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
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
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.
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