Today I went to a funeral for a childhood friend who recently committed suicide. It was my first time revisiting the church in which I was practically raised and, while I knew it would be strange, I think I hoped my grief would offer me a different perspective. Now nonreligious, I'm quick to condemn such institutions as centers of brainwashing, fear-mongering and the like; but the truth is that I had nothing but happy memories of this place. It was founded on the basis of that more modern, friendly brand of Christianity – less god-fearing, more god-loving. It’s difficult to imagine that something as straightforward as a funeral service could have more sinister undertones in that context.
The first thing I noticed was the change in the church itself. It looked small, dimly lit... Not at all the place I remembered. I guess things just seemed brighter when a younger me was sure she felt God's presence there.
The service was, from the very beginning, more explicitly religious than most, but I didn't find that part surprising given the fact that the family has always been devout. Still, it prompted a lot of reflection on my part.
I politely bowed my head for the prayers, and found my mind wandering to my loss of faith years ago. The death of a loved one had left me distraught and questioning how such a thing could be a part of God's "plan". I think Julia Sweeney said it best in her poignant story Letting Go of God: "I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I'm not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, 'There is no God.'" Like Julia, I didn't wake up one day and choose to stop believing. I wanted desperately for there to be some cosmic purpose for the tragedy I'd encountered, and it pained me to even consider the alternative. But doubt crept in, and things were hard for a very long time until one day they weren't anymore.
That said, I don't think of myself now as a "militant atheist", though I wouldn't mind being labeled as such. I'd prefer for religion to stay the hell out of matters of public policy, but I'm a live-and-let-live sort of girl and if others somehow see something in faith, I'm not going to try to take that from them.
These and other thoughts crossed my mind as the service continued. "I guess it's not hurting anyone right now," I reflected silently during a hymn, "But what is religion actually contributing to this memorial?" Not the community, certainly – there's no doubt in my mind that just as many people would have loved and cherished the deceased in the absence of some faith to bind them. It had to be some sort of metaphysical reassurance, then, right? Peace in troubled times? A way to deal with the pain and inevitability of death? Comfort?
But the service wasn't comforting. Far from it, in fact. The pastor didn't deliver the usual "at least he's in a better place" spiel or any sort of unifying message. Instead, he offered the heavy-handed question "What does scripture have to say about the taking of one's own life?" with a horribly unpalatable answer: "God creates life, and therefore life belongs to God. In taking that life from him, we are betraying God's trust and revealing our own lack of faith."
Before this moment, the circumstances that led to my atheism had never really made me angry. But the hypocrisy here was just too much to bear in my grief. That a faith could so thoroughly devalue human life while offering reprimand (at a horrifically inappropriate time, no less) for someone who wholeheartedly buys into that message and just wants to get to heaven a little faster is disconcerting, appalling, outrageous – I can’t even find a word suitable to convey my sorrow and disgust. It's not enough to molest the minds of the living, we have to disrespect the dead as well?
I didn't think, going in, that I wanted anything from that pastor today. I can deal with death on my own, painful though it may be. But in retrospect, I did want something on behalf of the people around me: the kids I grew up with, their aging parents, and the family of the deceased. For the faithful, I wanted religion to step in and do that thing that nice moderates always tell us it's good for – give grieving people a way to deal with their loss.
But the pastor’s message was completely antithetic to that goal, and the people of the congregation shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I wanted to shout, "I know you're cherry-picking the Bible anyway! If you're going to pick and choose your principles, couldn't they at least be less punitive, more positive? What good is this institution we call faith if it can't offer some constructive or compelling insight on the trials and tribulations of our day-to-day lives?”
Never mind the fact that the pastor namedropped god/Jesus far more than he mentioned the deceased.
Never mind the fact that I'm sure the tone of the service was exactly what my friend wouldn’t have wanted.
Never mind how completely untoward it was in the first place to use the suicide of a good man as some sort of lesson for the rest of us.
The pastor was poised to offer some wisdom on the nature of suffering, and instead he was dismissive of it: "God gives us the tools to weather the storm," he insisted, "We just need to choose to use them." I know what that struggling, younger version of myself would have said to him in that moment: "Couldn't he just have, you know, not sent the storm?"
Had I somehow still been religious as of this morning, I think I would have lost my faith by the day's end. As it is, I find my atheism renewed a hundred times over. But I offer this story, I guess, as a cautionary tale. I went to that church with a somewhat open mind, and I left it feeling violated. If what I experienced today is the best that faith has to offer, I don’t want myself or anyone I love to be a part of it.