After a hiatus in the Diverse Expressions of Grief series, the series returns with an installment exploring what grief is like for nontheists, or those who do not believe in a deity or deities.
Overview of Nontheism
Nontheism is an umbrella term that covers a range of beliefs characterized by the absence or rejection of belief in deities. The opposite of nontheist is theist, or those who believe in the existence of a deity or deities. While nontheism includes many different belief groups, its most prominent belief groups are atheism and agnosticism.
According to their simplest definitions, atheism is characterized by the belief that no deities exist, while agnosticism is characterized by the belief that deities may or may not exist. While atheism is defined by a firm belief that deities do not exist, agnosticism is defined by a lack of firm belief in either the existence or lack of existence of deities, because it posits that it is not possible for humans to know whether deities do or do not exist.
Within these two simplified definitions of atheism and agnosticism are more nuanced subcategories of nontheistic belief. Different versions of classifying these subcategories exist, including Richard Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability. His spectrum describes seven places upon a spectrum of belief in the probability of the existence of deities, with 1 being a person who is a “strong theist” and 7 being a person who is a “strong atheist.”
Nontheism can be irreligious, but not always; many religions are either inherently nontheist, or have a subset of the religion that is nontheist. An example of a nontheist religion is Buddhism, and an example of a nontheist subset of a religion is humanistic Judaism.
Given the complexity of nontheism, it is difficult to capture an accurate and all-inclusive picture on exactly who nontheists are and where they are in the world, but various sets of data illuminate pieces of the picture. According to a 2010 survey by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, people who identify as non-religious made up 9.6% of the world population, and atheists about 2% of the world population. In the United States, only about 4% of the population identifies as atheist, but elsewhere rates of atheism as well as other types of nontheism are much higher. Canada, Australia, Asia, and several countries within western and northwestern Europe have higher percentages of nontheism, with 10 to 50% of their populations identifying as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious. Japan, Vietnam, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have the highest percentages, with 60 to 80% of their populations identifying as atheist, agnostic, or non-religious.
Different perspectives on loss and grief
Those who are nontheists may have very different perspectives on life and loss than those who are theist. An excerpt from Greta Christina’s Blog, a personal blog by a self-identified atheist, describes some the possible different perspectives that can exist between a nontheist and a theist:
“The idea that life is eternal and we’ll see our loved ones again someday is radically different from the idea that life is transitory and therefore ought to be intensely treasured. The idea that life and death are part of God’s benevolent plan is radically different from the idea that life and death are part of natural cause and effect, and that we and our loved ones are part of the physical universe and are intimately connected with it.
The idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they’re in a blissful Heaven is radically different from the idea that our dead loved ones are no longer suffering because they no longer exist, and that being dead is no more painful or frightening than not having been born yet. The idea that death is an illusion is radically different from the idea that death is necessary for life and change to be possible.
The idea that the soul will live forever is radically different from the idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be valuable and meaningful. The idea that there will be a final judgment in which the bad are punished and the good are rewarded is radically different from the idea that we were all phenomenally, astronomically lucky to have been born at all. The idea that our loved ones will always live on in an afterlife is radically different from the idea that we keep our loved ones alive in our memories, and that they live on in the ways they changed us and the world.” – Greta Christina
Nontheists and theists alike can have deeply moving beliefs about life and loss, but given that they can be radically different from each other, it can be difficult for a nontheist to find connection in the same ideas that a theist connects to. This can lead to uncomfortable and even hurtful experiences for a grieving nontheist who is being comforted by others. A few examples of common phrases and ideas expressed during times of grief that may be hurtful to a nontheist are:
“God has a plan”
“They are in Heaven/a better place now”
“You will see the person again someday”
“They are watching over you now”
While some common ideas and expressions of comfort for grievers can explicitly be tied to theist belief, some are less obviously tied to theist concepts. As a result, many nontheists who are grieving find that even when they request a “secular” funeral or memorial ceremony, the ceremony is still infused with ideas and expressions that do not align with their nontheist beliefs. This misunderstanding can make an already difficult time even worse for a griever.
Resources for Nontheist Grievers
For those who are nontheist and grieving the loss of a loved one or know a person who is, there are many resources that can provide knowledge, comfort, and community:
Grief Beyond Belief: a Facebook group for grievers who are “living without religious belief” or are questioning their faith belief. It was founded by a mother who lost her infant son after she had difficulty finding a place for grief support, on the Internet or in-person, that understood her atheistic perspective.
Godless Grief: An Atheist Discussion of Death, Grief, and Family Loss, compiled by Cathe Jones: a book written from a nontheistic perspective that discusses all forms of loss and grief. It also provides guidance on issues that can stem from loss and grief. The book is available in both print and e-book forms.
There is also an extensive online community for nontheistic believers contained within affiliation websites, informational websites, personal blogs, and message boards, some of which are included in the following sources list. Some may touch upon loss and grief, while others are solely devoted to loss and grief. For many nontheists, this extensive online community can replace the general lack of physical community that many nontheistic believers experience. An Internet search on any particular nontheist belief will yield links to sources of this online community.
While nontheistic belief is common in certain parts of the world, it is not in the United States. Those with theist beliefs can typically take for granted that the comforts they receive in their times of grief will often if not always reflect and affirm their beliefs about life and loss, but this is not easy for nontheists to find.
This fact can serve as a reminder to always be gentle and thoughtful with someone who is grieving. As every person, every loss, and every grief is different, it is impossible to know upfront what a person will need in order to find comfort. In times like this, to quote my Loss and Grief course professor from my undergraduate social work program, “ask questions!” If you are confronted with a person who has suffered a loss and is grieving, simply asking if the person identifies with any particular spiritual or faith beliefs (or, conversely, do not identify with any particular spiritual or faith beliefs) can be a good starting point to being able to truly comforting that person. If they identify with a belief that you are unfamiliar with (whether it be theist or nontheist), and the situation and relationship make it appropriate to ask questions about the person’s beliefs, then consider asking what ideas the person finds comforting in their time of grief. Thoughtfully providing condolences to a person who thinks differently from you can potentially feel different or uncomfortable, but doing so could also remove the burden of uncomfortable experiences that those with uncommon beliefs may often feel in an already difficult time.
Hilary Dockray came to know The Christi Center through her full-time field internship as a graduate student from The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work. Her favorite hobby is writing, so she is delighted to continue to advocate for the understanding of grief and those who grieve as a guest blogger for The Christi Center.
Below are just some of the online resources I used to research for this installment of the Diverse Expressions of Grief series. They are a great place to start if you want to learn even more about nontheism and grief for nontheists.
Nontheism Types and Definitions
Blog and Online Articles On Nontheistic Grief
2 thoughts on “Grief for Nontheists”
Thank you very much for posting this article regarding grief for Nontheists. I hope that theists get a better understanding of how difficult it can be for someone who finds no solace in certain sentiments that are offered as sincere condolences. I appreciate the spirit in which these are offered, but they don’t speak to me.
I disagree with the definitions provided. Atheism is not a belief at all. Atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Agnosticism is not a belief but a lack of belief in gods where agnostics don’t believe the existence of a god can be proven or disproven. If nobody were to believe in gods, neither term would exist in our language.
According to recent polling, atheists, agnostics and other non-religious people make up 21% of the USA.
I would also like to point out that there is a difference between theists and deists. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc., are theists. They believe a god or gods intervene in our world. A deist believes a god or gods exist but do not interact.
As a former Christian and current agnostic-atheist (I don’t believe in gods, but they could exist, however doubtful), I’ll let you know how we deal with death. Death is a natural occurrence in the life cycle. We are literally made of stardust and the atoms within us will become one with the universe once more. Death is sleep. When I die, I believe I will be in the same state of being as I was before I was conceived. Do I fear death? Honestly, there is probably some fear. I fear it will hurt depending on how I die. I fear for my family and their sorrow. I do not fear hell or a bad afterlife. I would LOVE for there to be some transfer of our consciousness to another realm of existence where we can interact with our loved ones. I don’t know that doesn’t exist, but as much as I’d love for it to be true, there is no non-anecdotal evidence to prove it. Whether it exists or not is not relevant to me. I cannot change it and it requires nothing of me. If there is another realm of existence, then I’ll find out after I die.
Overall, I think your piece is well-written and I just want to provide another perspective from somebody that has stood on both sides.
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