The Nihilistic Grief Counselor

BattleRoyale2Huffington post has put an interesting article about dealing with grief as an atheist. I think it summarizes some fairly common sentiments nicely, and is worth a response for that reason.

Though I disagreed with most of it, I personally loved the opening–it was one of the few times that I’ve seen a popular statement of atheism admit that this is a tough question, and approach the subject with empathy. Typically, glib dismissals and accusations of emotional weakness are the response I’ve received to this question.

But I was still disappointed in the philosophy backed by the article. In fact, this subject seems to bring out one of the big contradictions I see in almost every secular philosophy I’ve encountered.

That is, an outward claim of commitment to tough-minded truth mixed with a certain unreflective sentimentality.

The writer emphasizes that he cares more about what is true than what is comforting. But, while that is praiseworthy in itself, the comfort he offers is all emotional gloss–all pathos without any real content.

Yes, when one is in the midst of grief, what is needed is someone who will just sit and weep with you. But, if one is seriously asking “what is your answer to the issue of death”, anything other than “it’s terrible, and it will ultimately destroy everything good that has been done” strikes me as insincere coming from an atheist.

As a case in point, the article quotes a poetic look at what a physicist might say at a funeral. All very lovely, but the comfort is a lie. Is it really an answer to death, after all, that the energy of a loved one’s body is still in the universe?

If that really makes one feel that that loved one lives on in some sense (which is exactly what the article is trying to say), then one is not very committed to truth. We don’t nostalgically save our shed skin and toenail clippings because we understand that the matter and energy that compose our bodies are not us. No one has ever scolded me for throwing out my garbage on the grounds that the energy in that trash once belonged to a human being.

To suggest that this should comfort us, then to say that one is an atheist because of a commitment to truth, is clearly inconsistent. Yet, that is exactly what this article does–and it is hardly alone in doing it.

Nor is was it convincing to read “your father is literally alive through you” from an atheist. Your father is literally dead, unless we’re willing to entertain the idea of an afterlife. That’s rather the point, and writing this line left me with the impression that the author doesn’t actually understand the atheism he’s preaching.

The worst philosophy put forward in the article is in the appeal to indifference. This idea that, since we aren’t bothered about not being alive sooner in the universe, we shouldn’t be bothered about death. Anyone who can’t see the difference between not having been born yet and dying without any hope of an afterlife has simply not thought very hard about the matter.

And this seems to keep coming up. When theists raise a question that materialists can’t answer, the response is usually some variation on “but that’s not important”. It’s rather like the sour grapes fable, and an attitude that stops thought. What it is not is a conclusion based on reason or evidence.

I don’t presume to tell people how they should grieve, but I do know that, once the emotions have passed, there are important questions about death. And the mix of unfounded sentimentality and dismissiveness in this article does not answer them. This kind of pathos masquerading as a tough-minded commitment to rationality is an affront to both hope and reason.

As to those who do try to answer them, they all seem to end either theism or despair.

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