What consolation can an Atheist offer at the moment of death?

I was recently on a mission trip to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of our 36 annual week-long missions in an ongoing effort to provide relief after their earthquake of January 12, 2010. I was in a children’s hospital for infants whose mothers are dying of starvation and unable to even breastfeed their children. Although in one week I was able to nurse one starving, feverish, swollen infant back to health, three others from the clinic died who were beyond our help.

I would like to know what consolation an atheist would offer in the face of such widespread suffering and death, especially to the individual people most affected.

I really pondered this. To answer your question, not being an atheist, requires trying on the shoes of an atheist. Consolation to that situation being an atheist would be illogical. You can not console, you can rage. Rage against inequality, rage against corrupt government, rage against injustice but as an atheist what is there to offer. An atheist could mock the society that produced such a situation or individuals who offer consolation, but I can not see how a true atheist could offer any viable consolation. About the best I can come up with is to offer “your suffering will be over soon.” And, that statement is pretty snide.:frowning:

The $65,000 question!!

Robert Heinlein once said that everybody should, among other things, be able to comfort the dying. I wonder if he ever considered how an atheist would do so?


There is no consolation.

My mom passed away a few years ago. My cousins who I rarely see much of anymore were wonderful in coming out to pay their respects to their “Aunt Terry”. Outside the church as we waited for things to get settled I spoke to my cousin Tommy. I thanked him for taking the time out to be there. I also told him then that I appreciated the feelings he was having when his mother died some years earlier. I said that while I was there at her wake and her funeral and I could sympathize with his feelings then, only at the death of my own mother did I really have a full understanding of what such an event felt like.

He thanked me and then noted that his mother’s passing had brought him closer to God. Now the family knows that I’m an atheist. Tommy’s statement to me was purely out of graciousness and a desire to uplift me. It wasn’t an effort by any means whatsoever to make me feel bad, yet his words left me cold.

I find that the words of sympathy Christians give, while comforting to other believers, are of little comfort to those who don’t believe in a deity. This idea that we suffer now but that all will be better in Heaven doesn’t add up to the non-believer.

Often times on CAF the question is asked how does one best evangelize, and the response is often to do right and lead by example. Non-believers often will do right and lead by example, although not to convince people of the correctness of their faith position but simply to do right.

The idea that atheists can not console but only rage is a seriously flawed and inaccurate characterization. There is consoling that doesn’t require asserting that there is a place beyond the earthly realm to which the sufferers go.

Atheists can’t tell the woman in Haiti who suffered the loss of a child that her baby is in Heaven, or the Elysian Fields, or any post-death paradise. The atheist also can’t look the woman in the eye either and say that her baby’s death was part of a holy plan. The atheist can’t with a straight face say that a child in unimaginable suffering made prayers upon deaf ears.

None of the priests or friends or relatives at my mother’s wake would dare say that watching my Mom with my father as she screamed in pain the night before she died begging for death would bring me closer to belief in God.

The only thing I think an atheist can say is something like: “I’m sorry for your loss. If you need to talk, I can listen.”

Appropriate euthanasia will adequately cover the situation. In a world full of misery, poverty, disease, war and famine there is no hope for the atheist except to make sure they can stop the suffering quickly knowing that it will all be over for everyone they know. This lack of hope carries on to the next generation, and the next, in the knowledge that any improvement is slight, temporary and all ends in death. This realisation should only be responded to by a shallow selfish life as the most pragmatic answer. And yet many millions of atheists still live the shadow of the post Christian morality and help others as best they can in their short miserable lives. The good in man shows me the truth that we are really created in the likeness of our Father. We can only pray that they are recognised by their Creator for what good they do they do without hope. We could be more selfish than they. That is why I don’t judge.

“This is the end, beautiful friend…the end…” Peace is upon you.


I think an Atheist would just try to answer in the heart of the moment. I don’t think they’d make lofty promises. And I don’t think they’d be worldly cruel. I just think they’d be willing to do what it took to be there for you in a physical way rather than spiritual.

They might say, “I’ll be thinking of you,” instead of offering to pray. They might say “I wish this didn’t have to happen to you,” instead of saying something about it all being part of God’s plan or something.

I don’t know. That’s what I’d guess anyway.

I would never try to minimize your mother’s suffering, but I volunteer in a hospice. One thing I’ve learned is that there is no such thing as “too much” morphine if given correctly. No one should ever scream in pain. Never. Not if they are in a country with modern painkillers around. We put people in a medically induced coma if we have to. The only reason we would refrain from making them comfortable is if they requested “no medication.” My father got to the point where pain made him scream, but a little more morphine, and he was drowsy, but comfortable and almost pain free.

If one has access to modern medical care, no one has to scream in pain any longer. Don’t want anyone thinking that is inevitable.

I’m sorry about your mother.

To someone of faith: ‘I am so sorry for your loss. I hope your faith gives you some comfort at this time. If there is anything I can do to help, then please let me know’.

To someone with no faith: ‘I am so sorry for your loss. If there is anything I can do to help, then please let me know’.

Yeah. Almost exactly like that. How did you know? :wink:

I fail to see how that would be comforting.

Maybe the idea of eternal life doesn’t fill many atheists with joy? Knowing that ‘death isn’t the end’ isn’t comforting from that perspective.

To be honest and speaking personally for a moment, while I hope that in the balance I might inherit it in the end, eternal life doesn’t fill me with a great deal of joy either. Who seriously does want to live forever? I can’t think of anything more awful. (Spending it in the presence of God, however…which is of course really the point)…

If one is in pain or at the end of a long and fulfilled life, then death might not be something to be feared.
On the other hand there is no ‘consolation’ I can see, that one might offer to the parents of a dying 2 year old child. One can however offer comfort.

There’s an argument that might say that our own beliefs and practices surrounding death (such as praying for the dead) are as much about providing comfort to those left behind as anything else.

Very interesting thread, though :slight_smile:

For many, these words of consolation can sound empty and smug. “God has a plan” is not always what we want to hear when your family has been wiped out. Not everyone gets closer to God in tragedies such as this, especially if they feel as if their prayer has not been answered. As christians we need to be cognizant of this when offering words of consolation.

I think it’s hard to come up with a good answer for this in isolation from the person that is experiencing the suffering. Not everyone reacts to various types of comforting in the same way. I’m inclined to think that there’s not a one-size-fits-all response and that it would be necessary to be able to see how a person is responding to comfort attempts to know whether what is being attempted is a good fit for someone. It may also be helpful to know about the background of the person experiencing the suffering.

That being said, I think some amount of grieving is expected and can be part of the healing process. There may be some sadness every time the person thinks back to their past about the event. That’s not always bad and can be indicative of the love and attachment they had to the person that’s lost. Along with the sadness there may be happiness in the memories of the time they spent together.

When my wife was dying, the local priest offered the town church and himself for the funeral. He knew we weren’t Catholics but as there are few Baptist churches in Spain he said he’d run a Baptist service if I told him what to do. (Or Buddhist or atheist or whatever). He said it was his duty to everyone in the parish. His dad had cancer, and we talked a lot. He said something very consoling which was nothing to do with religion.

He said this is the worst thing that will ever happen to you. Get through this and nothing as bad can ever happen to you ever again.

The atheist can offer sympathy, but I don’t see how he can offer much else.

He can offer money for the burial of the deceased, I suppose.

He certainly can’t offer prayers for the repose of his/her soul, which is the most important thing anyone could offer. .



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