Atheists rarely understand that their lack of faith can occasionally be challenged by perfectly normal life events. I have come to think that those challenges do occur. Further, I believe that those occasions correspond almost exactly, in situation and intensity, to the tests of faith experienced by the religious. In short, I believe that regardless of the polarity of one’s religious philosophy, the random nature of the universe will find ways to challenge our beliefs.
As one example, the death of a loved one is a traumatic event for anyone. I can remember religious friends who instantly questioned their god when tragedy became personal. They would painfully aver that their god was not being fair. They would question the very existence of a god that would take their loved one so soon. Sooner or later, though, they would recover from the immediate trauma and return to their faith, comforted by their belief in an afterlife. After all, were they not going to be eventually reunited with the loved one who had died?
This mechanism works in a similar manner for me, but the thoughts and doubts are reversed by almost exactly 180 degrees. When my mother died, one of my first thoughts was that there should be an afterlife, at least a special one for her, so that she could somehow continue to be. My mind would not allow that thought to take root, of course. Nor would my mother have been comforted by the thought of an afterlife. She was not much of a believer, herself. Still, it would be easier when people die if you could believe that some magic or another would let them live on forever, somewhere if not here with us.
Instead, all that I could do to dull the pain was to scream into the night at the universe whose randomness had taken her. Even then, long before morning, I remembered that the universe did not care, that it did nothing with evil intent. This was just the way things worked. I was once again reconciled to the incontrovertible fact that the same random processes that give us life also take life. Those processes do not care about any of us individually, or even as a species. The universe simply follows the natural laws proscribed during the Big Bang.
The recognition of the random natural process has always had a profoundly calming effect on my mind. It helps me to keep things in perspective and to understand my rather insignificant place in the universe. No great and mysterious force had vindictively caused my mother to die. Death is simply what the universe has decreed to wait at the end of life, and that is that. My mother had not led a completely happy life, but hers was reasonably long and not unreasonably onerous. Many people, before her and since, have done much worse.
I suppose that, in the end, both the religious and the godless are rewarded in their own ways by their core beliefs about how the universe works. Both groups take can take comfort from their theological philosophies in what seems to be equal measure. In that way, both my religious friends and I are fortunate to have a perspective to help heal ourselves in time of pain.
Still, the healing process does not seem precisely the same for theists and atheists. The concept of “closure” is already somewhat suspect in my mind, but I feel that what my religious friends experience as “closure” must be seen as false, or at least incomplete, closure. They are never really allowed by their faith to come to grips with the basic reality of death: the loved one has died and will be seen no more, except as a memory. Instead, the faithful person usually believes that the loved one still exists, in some mystical afterlife, and that they and their loved one could be reunited in that setting at some indefinite point in the future.
This make my religious friends unable to logically come to grips with the fact that the loved one is actually dead and gone. First, it should be said, the religious survivor should not need “closure” in the normal sense of the word, anyway. Their faith should obviate any need for that sort of closure; to them, their loved one is not really dead at all but rather still exists on a different plane in some illusory heaven. In that sense, the only thing that has changed is the proximity of the living and the now “dead.”
That is neither true closure nor a valid factual understanding of the death event. It means that my religious friends must suffer through an eternal delay mechanism. It leaves the fate of their dead loved one open for some mystical “forever.” The only way that my religious friends can check to see if a loved one has gone to some shared afterlife is to die themselves. That is an expensive price to pay for “closure.”
I have also heard friends deny the fact of death by stating that the loved one is “watching them from heaven.” That will make me roll my eyes every time, if I am not careful. That sort of belief actually tends to limit how a person of faith will conduct the balance of their lives. My mother died over ten years ago. Yet, my father will never remarry because his wife is “waiting for him in heaven.” He believes that firmly enough that he still considers himself to be married, and checks that box when filling out forms. By the same token, I have known friends to decide against the obvious best course in their lives because their mothers would not agree and “Mother is still watching from heaven.” That is another mystical illusion that can ruin a life.
As an atheist, I can attain closure, if closure is desired. To me, when a person has died, that person is gone forever. We will not be having another cup of coffee with that person, except perhaps in our dreams. As I said to someone not long ago, when atheists die, we know that we are in for a prolonged period spent as separate atoms, scattered across a wide area indeed. At death, we are simply gone forever. I know in my bones that there will be no meeting up later. Death is final. Now that is closure!
One more thing: To me, death also means never having to whisper, “I’m sorry” to my mother. I respect my mother’s memory, and what she taught me remains a part of my decision process. My mother was a wise, if flawed, woman. But I have grown beyond what she taught me. I have improved my personal ethics even above what my mother advocated, and her values were high. I will never have to glance skyward and apologize for having done something of which my Mother would not have approved. My life is truly my life. It is the only chance that I will ever get for a productive and meaningful existence. I appreciate my mother’s contribution, but I have to continue to learn, and to make the world a better, brighter place than the world she knew.
For my religious friends, attaining “closure” is a relatively simple matter of deferring to some magical continuation of life. As it transpires, matters of death for the faithful are not final at all. The dearly departed simply enters a different plane of existence and continues to “be.” That is, of course, one of the major attractions of religion: no one ever has to really die. For the religious, nothing is actually ever over; the last message they see is “To Be Continued…”
As an atheist, I understand that to die is to cease to exist, forever. I know that this one, short life is the only chance I have, which compels me to live a life of which I can be proud. The memory of my life is all that I have to bequeath to those few that matter to me, and to those multitudes that do not, but may still have been paying attention.