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Atheist’s Perspective: Why I didn’t Go To the Funeral

February 2, 2015 1 comment

Last week I had some rather shocking news: my friend and colleague where I pursue my PhD died or a heart attack. We were the same age and I thought in relatively similar health. By that I mean that he never mentioned to me that he was suffering from any health related issues. That is just how it does though, one day you are yelling at your friend to stop being an ass to your other friends on a facebook thread and the next day they are dead. The world turns, the hydrogen continues to fuse in the sun, life as they say goes on.

Tony and I weren’t close. I won’t pretend that we were as many people do when it comes to be funeral time. We were however, allies. We were the only two members of the Christian Philosophy Association that were atheists. We were outspoken atheists as well. We attended the meetings when we could, when they were held, and we did the readings for the meetings. Also, we weren’t disruptive or antagonistic. There was a sense that we were welcome at the meetings as well, even though…or perhaps even because of, we disagreed with the central thesis that the Christian religion accurately represents a historical, physical, and divine objective truth of the world.

It was confusing for me, with him. I wasn’t always an atheist but he claimed to have never believed in god. It made sense because he was very unaware of some basic tenets of Christian doctrine. Things, I thought were impossible to not know. Just growing up in this overwhelmingly Christian country by the process of osmosis I would have thought you would learn about some doctrines. Yet time and time again, he would ask seemingly obvious questions that made even myself groan. It’s one thing to not know that the Immaculate conception is a doctrinal retconning of the story of Mary so that Jesus is born of a person that was without original sin, but it’s quite another to not know the story of the conception altogether (also that it refers to Mary and not Jesus, but most Christians I know are ignorant of that fact). Yet he was quite aware of various Christian movements such as Liberation Theology, a pseudo Marxist movement steeped in Christianity, and could at least acknowledge some of the benefits religion has created (unlike some of the more militant atheists I know).

Tony and I weren’t rabble rousers. We could, as I phrased it, “play the game” meaning that if we assume the foundation were true we could argue the finer points. When it came to doctrine of perdition, people like us were probably more of a boon to the group than a burden since our perspective on what counts as truly wrong wasn’t based in ideas of mere belief. I think it also served everyone well if we could put a semi-reasonable face on atheism. We weren’t the only atheists in the group but we were the only ones that reached out. Our group (which to be fair included a Muslim as well) invited a speaker to debate on the concept of survival after death. It was a public debate that we sponsored, and some of the other students, atheists as well, complained that the department was sponsoring a religious debate where people were engaging over the concept of the soul’s existence upon the death of the body. Tony and I laughed, what did these people expect? The Christian Philosophy group sponsored the damn event and they were complaining that Philosophy of Religion was being discussed!? Idiots.

All that being said, he was fiercely Marxist. He was the liberal I used as an example of a left wing extremist. If the Republicans wanted it, it was wrong didn’t matter what it was. He would lost arguments on my facebook page, due to his ideology mixed with a lack of historical knowledge (not that he was stupid or ignorant of history but that he picked fights with people who had much greater knowledge than he). We agreed and we disagreed, but that’s what life is.

When the formal notice went out, the one that wasn’t an email from the department, I checked the arrangements while preparing to figure out how I was going to get out there. At best I live an hour away, so it involves a process. I couldn’t attend the wake as I had a class to teach so the funeral it was going to be. I hate funerals. It’s not being in a church that bothers me, I can be bored anywhere: but it is one those functions that I am socially awkward at. I don’t know how to act or greet people. Can I make chit chat or does everything have to be serious? In the surprisingly high number of them I have been to I still can pin this down. I walk into job interviews with more self assurance than I enter funerals.

I was going to get over it and go, until I read the obituary and saw the phrase “…a mass of Christian burial will be…”

Again, he wan’t secret about it. He would tell me that he would have regular fights about religion with his family members. Yet, they were going to go against what his view was and merely inflict their view point on the occasion of his death. Now, I know that this sounds a bit paradoxical: in my viewpoint he is dead and you can no longer injure a dead person. If we are still pretending the funeral is about the dead, and not about the living, how can you change the religious view of the person who has died?

This isn’t a harm to the body, that ship has sailed. Harm is impossible at this point so I don’t know what I think is wrong about doing this. It may simply be that the funeral becomes a pretense for what the immediate survivors want rather than what the actual deceased would have desired. I was at a funeral two years ago for a friend’s father that was a less a funeral than it was a recruitment pitch for a mega church and the story I was told was that a close relative had become a minister in the church and it was really his desire rather than the relatively non-religious person that died. If funerals are about the dead, let’s keep them about the dead and not about inflicting our religious views on other people. We really don’t want me doing that or every funeral I’m in charge of is going to look like the detective’s wake from the Wire.

Categories: atheism, death, funerals, religion