go through the motions of praying with the bereaved person if they asked.

And what gets us through tragedy if we don't believe we'll ever see our child again? The short answer is, nothing. Just the passage of time, and the chance to care for other people.

Grief is not a theological argument either way.

Bottom line: what most grieving people want is your empathy, not a lecture. If they really have faith, they don't need you to remind them of it. If they don't, they don't need you to share your bliss with them at that moment.

The best comfort is silent support--whether the bereaved is religious or not. Just keeping them company in their time of grief. They'll ask you if they want you to say something.

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