The 5 Stages of Grief When You Realize God Is Dead
If you’re part of the soulless 18.2 percent who check the box under religion as Atheist/Agnostic/Don't care, who admit that every act and thought we’ve ever known, or known of, happened for no reason on any grand cosmic scale, congratulations! You’re part of the most hated/least persecuted minority in the country (here, have a scholarship).
The reason is that most people think atheism is just another religion. But calling atheism a religion is like calling black a color: it’s the absence of color. It’s like saying pizza crust is a topping. If all the religions in the world represented the holes in a golf course, atheism would be the green, the sandtraps, the water, the clubhouse and the insider trading. For those of you who are particularly Christian, you probably assume atheists are just secret Christians, which is how you reconcile the fact that we’re not trying to bite off your face, as you may be prone to assume. Hollywood even has stereotypes about us, which mostly thinks that we’re angry (we are, but only sometimes) or that we hate God and want to destroy religion (we do, but only sometimes).
But, when you say you're an atheist, the first reaction most people have is denial. “You’ll believe it eventually,” many say, usually assuming your nascent Christianity will emerge in a moment of peril or on your deathbed, like a mutant power. But what many don't realize is that is recovered Christians thought the exact same thing.
And, when a question of faith is forward-slashed with a crisis of faith, calling out the legitimacy of a loving savior is scary. Realizing there’s no god feels like a death. But, what’s interesting is how the reactions people have when they hear you’re an atheist mirror the stages of grief.
(Also, I’ll admit, I’m using Christianity as an example because that’s how I was raised. But, this strain of atheism refers to all religions. Ya’ll are on blast.)
1) Denial. “How can you not believe in God?”
There are things I want to believe. I want to believe that honesty and hard work will one day get me a million dollars to write whatever I want. That’s a belief with its own creation myths, its own stories, its own miracles, a moral code, community, early weekend mornings and mandatory attendance, monetary offerings and dues, a prophecy, sacrifices, sins, and saviors. I want to believe that I can come up with an idea for a story, or an invention, or a business and it will be loved by most people, and I’ll get a billion dollars and called a genius by someone cool, like David Simon. I want to believe that if you love you will always be loved in return. I may have rejected religion, but it’s not like I’m not delusional in my own way.
But, you don’t choose what you believe. What you believe you accept as fact. And, we were brought up to believe that you want to learn more facts, which you learn by asking questions. It's what you first learn in school.
2) Anger. “You’re just angry at God.”
Yes, I am angry, but not at God. He’s a fictional character. I don’t hate Santa Claus or Superman or Jar Jar Binks (... enough to do harm). But, Christianity told me I had to be honest. So, I decided, as a child, that I would be the most honest, the most real, the clearest mad bomber of scalding hot truth your face has ever heard. So, yes, there was some resentment when it all turned out to be false.
3) Bargaining. “You're thinking about it too much. It's not meant to be taken literally.”
You're right. I do think about it a lot. It's the secret of the damn universe, and affects everything from legislation to Thanksgiving dinners to sex, with eternal suffering on the line. It should be scrutinized, investigated and held to the standards of a crime scene or Mythbusters. If a house burns to the ground and a bunch of us are trying to figure out how it started, you’re not allowed to suggest a dragon did it, and we shouldn’t have to listen. Even though there’re many reasons to believe the Bible has some historical accuracy (... some...) it's still not SparkNotes of human history. If God wanted to be believed in, why not any scenes from the New World? Why does the Middle East get all the prophecies and miracles, and for that matter, salvation? The writers didn't think to include it, with their lack of satellites and boats at the time.
4) Depression. “You're never going to believe it anyway.”
I will. I will believe it when God decides to make some sense and hold up to scrutiny. My god acts like a real god. My god can’t be contained in one book. My god is a god that gets in the face of prophets and tells them to release new books like it's the Farmers Almanac, revised and updated by the smartest people on the planet. He’s a monthly magazine, and he doesn't care if you praise his name or cuss him out because he's fucking God of all fucking reality whether you fucking believe him (or her) or not.
Jesus Christ could see into the future. But, The Son of God never felt the need to turn to Paul and say, “Listen, Paul, buddy, I need you to remember something for me: E=MC2. Don’t do anything with it. Just hang in to that for now: E=MC2. This is a job I’m giving you, Paul. E=MC2. Also, if you keep going west, across the ocean, you will find two whole hemisphere-sized continents full of people on the other side of this planet, which is a sphere, that every year revolves around the sun, not the other way around. In fact, you need to write that down. You know what? I should just teach all 12 of you how to write and just create written language now to get that out of the way. You could pass it along to help prove I’m God’s child. Also, don't be racist or pollute.”
5) Acceptance. “You just like atheism so you can sin and do whatever you want.”
Sure. I’ll give it to you. Once you let go of god, it really is pretty damn amazing. So much of your guilt starts to just fall away. The fear of damnation no longer looms. You realize that sometimes you need to tell a lie. Divorce might be OK. You can have a few drugs. Stealing, at times, helps. Maybe you don’t need to help the homeless, on a cosmic scale. Murder thoughts happen.
And on the flip side, the concept of fate doesn’t have the success record on morality you'd think it would have. You all have a favorite sin, which statistically-speaking is either lying, working on a Sunday, arguing with your parents or some hot, sexy, idol worship. So, those of us that have become atheists didn’t do it because we wanted to sin even more, when we were just doing it anyway. That would just mean we’re securing our place in hell even moreso by pulling off that paper hat and name tag.
And, no, we don’t get to just do what we want. Aside from having to follow the same laws preventing speeding and genocide, atheists still have to be, among other things, good citizens, friends, children, parents, patriots, employees, co-workers, patients, drivers, lovers, tippers and also recycle. The difference is that we don’t intertwine laws and manners with the seriousness of eternal damnation. You soon forgive yourself of all your sins once you realize they never really were sins to begin with. They were built up in your mind. They were mistakes and you learned from them, and now they’re left in the past. That’s a baptism.
But, what we need to hear more of is “How can you not believe?”
When you first fully accept atheism, your first thought tends to be “Let’s burn it all to the ground” along with “Why does anyone believe this crap?”, “Why was I lied to my whole life?” and sometimes, “Should I still feel bad for the children of Africa?” But, mostly, you want to run through the streets like it’s Christmas morning, shouting at anyone you can find that, yes, in fact, you’re whole life is a lie and how glorious that discovery is. You’ve just spent your whole life making “fisher’s of men” and spreading the good word until now. It's a hard habit to break when you're breaking the metaphorical one.
That’s the one thing atheists tend to forget: this is a process. You don’t just stop believing this stuff. It takes a long time. And it’s scary. You’re scared to look into the black hole, because all you see is darkness. You wonder how you’re even here at all. How are any of us here? Then you ask the question everyone gets to: “What keeps you from killing yourself?”
“Aren’t we all then just walking, talking meat-robots?” “What’s keeping us all from killing each other right now?” Then you realize that nothing is. No one is. We’re all just going about our lives. What keeps us from killing ourselves? Nothing. Or, you do love your life. Or, you know it can get better. Or, you’re like me, and you’re a perfectionist, and that keeps you from starting any projects in the first place. Nietzsche said that “God is dead.” But, he isn’t dead, he’s just never existed. We created this world. We explored the land and populated an entire planet then covered it in giant forts then fucked each other in most of them then created the moment that we’re in right now. We did that. We’re alive right now, and ideally tomorrow.
I can't remember the exact moment I called myself an atheist. But, I do remember looking up at the sky for the first time without picturing anyone looking down. It's like seeing the ocean for the first time, but it's always been there. You wonder how you haven’t fallen off yet. But, no one else has. And, it’s so amazing it’s almost too hard to accept.