When my Nanna passed away, a guy from the church she attended was the only non-family member to be with my Granddad when we gathered around him, in his sheltered accommodation home he’d shared with Nanna to tell him she’d gone. I forget the guy’s name, but he was obviously a close friend of my various aunties and uncles and cousins who all attended the same church as Nanna. He read out some words, which were obviously very comforting to my Granddad and after a while he left us to our private grief.
I never once felt awkward standing in a prayer circle around my distraught elder, who’d just found out his wife of over 60 years had died, even though I was probably the only person standing there who wasn’t dedicating my private thoughts about her, in that moment, to Yahweh or any other god.
Later that week, however, at the funeral, I began to feel a rising anger at the way in which the pastor, obeying his training, though with no intentional malice, began to hijack the high emotion surrounding the loss of a woman who meant so much to so many people. The Church was packed.
Nanna survived the second world war by scrubbing the concrete steps in front of mansion houses and worked in service, before marrying Bart, raising six children, each of whom had at least two children of their own, each of those, myself included, giving her at least one great grandchild.
I remember consciously repeating to myself, during the prayers and hymnals, not to say ANYTHING to ANYONE after the service about how I wanted to interrupt just about everything the pastor was saying with, “Are you fucking serious?” or “Where’s your proof?!”. You can imagine how pleased I was with myself for getting all the way through the day without saying a word, and how furious I was that it was at this very point, just before the finishing line, some tea-making volunteer from the church asked me if I would like to come again next Sunday and “see what it’s all about”.
She so nearly got both barrels I’m certain to this day it was only the fact that I stumbled my opening remarks on a ball of anger in my throat that she escaped unharmed, as she asked me to repeat what I’d said, in time for my mother to shove another cup of coffee in my hand – which snapped me back into the room and back from the edge of where I’d promised myself I wouldn’t go.
How dare she proselytise at me after I’d just watched the oldest, kindest person I’ll ever know, vanish into a hole in the ground, while my Grandfather wept “Goodnight, darling” – one last time? What the hell kind of sick trip are these people on that they not only think it’s OK to presume someone might be actually impressed by the pseudo-compassion they can turn on like a tap, during a funeral gig, so much so that they would want to find out more about such a place; a group of wilfilly blinkered holier-than-though gossips, who encourage others to behave the same, “In Jesus name”. I mean, thanks for the coffee and everything lady, but don’t inflate your role!
How was I supposed to react? What do other atheists do when confronted with what Richard Dawkins refers to as social Christianity; like ‘peace be with you’ handshakes at Christmas, or “May the souls of the faithful departed, rest in peace”, enchantments. Do we echo “Amen”, at the appropriate call and response time in this prayer? If so why? Out of respect for those in the room, who think it makes a difference, or out of respect for the life of the corpse in the coffin, who couldn’t possibly be less concerned with such protocol any longer?
How about Christenings? Weddings?! CHRIST! Don’t get me started on that one. I have to go to a Catholic wedding between two atheists who are only doing “the church thing” for her terminally religious parents, in a few weeks time. THAT is going to be DOOZY!!