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Memo to Religious People: Many Atheists Don't Want to Hear That Their Loved Ones "Are in Heaven" -- New Group for Non-Believers Helps Atheists Grieve

In a society that reflexively copes with death by using religion, grieving atheists are turning to each other.

How do you deal with death -- your own, or that of people you love -- when you don't believe in God or an afterlife; especially when our culture so commonly handles grief with religion in ways that are so deeply ingrained, people often aren't aware of it?

A new online faith-free grief support group, Grief Beyond Belief, is grappling with that very question. And the launch of the group, along with its rapid growth, presents another compelling question: Why do so many atheists need and want a separate godless subculture... for grief support, or anything else?

Grief Beyond Belief was launched by Rebecca Hensler after the death of her 3-month-old son. Shortly after Jude's death, she discovered Compassionate Friends, an online network of parents grieving the deaths of their children. But even though Compassionate Friends is not a religious organization, she says, "I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept."

And she knew there were others who felt the same way. (Full disclosure: Hensler and I are friends, and I actively encouraged and supported her in launching this group.)

About a year later, she started a Facebook page, Grief Beyond Belief. The group grew and flourished far beyond her expectations. Once the atheist blogosphere heard about the group, news spread like wildfire, and membership in the group grew rapidly, rising to over 1,000 in just the first couple of weeks. The group is open to atheists, agnostics, humanists, and anyone without belief in a higher power or an afterlife, to share memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions, and to give others support, perspective, empathy, or simply a non-judgmental ear. It's also open to believers who are questioning, struggling with, or letting go of their beliefs. As long as you don't offer prayers, proselytize for your religious beliefs, or tell other members their dead loved ones are in "a better place," you're welcome to join.

So why do atheists need this?

Salt in the Wound

For some grieving non-believers, the comforts offered by religious believers are neutral, and can even be positive. These atheists don't agree that their dead loved ones are in heaven and that they'll see them again someday, but they can accept the intent behind the sentiments, and can feel connected with and supported by believers even though they don't share the beliefs.

But for many non-believers, these comforts are actively upsetting. They are the antithesis of comforting. They rub salt in the wound.

For many grieving non-believers, the "comforts" of religion and religious views of death present a terrible choice: Either pretend to agree with ideas they reject and in many cases actively oppose... or open up about their non-belief, and start a potentially divisive argument at a time when they most need connection and comfort. As GBB member William Farlin Cain said, "I was still very much in the atheist closet at the time [my mom] passed away, and I was surrounded by believers saying all the things believers say, and I had to say them too just to keep the peace. It was hard."

Religious ideas about death can also make atheists feel alienated: hyper-aware of their marginalized status, and of the ways that atheists in our culture are invisible at best. As I've told believers who were pressing their religious "comforts" on me even though I'd explicitly said I didn't want that: If you wouldn't tell a Jewish person that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus Christ, why would you think it's appropriate to tell a non-believer that their dead loved one is in Heaven? And yet many believers do think this is appropriate... to the point where they not only offer nonbelievers the "comfort" of their opinion that death is not final, but persist in doing so even when specifically asked not to. They're so steeped in the idea of religion as a comfort, they seem unable to think of any other way to comfort those in need. And they seem unable to see that their beliefs aren't universally shared by everyone.

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