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Watch out for that last step

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I am an agnostic (tl;dr – I don’t know and you don’t either)

One of my pet peeve responses from believers in my experience when we discuss our differences vis-à-vis religion is the misbegotten idea that because I don’t draw my morality from the same source that they do I can’t draw any morality at all. Which is terribly condescending and dehumanizing. I have said time and again to anyone who’ll listen (so mostly Megan and Will) that I am a better Christian in terms of outlook and relation to others than I ever was when I had faith. Without institutional grace there’s no real leeway. But I don’t miss being judgmental. I don’t miss trying to recreate the secular world in a smaller, shoddier, Bowdlerized version of itself because faith shouldn’t mean you ever have to give up anything.

But I do miss ritual.

Ritual is hard to recreate outside of institution because when you endow things yourself you can see the seams. When something comes to you endowed with sacredness or even simple tradition the seams matter less.

In theatre I like ghost lights and not saying Macbeth or whistling in the theatre and greenrooms that are actually sickeningly green and wishing each other broken legs. I loved putting a six-pack of Cokes up in the loft of my high school theatre pre-show every run for our resident ghost who had been the owner of the local Coca Cola bottling plant. Those things are links to our past, corny as they may be, and in an ephemeral art form I think those things matter.

Religion can create that in life, or living close to family and spreading or creating tradition with them.

But I live far from my family and my Fourth Family is an active one whose schedule is often not of its own choosing. We have few traditions or rituals.

And of course with no god and no religion, I have no ritual for death and mourning. My Nana passed a few weeks ago. It was my first death inside the circle. I have been extraordinarily blessed and she is by far the closest person to me that has passed yet. She was a champion for my life before I knew what life was. But of course she was 97, had lived a full life and had earned her passage. So as sad as it was it was a gentle parting not a tearing.

But it pointed out how absolutely screwed I am. I can borrow ritual, in this case a mostly very nice Catholic service, for such passings which are, if you’ll pardon the seeming coldness, logical, and allow my mourning to play out in gatherings with family and in shared remembrance.

But I have no mechanism for true grief. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe there is a better place. I don’t believe that somehow somewhere the dead are mingling and catching up. Grief is selfish, but when Other has ended there is only Self. And I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen when death comes to the inner circle. When it comes for my parents or my sisters or gods help you all when it comes for Megan. There is no rationalization available to me to make me feel better about it.

So my early notice to believers:

Don’t waste your time pitying my lack of grace, forgiveness or fellowship.
Pity me that I won’t have 2000 years of death cult tradition to ease my grief when I could really use it.

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  • Anonymous

    This is beautifully expressed, Travis. I sometimes wish that the atheists and the agnostics could meet up for coffee hour on Sundays long about the time that the Christians are doing the same thing: I miss the fellowship, but alas, the atheists and the agnostics are either sleeping late or already out windsurfing. Perhaps instead of the tired ‘herding cats,’ one could imagine the difficulty of herding agnostics.

    My favorite Irish death-related ritual is the drinking, comraderie and telling of stories either about or once told by the newly departed. Laughter in memory of the one lost.

    Like you, I feel unarmed for the finality of loss when it will take the form of either of my parents, or of Ted. I imagine there’ll be some raging against the dying of such beautiful, illuminating lights.

  • I think that any hardwired community could replace that fellowship, I
    honestly think that’s part of the appeal of 2amtheatre.com is simply a
    fellowship of the like-minded(ish). But we are so bad at commiting to
    things like that in general.

    It’s something Megan was thinking through when we talked about it, how
    to create a “spiritual” practice without the mystical…. I don’t have
    an answer.

  • Me and 7 other guys get together every thursday and shoot zombies. It’s not much, but I do love bonding over headshots.

  • Sorry about your loss, Travis. As someone who has lost a parent, and who lives alone, “what happens next,” is on my mind a lot. I wish I had an answer for you about how you can ease your grief sans a religious ritual; I’ve just found to chase the dark clouds away is to concentrate on living my life in the present moment. Pema Chodron has also been a great inspiration for me.

    …but Kate’s ritual below is pretty great too 🙂

  • Megan Reilly

    Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart” is actually pretty awesome. I haven’t read it in years so I don’t know how it would resonate with my now atheist self, but it’s definitely worth a try.

  • My mother died of Cancer about 2 years ago. She had brain cancer and was diagnosed 7 months prior to her death. This was after we rushed her to the ER because she was just acting weird, off balance, slurred speech, things like that. Once she got to the ER, and the diagnosis was made, she never came home again.

    Needless to say, that process was traumatizing. Her death came as sort of a relief.

    I have been an Atheist since I was in High School. I went to a Jesuit High School and it was after religions of the world that I began to question and eventually let go of religion.

    At the time of my mothers death, people in my family did not really know how to deal with me. They are all, for the most part, Catholic. Mexican Catholic to be exact. Its like being a Baptist in South, its just different than everywhere else. So, I was faced with dealing with this event without much support from my family, nor a religious tradition to fall back on.

    One of the great benefits of religion is that it offers us a sense of comfort when a loved one passes. “So long as I don’t stray from the herd, I will rejoin the flock with the Shepard.” Atheists don’t have this luxury. And they don’t really have a great way of dealing with the afterlife. At least one that is no as cold as, “That is it. You are dead now. That is the way it goes.”

    Once I realized that I was stuck in this lack of comfort. I had to rationalize things. I had to find a way to try to move on. The best that I have come up with, thus far is this:

    It is because we Atheists do not have the built in shock absorbers for loss that religions provide that we must value all the more the lives we lead. The Right Here, The Right Now, means more to me than it did before. It is because I understand that once I die, or those I love die around me, that is it, there is no more, that I try to value, love, care, and enjoy them as much as I can when I am around them.

    Doesn’t mean I succeed everyday. Doesn’t mean it makes the loss an less painful. Doesn’t even mean that I don’t wonder from time to time…What if there is a heaven. But for now, its the best I can come up with. And since I am only living my life for me, it works.

    Sorry for your loss, Travis. However it all shakes out, it is still painful and I hope that you and your family are as well as you can be.

    Much Love,
    Chuy

  • Thank you, and thank you for sharing that.

  • I have no easy answers or words of comfort to offer.

    I have only a simple thank you for sharing what you’ve shared: it rang both true and familiar for me, and I’m grateful for it.

  • Travis, my thoughts are with you at this time. I lost a dear friend this week. I sat at a very tidy Anglican service which, fortunately, was balanced by the presence of family and friends who spoke the eulogy and celebrated a Christian life that had been well lived. There was laughter and I cried all over my face. I’m not sure whether John, like me, did not believe in the after-life, that consolation that things don’t really end, and that all will be well after all. My grief at his loss was tempered by the memories of the times shared and what I had learned from him; in that sense he will never be lost to those for whom he meant a great deal. As the coffin was carried out of the church I wanted to cry ‘Bravo’ and applaud, but I didn’t – I think he would have liked that. I’m not sure how to define myself neatly – I’m a born and bred Catholic – loathe the ideology but adore the culture so, yes, I am drawn by the security of ritual as well as the romanticism and sensuality of its sacramental expressions. I sit kind of uncomfortably most of the time on a fence that I wish weren’t there. I think I need more time to think about it.

  • Most of the time making it up as you go along is fine, there are
    definitely times when it’s just not going to work.
    Thank you for stopping in 🙂

  • I was a pallbearer, and can I just say that even with no divine presence
    for me the act of carrying her out of the church while singing How Great
    Thou Art was just so lovely a closing…

    You have another 40 years to think on it. 🙂