The American death industry pimps heaven hard, squeals like a stuck pig about redemption, then tasks the faithful with collecting the bloody dividends. For the believer the death of an atheist or agnostic loved one is a theological crap shoot. It invariably inspires fantasy, creative license, and outright bullshit betrayal of the dearly departed’s principles. Such was the case with my friend “Miguel,” who tragically collapsed during a basketball game at his school, went into a coma, and never regained consciousness. One afternoon when I went to visit him in the hospital I stumbled right into the middle of a raging prayer circle. Heads bowed, hands joined, voices hushed, three friends and family were deep in the throes of spiritual reconnaissance over Miguel’s bed.
Thanks, but no thanks, he would have said. At a vibrant 54, Miguel was a hardcore skeptic, an agnostic-atheist who never took anything on faith and made it his business to slash sacred cows of all stripes with a wink and swagger. As a compassionate esteemed educator for nearly 25 years he ruled his classrooms like a prize fighter, inspiring all who entered to think critically about the sociopolitical conditions of communities of color, institutional racism, classism, and sexism. His lessons drew on everyone from Bob Dylan to Toni Morrison to Tupac to Shakespeare to Sandra Cisneros; using their explorations of social justice, morality, and life’s paradoxes to turn on Black and Latino students who’d had it drilled into them that they weren’t cut out to be intellectuals or scholars.
But none of this passion for freethought was captured in the marathon orgy of Catholicism that was his memorial. During the ceremony, Miguel’s ashes were paraded down the church aisle in a little urn while the pastor declared to the faithful that “our brother has been called home.” It was a spectacle that he would have certainly parodied—he, the Chicano blasphemer who once wrote (in response to one of my pieces on death and religion) that “this rips the covers off the hypocrisy and the monarchical role that religion plays in our society. It (religion) swears out its conformity and power to the downtrodden it shackles every day. Let’s examine the nexus between corporate obscenity and the hand holding of their gospel spewing brethren in the tax free halls of America. Neither pay taxes, both exploit and we the benighted beg at their altars for alms, or forgiveness, or both.”
When my twin infant son Jay died ten days after his birth I was spared the prayer circles but got sprayed by the angel talk and the Jesus juice. Jay was going to be a Black angel with white wings hurtling up to take his place with the Lord. He was going to be one of the elite gold card cherubs that “God” had watched suffer and die. In a candid moment he would get to ask God, “Why did you fuck me?” And be told “Membership has its privileges.”
In death faith is the easiest breeziest coziest bromide fondue. Snatch it away and there is savagery. The savagery of outliving one’s young child. The savagery of a “Christian” nation that lets communities like mine bury its children week in and week out while spending billions on immoral imperialist wars. The savagery of the good dying young and the evil wanking into dotage. The savagery of organized religion that only makes the death of a child assimilable through fraud deities that, as Epicurus sagely protested, have neither the power nor the will to give or spare life in the first place. In her Free Inquiry article “Grief Beyond Belief” non-believer Rebecca Hensler talks about the difficulty of dealing with God talk after the death of her son. Seeking solace in other bereaved parents she says, “I found myself alienated by (their) constant talk of being reunited with their children someday. I had no patience with credulous stories of signs from beloved sons and daughters.” The experience motivated her to start a Grief Beyond Belief Facebook page for those who need secular spaces to mourn. Secular grieving and its rituals are still a nascent enterprise. In communities of color where hyper-religiosity and “spiritualism” become the default categories to memorialize death, secular spaces are virtually non-existent.
Non-believers refuse to waste time and energy on an afterlife but the abyss is still emotionally perilous. All of the rituals of religious redemption, as Miguel might say, have been ripped to shreds, delivered up to the cold light of day as a Disneyland front for the bloody, ugly, untamable, Sisyphean TKO of the right here right now—the dead “immortal” in the memories, deeds, and lived experiences of the living, the living slouching each second toward the dead.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.