New post up at Atheist Republic!

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Can we, as atheists with no real common denominator other than what we don’t believe in, use celebrity mourning as any kind of guide or measure for more personal tragedies? I think so. The thing that strikes me about the events I bring up here, from Princess Di to Robin Williams to Leonard Nimoy, is that the mourning was public. That seems incredibly obvious to point out, but think about this in comparison to personal losses. People refrain from bringing up the names of dead family members, don’t refer to their deaths, and generally help us build a wall of isolation around our losses.

Full essay at: http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/kimboo-york/celebrity-death-secularization-mourning

Powerless Atheism, Human Strength

Last week I bailed on facebook because of an encounter with a friend and fellow atheist, who dragged my character through the mud in order to justify his experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous. His entire argument rested on the fact that even an atheist can “accept a higher power” and that anyone who is unwilling to do so lacks humility and suffers from a god complex.

His attack so floored me that I just logged out.

As much as I criticize AA for its religiosity, I don’t begrudge it; it has worked for many people in helping them overcome terrible addictions and the situations those addictions got them into. What I do take issue with is an unwillingness to critique how it does NOT work for atheists like me, who find the whole “higher power” issue problematic to the extreme, and to then counter that there is something wrong with me because of that.

But these are the kinds of confrontations that assault us all the time, when dealing with emotionally laden topics such as addiction, grief, abuse, and mental illnesses. It’s not that people can’t understand our godless perspective, it’s that they really don’t want to because it challenges their own deeply held beliefs.

I am fortunate in that I rarely have dealt with direct confrontations with religious people about death and their insistence on an “after-life”, which I always feel like I have to put quote marks around because it is such a ridiculous term to me. I acknowledge a physical afterlife, in the sense that corpses don’t go POOF and disappear, that our bodies change and decay and become part of a different ecosystem. But I’m pretty immoveable with my understanding of a lack of a spiritual afterlife. To me, spirituality is an internal emotion much like love and sadness and anger — it does not exist outside of the brain, and when that brain goes dark, so does everything in it. I’m okay with that.

And my comfort with that fact terrifies some people, and disturbs them as much as my friend was bothered by my unwillingness to acknowledge any “higher power.” It is living proof that maybe their own beliefs just might not be true.

Which is never my intention (I leave the aggressive debates to other atheists), but that’s not a defense anyone ever respects, in my experience. Often, like my friend, they see this as proof of self-aggrandizement, and I’m just amazed by that because it’s the complete opposite. My understanding of total death is a profound acknowledgement of meaninglessness, both individually and collectively. We’re specks, even our whole planet is nothing more than space dust at the galactic scale. It’s an acknowledgement that there is no controlling my death or the rain cycle or the turning of the Sun, that I am simply who I am for as long as I am alive. I am no more a higher power than is some mythological “supreme being”; perhaps I do have a god complex in the negative sense, in that I feel I’m just as powerful as deities I do not believe exist. Which is to say: ultimately powerless.

But I’m okay with that, because lacking supernatural power over the world around me does not mean that I don’t love, that I don’t care for others or myself, that I don’t feel grief and pain and sorry. Nor does it mean that I am powerless in my own life. It means my power comes from compassion and love and humility, because there are no gods here, not even me. My strength does not rest in an external higher power, it comes from the people I know who love and support me, my equals in this journey.

We’re not inferior because we are atheists, or lacking some important component that makes us human by other people’s standards. We love, we grieve, we cry, we suffer, and we get up to face the day every morning with our integrity intact…if anyone ever asks more out of you than that, then they are wrong. It’s just that simple.

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Senseless, Tragic and Stupid

Talented, award-winning actor and all-round nice guy Phillip Seymour Hoffman died at some point on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 from (it is assumed) a drug overdose. He had a documented issue with addiction and so this goes down as another fabulous actor lost to drugs. I am reminded in a lot of ways of the death of John Belushi (1949-1982) who was famed for both his incredible talent and his excesses.

When the news broke Sunday afternoon, my social media feeds were quickly filled with tributes to Hoffman and his work. It was touching to watch, and as a fan of his, I was very moved.

There were also a number of people who pointed out that he was an addict, that he made his own choices, that dying by an overdose is stupid, and he doesn’t deserve pity for engineering his own senseless death. That he was selfish for caving to his addiction and saddling his family with this tragedy.

Senselessness tragedy is one of the hardest things that we, as humans, can face. It hurts to know that some things just happen — some people become addicts,  some children die from cancer, our cat gets hit by a car, a monumentally stupid detail such as someone buckling their seat belt determines whether they live or die — and there is nothing we can do to rationalize it or stop it in its tracks. In those moments of terror and anguish, we want to think that if we try hard enough, we can control every aspect of our lives.

It is tempting to take our sadness over a person’s death and use it a bludgeon against our fears, to pretend that “senselessness” doesn’t really exist, that it isn’t logical and it is stupid. We use logic in the same way religious people use prayer, as a cry in the wilderness demanding justice. We want to believe that our child will never be a drug addict because we raised her right; we won’t develop cancer because we don’t smoke; our brother or sister won’t die young in a DUI crash because that just wouldn’t be fair. Cause and effect are real phenomena, but they rarely play out as we think they should outside of controlled laboratories (and often not even then). When it all goes to hell we want to be able to point at a reason and say, “that’s why” and “he should have known better” and “I wouldn’t do that.”

But human conditions like addiction, depression, mental illness, bad hearts, weak immune systems etc. all thrive on the spectrum between life and death, between stupid and tragic — they are senseless in every way. Religions often play this off as “God’s plan” but that’s another side step around how it feels to be utterly, inescapably helpless in the face of something we want very badly to control.

Of such desperation are superstitions, and perhaps even whole religions, born. That’s not meant as a put down, it is simply recognizing that humans DO NOT LIKE feeling helpless and will go to extremes to banish that sense of fear. People of faith have tools to fight that darkness that they wholeheartedly believe work, such as prayer. Whether it actually works or not is immaterial, because their need to pray is an emotional reaction to helplessness.

Atheists and other non-deists have to face this head on, though, and often do so in a way that resembles thrashing blindly in the dark. A lot of non-deists claim they are fine “living the question” of why we are here and what it all means, but when confronted with concrete examples of the random senselessness of our lives they try to logic it out and put fences of rationality around the uncontrollable. People explain Hoffman’s problems as self-inflicted and his death as a stupid mistake he could have avoided. And sometimes that’s true, because there are enough recovering addicts out there to prove that it is possible. But we are doing a disservice not just to people like Hoffman who have died, we are creating a dangerous bubble for ourselves that death and grief will shatter like nothing else.

What tools do we have, then? What can we use to “make sense” of things that are genuinely senseless at an emotional level? I return to the point I make a lot: external methods of dealing with grief (and fear, and anger) can only go so far. Therapy can help and alcohol can numb. We don’t have religious traditions and platitudes to shore us up in our desperate hours. For us, the solution is internal, even if it must be practiced actively in the world we live in. That is to say, embracing atheist grief and fear of death takes compassion.

Compassion is an emotion that exists outside of our demands for reasons and justifications and judgment. With it we can acknowledge the painful senselessness of tragedy without hiding it behind curtains of “purpose” or “cause and effect”.

As non-deists we can look at the death of a talented, troubled man like Hoffman and know that yes, it was senseless, tragic, stupid and possibly avoidable without losing the thread of our humanity because we have no fear of offending god(s) by saying so. We can offer clear-eyed compassion in the face of death, because it doesn’t matter if it was random or self-inflicted, not one little bit. All that matters is that we know these experiences bind us to our own humanity as much as to each other. Compassion isn’t pretending the dark doesn’t exist or sending it away with a wish and prayer, it is standing bravely in the face of our own fears and offering a light in the dark to others no matter how senseless their problems look to us.

 

I get to expert things?

I was talking to my colleague Jennifer Miracle about blogging and specifically about my upcoming debut as a columnist for Atheist Republic, where I will be writing about grief and mourning issues. I was talking about how I don’t feel much like an expert on the topic, especially since I’m not a counselor or therapist trained in grief issues, and her question was, “Well, who is the expert?”

And I couldn’t tell her, because I can’t think of one.

Carol A. Fiore has written irregularly about atheist grief issues, but doesn’t seem too active on the subject these days outside of a few articles for Grief Digest. Her book detailing her relationship with her husband, his death, and dealing with her grief as an atheist is due out this year, though.

My resources page highlights a few (very few) other blogs and articles that are worth visiting, and I especially recommend the facebook page Grief Beyond Belief founded by Rebecca Hensler. But that’s pretty much it.

I’m totally not prepared to be “the expert” nor do I find it helpful to think of myself that way. I have to re-iterate that I’m not a professionally trained counselor or therapist. I’m a librarian whose parents died when I was in my 20s. That is pretty much the extent of my “expertise.”

Yet, I feel the need to have a role in talking about atheist/non-deist grief and mourning issues. We are a very small minority of people world wide, and our support structures are few and far between, especially if our families are religious. I’d love it if I were just one of dozens of bloggers currently writing about this topic, but I’m basically one of two. I’m certainly the only one who has been doing this regularly for several years (that I know of). That doesn’t make me an expert, just persistent — because I feel this is important, and I can’t seem to let it go.

That will have to be enough.

Love is my eternity

The grieving atheist’s consolation is not in hope but in love.

The theme of reunion runs through a lot of religions, and many people of faith rest the burden of their grief on the hope that someday they will be reunited with their loved ones. They believe that they will see their loved ones again. For these people, the very concept that such a reunion might not happen is downright horrific, and they cannot conceive how an atheist’s grief is not made exponentially worse without that promise. They perceive an atheist’s notion of death as a singularly final and empty event, and project their own fears of being alone and without hope onto the atheist’s experience.

As an atheist, though, I never felt the need for that hope. It would be like pining for Santa Clause; comforting, perhaps, but no less ridiculous and unrealistic. It is hard to explain that this is not a decision I came to, but rather is an emotional state that is very natural and organic for me. Atheist logic fits my argument beautifully, but had no bearing on how I felt about matters nor in how I explain it now. There is a huge difference between arguing that Heaven (and Hell) does not exist, and simply knowing that to be true. Is that the essence of blind faith? Perhaps. I’m okay with that, because in the end, human emotions will never resolve into a rational argument. All we can do is provide the best evidence we can for our beliefs.

Atheism is my default setting, so this lack of hope was not traumatic for me. I remember studying with some Baha’i followers during my Great Search for God who told me I should find comfort in knowing I would be reunited with my parents after my own death. My knee-jerk (and probably thoughtless) reply was, “why?” I did not understand why this would a source of hope for me, rather than an argument for committing suicide. I remember this moment clearly because the kind Baha’is looked floored by my comment, and I realized for the first time that my grieving emotions were out of lock step with the majority of mourners.

I have worried at this discrepancy for a while. I mean, it does seem odd that I am not utterly distraught by the idea that I will never, ever ever see my parents again, that their deaths are final and absolute. They are gone, and I am here, and that is a permanent divide. As long as I am self-aware, I will be mourning them and there is no end to that other than my own death, which will be just as final and resolute as theirs.

What I eventually realized is that my consolation, when I find it, does not need hope. My consolation is in the continuity of my love for my parents, a feeling that is boundless and constantly present. I loved them while they were alive, and I love them now, and I will love them until my own mind goes dark. That is eternity, for an atheist; so for all of eternity my parents are here with me, now, in every moment.

 

What ‘Sacred’ Means

I was interested in reactions to this NPR ‘Code Switch’ story, “What Part of Sacred Don’t You Understand?” Normally I don’t read comments sections because therein lies madness, but in this case I made an exception. The topic is a sensitive one here in America, concerning Native American artifacts and land, a subject with enough tragedy and frustration to run through generations of amity. My interest in the story, though, came from a genuine curiosity as to how sacred is defined.

Yes, I can look up the word in the dictionary, as well as the legal concept as given by Federal law here in the U.S. What I was looking at was how people react to the word individually, how they interpret a situation where people are looking at objects and land but conceptualizing them differently because of a disagreement about what makes something/someplace “sacred.”

In short, what makes a Catholic Church sacred and worthy of protection, but not a mountain that Native Americans have practiced their religion on for years?

Of course for most religious people with a strong faith in a deity, sacred is something that is empowered by some external factor, be it a priest’s blessing consecrating a church or using a sacred area of land for rituals to gods/goddesses.

For us as non-deist mourners, though, “sacred” is a cagey, nearly verboten idea. I’m going to argue that it can still hold a space in our lives. Unfortunately that is often taken from us by people want to shoe-horn us into their concepts of religion and sacredness. The NPR article showed how divergent those meanings could be even among people who do have supernatural beliefs, so there is no way to approach this idea that isn’t going to be controversial to some people.

I propose that “sacred”, in the context of secular grief, means places/things/times that hold a connection to a memory of a person who has died. I have written before about how I held on to my parents’ keychains for years after their deaths. My husband knew better than to touch them, because it upset me to not see them hanging by the door. Eventually during a move they were simply packed away and never put up again, but for many years they were sacred objects to me. This was not due to some paranormal power or connection they had, but simply because they reminded me of my parents.

Too often the practice of atheism takes the emotions out of things. For some, that’s okay, they need that remove. For others, though, perhaps the idea of “secular sacred”, that is, connecting to an emotional state, might be helpful. I suspect it could become a crutch, but I think with the rationalized understanding of what is going on by claiming something is sacred from a secular mindset, it can be beneficial.

Of course many people come to atheism/non-deism through deconversion, and mistrust anything that smacks of religion/paranormal/spirituality. That’s fine too, I’m not trying to force this idea on anyone, just trying to expand our resources to help us deal with our grief.

Salvation from Sin

A surprising title for an atheist blog about grief, but I find both concepts fascinating. I’ve wondered for years why we need them, why we created them in the first place.

I joined a friend at a Unitarian Universalist service this morning, and was thrilled that the speaker did his whole talk about the notion of salvation and sin. He was grounded in the Christian tradition, so of course there was a lot of references to god/spirit entities, but he discussed these concepts in very secular terms.

He used a definition of sin originated by theologian James Luther Adams: “sin the act of ignoring the demands of mutuality.” Salvation is the removal of sin, that is, the act of acknowledging mutuality which, I suppose, in the Buddhist tradition is simply practicing compassion.

We seem to complicate these ideas needlessly by filtering them through religion and philosophy.

I trip over these concepts a lot in regards to grieving, because so many people try to ease the pain of grief by implying that the dead person is better off, with the presumption that their soul has gone to heaven or “a better place”. The whole concept of religious salvation is most often understood as otherworldly — salvation is something that awaits you later, after you die. Or that earning salvation in this life grants you special privileges in the after-life.

But I think salvation is another word for enlightenment, which is itself another word for “being present, being compassionate, in the moment.” And this is important for grievers, because it is easy to get swamped in our emotions and forget that we are part of a greater whole. As long as we are alive, we are members of our society and our family and our planet’s biomass. We ignore the mutuality of our lives at our own peril. This is the “sin” that non-deists need to be concerned with.

Being “in the moment” does not mean wallowing in pity. There are times when emotional windstorms sweep you under and there is nothing you can do other than try to stay afloat. Those moments pass, though. Then we are left to drown in our sorrows or to confront our place in the world with whole-hearted compassion.

I don’t fear religious words like salvation and sin because their source is often a reflection of basic humanity. We can take these terms and use them as short cuts to deal with our own emotional world, without conceding to supernatural/paranormal entities.

How are you practicing sin? Where is the salvation in your grief?

 

 

Writing recommences on ‘The Empty Bowl’

A long time ago, I decided to write a book about atheism and grief. I was going to call it “The Empty Bowl”, a riff on my own Buddhist studies as well as a vivid image of grief itself.

In a not very unusual occurrence, I stalled after that.

Grieving Futures stalled for years, because I could not decide on the right “voice” for it. I resisted making the book all about me, because I wanted it to be a more general resource for young adult orphans. Yet, not being a professional grief counselor, I felt I was ill-equipped to write that kind of self-help guide.

Eventually I just sat down and started writing my story, without worrying about where it was going or what it might turn out to be like. That, in the end, was the right decision. While it was in many ways a self-serving project, a form of purging for me about my life during those years, it has nonetheless proven to be a great resource for  readers. People have written to tell me how much it meant to them to find someone else who had gone through what they were experiencing, and how my book connected with them emotionally. That means more to me than anything else.

So, I’m trying to let go of expectations in regards to “The Empty Bowl.” I want it to be a touchstone for atheist mourners. I want it to play the role that C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” plays for Christian grievers, even if I know that I’m no where near as talented and smart as Lewis was.

It could be a collection of essays on topics, or a straightforward recap of my own experiences…I don’t know. It bothers me that I don’t know, but I need to trust in my abilities to create the right book. Part of me wonders if atheists need something like this, but then, I did and so I figure someone else might. As with the Skeptic’s Inspirational, I’m jumping in and making it happen, simply because I feel it should be done.

I think I’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of “The Empty Bowl” as it comes along. Please, feel free to give me feedback!

 

 

 

Skeptic’s Inspirational is back!

I’m back to working on the Skeptic’s Inspirational again. It’s been a long time since I bothered with it.

Part of me feels it is quite the dorky experiment, which all of about two people (me, and hopefully someone else) will appreciate. I realize that drifting towards the “positive affirmation” end of the skeptic rainbow will put off a few readers, if not a lot. It’s so closely associated with “woo-woo” spiritualism that people just step back from it.

However, that’s dismissing the amazing work that is being done these days about the power of learned optimism, meditation and gratitude practice to actually change how we think and feel (and I need to research that, cite some sources here). I particularly like the work of Brene Brown in this area, as her work is grounded in her background as a researcher.

But I have not seen that embraced by skeptics. We fall back on secular meditation practice, which I do as well, but for me that isn’t enough. The Skeptic’s Inspiration came out of the idea that maybe it isn’t enough for others, either.

Personally, I’ve fallen back on the very religious, metaphysical work of Earnest Holmes to fill the void for inspiration. It makes me cranky to be mentally redacting all references to “God” and “Spirit” and “Greater Power” but I do it because his affirmations are well written and strong. The phrasing he used is definitely an influence on the affirmations I use in the Inspirational.

The reason is that after my parents died, I was still at sea in regards to religion and spirituality, so I kept myself open to everything despite the bone-deep knowledge that I am an atheist. I had an Earnest Holmes daily devotional (I still have it) and several Christian devotionals (I don’t have those anymore) and if I remember correctly, a pagan one as well (long gone). I found something soothing and rewarding about starting my day with a reading from those books, even if part of me didn’t relate to the religiosity of them. Those were dark, dark days and I needed all the help I could get.

Which brings me back to the Skeptic’s Inspirational — I needed something like it, just as I needed something like Grieving Futures, but I couldn’t find it. It might be out there, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep working on it in order to help others who need it. Eventually I will collate the daily entries into a book, both epub and print, which I plan to publish in February, 2014. Stay tuned!

An Atheist non-perspective on Religion

This post is not about grief, but it is something that has been on my mind for a while now. I want to talk about my perspective in writing this blog, and where it comes from, and why it’s different from most skeptic’s blogs out there, and how (maybe) that is something you can benefit from.

For a lot of atheists and other non-deists, living without a faith in a higher being is something they arrived at eventually. Sometimes tortuously, as they parted with a religion and a belief system that they were raised in. The results can be as catastrophic as if they came out as queer, with similar results: being thrown out of the house, disowned by their own family, and barred from interacting with the people they were raised with. I find such stories hard to even read about.

My life was pretty much the exact opposite: my parents were, for all intents and purposes, “practicing agnostics.” My father remained a Christian, but only distantly, and it was never something he talked about. I never saw him reading a Bible, although he owned several.

My mother sometimes went down roads of New Age Paganism, but in general spirituality was something she kept at a distance, feeling hard done by her Southern Baptist upbringing.

The result was that I was raised without any sense of religion or spirituality. In my house, Christmas and Easter were secular holidays, period. I had no idea of the religious significance of them until I was an adolescent. I don’t think I was even clear on what religion was until then, anyway.

Which is a long way of explaining why this blog doesn’t talk about deconversion, or other topics that most atheist blogs spend a lot of time on. For one thing, I can’t speak to those issues from experience. For another, they are not topics I think about at all (for good or ill).

My book Grieving Futures is a great example of that. I wrote the whole thing and never mentioned religion, and I didn’t realize it until I was deep in edits for it. Religion and “faith in God” did not register for me at all as topics that people might want to read about, which in retrospect I find kind of hilarious.

(I’m really sort of a unicorn in the atheist world: an adult over 30 who was raised as a non-deist. Like most unicorns, I find it surprising that I’m so rare, after all, I’m just me. *waves*)

I thought for a while that this was a handicap for this blog, and that coming at things from my neutral perspective would not resonate with readers. And that part is probably true, but I think I’ve also come to realize that there is a benefit here as well. I don’t weigh discussions of grief and mourning down with talk about religion. To me, that would just simply be off-topic. So I hope that readers like you will feel a certain freedom here, in that those other issues are not creeping into our dialogue and distracting us from talking about grief and mourning.

That’s my intention, anyway. I’ve made a conscious decision not to emulate other atheist blogs and to stick to what I know, and what I know is mostly about dealing (and not dealing) with death and loss from a 100% emotionally, psychologically atheist perspective. I hope it helps.