Friday, March 6, 2015

21 Days Left Behind: Grieving as a Secular Humanist

I am a Secular Humanist. I am also an agnostic atheist. This has made the death of my father a bit more difficult to deal with. I stopped debating religious people over the internet or even expressing my views on spirituality, religion, or the supernatural. It's ironic that my interest and passion for philosophy and world religion lead me to an atheistic world view, but most people never ask you how you came to the conclusions you have about the nature of the universe. I don't feel like getting into the, "Your disbelief in what I believe is an attack on me as a person because I believe ideas are more important than people" argument. I expect this from religious people, but lately I've been finding the same trouble with "Free Thinkers". I am okay with the fact that my dad died, as I view death as a part of life and that all things in nature adhere to that cycle. Stars are born, they live, and then they die. Since we are made up of the same matter and energy that the stars are, we too follow in that same order of existence. We are born from that which has died, we live, we grow, we feed off of things that have died, we age, we shrink, we die, and our energy returns to its essence and from that, new things are born. The problem is not about me not being able to accept his death, but finding a place to talk about his death with other people who do not have a religious world view. I find myself having to bite my tongue when people send me well-meaning, but really unhelpful support of a religious nature. Now I'm a labeled package--I can be neatly organized in other people's heads. Hopefully in my own head too. 

So what do all these labels mean? (Labels suck, I know) For me it means that I am a person who rejects the belief in god(s) and the supernatural. I reject these beliefs because there is no definitive or demonstrable evidence to make me believe otherwise. I have adopted a naturalistic view of the world. I believe that reality, as we know it, is remarkable with no need for fantastical edits or revisions. Through the beauty and the power of Science, we have been presented with an amazing, yet small, glimpse into the complex exquisiteness of the known Universe. However, I also feel agnostic to the concept of gods and spirituality because I do not believe that the scientific technology and capabilities that we have today is sufficient enough to understand the TRUE nature of the universe in it's completeness and I don't know if they ever will be able to. And quite frankly, it doesn't matter to me either way, nor does it impact my life at all. speaks of the "Naturalistic" nature of Secular Humanism:

"Secular humanism is philosophically naturalistic. It holds that nature (the world of everyday physical experience) is all there is, and that reliable knowledge is best obtained when we query nature using the scientific method. Naturalism asserts that super natural entities like God do not exist, and warns us that knowledge gained without appeal to the natural world and without impartial review by multiple observers is unreliable." 
I have a cosmic outlook on life, which means that I do rely on science to determine what factually exists in the real world with absolute certainty. With that being said, I also believe in POSSIBILITIES of things that I could never possibly know or understand. I believe that values like fairness, equality, kindness and altruism are human values, not religious ones. Altruism is another one of those beautiful little creations of evolution to ensure our survival as a species; but when I'm hanging with my best friends and laughing until our guts hurt, it really doesn't matter whether it is a function of "spirit" or evolution. I'm just happy to have them around! I believe that any philosophy, belief system, or information being presented as definitive truth or the possibility of being definitive truth should be heavily and critically investigated using the Scientific Method. To me, there is no idea or belief system that should be exempt from questions and inquiry into the nature of the claims that it adheres to, and it should be met with harsh, yet honest, criticism and sometimes ridicule--especially if the claims are outlandish and lack evidence to prove them to be true.

I say all this to get into what inspired this blog. For the last few months since my father's passing, I have struggled to find an online support group for non-believers that I could join and express feelings about my father's passing without religious interjection. I have chosen to not disclose the name of the page/group I experienced this with, because my goal is to not publicly shame or denounce this group, 
but to draw awareness to a large segment of non-believers that STILL find no place to turn, even though groups currently exist that could support them. My intention is to explain just how real the loneliness of being a griever without faith can be, and how sometimes you can look for support and it was worse than just keeping it all inside, and "liking" yet another well-meaning comment of how someone else will be "praying for you". They also prayed for my dad's cancer to heal, and we see how that turned out...but I digress.  

I found a site that I quietly "liked" on Facebook and I just sat back and read, without commenting for quite a while. I found out that they had a closed group where I could comment without people on my Facebook friends list seeing my comments about my feelings of grief while being atheist. The truth is, I stopped posting my views, because some of my views include an "anti-theistic or anti-religious" sentiment, which was not appreciated by some of my friends who hold different beliefs than I have. I still have many of those feelings, I just keep it to myself now, because although I believe those things to be true, some of my religious friends and family felt attacked (even though I easily distinguish between who someone is as an individual vs. them being defined by one single belief that they may have that I don't agree with). The unfortunate result was that I censored myself and stopped posting ANYTHING about religion on my page. I requested to join this group and I was a little shocked, to say the least, when I woke up the next morning to a letter of rejection from the administrator for my supposed "religiosity". At first, I found the comment laughable considering my rabble-rousing history and propensity to piss off the religious just by posting a  "Best of the Hitch-Slap" YouTube video, but then I started to feel angry. For the sake of complete transparency, I will post the screenshots of our dialogue. I do not want anyone's words being altered or misrepresented. I am sorry that the screenshots are so poor, but I am not working on a computer with Photoshop to improve the quality of the screen shots. Here is our conversation: 

For those of you that just want the abbreviated version of this conversation, I will give you the short version: Basically this group rejected me upon the basis that they felt there was religious content on my page, when there was absolutely none. I hate when people tell me WHAT to believe or try to tell me what I believe when they have no clue. They used the "protection of their members" as an excuse for poor screening and being presumptuous. Being an atheist is not synonymous with being rude or being inconsiderate of people's feelings. And while I most certainly accept this person's heartfelt apology and reply, the damage was already done. Yes, this probably was an honest mistake on the behalf of the administrator, but there's always a lesson in our mistakes. In this case: Get a more respectful and accurate way of screening potential members that ALSO protects the feelings of those requesting membership. I rejected the subsequent offer to be in their group because quite frankly, I don't want to be in a group that makes decisions arbitrarily. I don't want to be in a group where I am walking in and am automatically being labeled. I don't want to be part of a group that rejects the people they claim they are there to support. I cannot be part of a group that will not allow me to be in a place where I can gain what I am truly seeking, which is understanding. 

"Grieving While Atheist" is already hard enough, because we don't have the crutch of religion or spirituality to fall back on. We must seek out the community that is inherent in religious groups through their churches, mosques, Kingdom Halls, temples, etc. They have their weekly (or more frequently for some) meetings and worship sessions, where they are generally surrounded by people who believe the same thing as they do. Religious people have a built-in support system. And sometimes we secular folk 
end up with the same rejection from our own "community" as we did when we might have had religious affiliations. With some secularists, there are rigid lines drawn  between what is or is not an acceptable level of disbelief...and then next thing you know, you have some haughty atheist sending you a note implying that you're not atheist enough to sit at their disbelieving-cool-kids-table. Sorry, I'll pass...Thanks, but no thanks. I also think about intention vs. outcome. And although they claim that their intent is to keep members safe, the outcome was that they made me feel further ostracized. I don't fit in with the religious people and I'm not atheist enough to join a support group for grieving atheists. The irony keeps me nice and cynical. George Carlin would be extremely proud of me. 

As someone who has purposely labeled themselves as a Secular Humanist/Agnostic Atheist, I often find myself alone and questioning how to be true to my beliefs while going through customary traditions, like marriage or death. I have had to research and now I am creating my own content that fills this need I have to have a voice and be heard through this process of grieving. There is something troubling about labeling yourself, though...or being labeled unfairly by someone else for that matter. The problem is that now you've put yourself in a box--and there is often an arbitrary checklist that other people create about what it means to be a "Free Thinker". Part of being a Free Thinker to me is my ability to think freely. It has to do with me being able to say:

"I do not believe in the existence of god(s) and the supernatural. As far as what I can know for a certain fact, everything I experience in this world is a process of my body responding to the stimuli around me. I am okay with saying that "I don't know". Not knowing is a perfectly acceptable answer, and generally the most appropriate for most situations, especially when pondering the truth of the nature of our universe. I do understand that while many religious and spiritual claims have very little merit, I am always open to possibilities. Energetic connection after death is unlikely and improbable, but not impossible in terms of the infinite possibilities of the universe. My atheism is not WHO I AM, it's my rejection of a claim. And I am always open to the possibility that there are things in this universe that are far beyond the capabilities of science and human beings to understand at where we are in our evolution as intelligent forms of life."

I can still be atheist and feel my father in my heart. I can still be atheist and call my father my "angel". I can still use poetic and artistic language to describe my experience of missing my father, or my longing to be with him. I can still be atheist and be open to the possibility that there are some things that cannot be explained through modern science that are labeled as "supernatural". Most likely, these things aren't supernatural at all, but simply things that we cannot understand or are not aware of. I can still be an atheist and hear my father's voice speaking to me in my heart--I'm not schizophrenic. I'm cosmically and scientifically bound to my father through genetics. So yes, I do feel him in me because his genes are LITERALLY in me. Me acknowledging this possibility, while retaining my stance of, "I will  only believe something as definitive fact or truth if you can prove it" stance on the nature of the way the world works does not conflict in my mind or heart. Being a Humanist, atheist, or agnostic are not mutually exclusive. That's why in my purposeful self-labeling process, I chose my labels quite carefully. Atheism talks about my rejection of a claim. Agnosticism talks about that I am okay with saying, "I don't know. I might never let's carry on with life". And Humanist speaks to what I believe in and how I choose to live as a matter of ethics and morals.

My father gave me all he could through is life and his legacy lives on within me. Is me hearing him in my head repeats of things he told me in life? Or something new. I don't care and honestly it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter in the same sense that my dad would often say, "Does it matter if Mary was a Virgin or not? Does it even matter if Jesus existed or not? If there is truth in the message of Jesus Christ, there is truth in it. The tiny details don't matter." And my father was correct. It really doesn't matter to some people whether or not these things exist or not. What matters is that you live a life that models integrity and respect and leaves the world a better place than when you entered it. These things are true about my father, religious or not. Spiritual or not, he was still a good man. And one of the things I loved best about him was his unique view of the nature of the world. We spent many nights having soft debates over coffee at 3am about these same topics. I miss those talks. I miss those debates. I miss my daddy.

So how have I been grieving as a Secular Humanist? By writing this blog. By calling my friends. By trying to see the thread that binds us all, that is not supernatural, but 100% natural and beautiful. I will not be joining that group, or any others for now. I need to protect my heart right now. And I know that my father will always be with me and it's no one's place to tell me if I am atheist enough or not, or dictate how I should grieve.

21 Days Left Behind: My Conversation with an Online Secular Support Group for Grief

21 Days Left Behind: A Letter to My Father

Dear Dad,

I was looking through pictures of my wedding that was just eight short months ago and I am overcome with a sense of gratitude and love when I see your face in them. When I first told you that Anthony was "The One", you were apprehensive about it (as any good father would be). A few years later, you grew to love him as your own son.
I never had a vision of what my wedding would be like. All I could think about was you walking me down the aisle and us having our Father-Daughter dance. No, I didn't wear a white dress. I wore a blue peacock-colored one. No, I didn't take out my piercings or cover my tattoos. No, I didn't have a religious ceremony. No matter how progressive my beliefs are, I still wanted you to present me for marriage. In fact, you and my three nephews walked me down the aisle. I wanted my husband to know that before I met him, there were four men in my life whom I will always love. I made you a leather hair wrap, adorned with peacock feathers, to tie your massive dreadlocks into a neat pony tail that dangled to your waist. Dancing with you was, indeed, the best moment of my life. I have never felt more beautiful and you confirmed that by telling me, "You look absolutely gorgeous," before you gave me a kiss on the cheek and prepared to give your baby away.
When Mom asked us to share our honeymoon with our family, I thought she was insane but we took her up on the offer. We spent three days going to Disneyland, Universal Studios, and Medieval Times with our whole tribe, which we affectionately call "The Latimer 10", and two of my best girlfriends. We rode all the rides and stuffed ourselves silly with junk food. Looking back, I wouldn't have had it any other way. Everyone was getting along and life seemed so perfect. And it only got better. Six months later, you had the honor of giving your other daughter, Sonja, away at her quaint wedding in Vegas. She had been with her now-husband for over 15 years. Four children and all those years later, you gave her away with such pride. I remember you telling my sister before you walked her down the aisle how beautiful she looked and then you said, "There is no greater joy than giving both of my girls away."
The best moment of my life was when we danced under the beautiful twinkle lights on that California night. The worst moment of my life was two days after we came back from my sister's wedding when you told me, in the smallest voice I have ever heard you speak in, that the pain in your side you were experiencing at my sister's wedding was not the stomach flu, but pancreatic cancer. How could that be? Weren't we just dancing the night away? Didn't we all get on the rides together and eat delicious foods that were as rich as the love our family has for each other? Weren't we all just in Vegas having breakfast before we parted ways--you and Mom back to Minnesota and my husband and I back to Los Angeles? What happened between June 21st, 2014, my wedding day, and the day my life stopped on December 15th, 2014 when cancer became a household word in our family?
I almost collapsed when you told me and you asked to speak to my husband. You told him to take care of me and to love me. We decided to move back home to Minnesota help the family while you were going to go through chemo. You told us not to come home, but we did anyway. You told me, "Don't disturb your life for me." I reminded you, "Dad, you are my life."
A few days later, I got a call from Mom and my Godfather, your best friend. Your kidneys were failing and the time of your departure was drawing near. We got on a flight that same day. For four days, friends and family flooded your bedside. I never saw you happier than when you were dying. You left us the greatest words of wisdom. Everyone that came was profoundly touched by the transcendent experience of your passing. You told my husband, which you were once apprehensive about bringing into our family, that he was the son you never had and always wanted and that our family was complete now that he was in it. You died on January 4th, 2015 only 21 days after your diagnosis. You were only 63 years old. My world crumbled around me. The dance surely had to end, but why so soon?
2015-03-06-1425615484-238680-lastfamilyphoto.jpgOur Last Family Photo
You are gone in the physical sense but in my heart, we are still dancing the night away under twinkle lights. We are still riding on the back of your motorcycle on the open road. In my heart, you are telling me I am beautiful and I am starting to believe it. I have not stopped crying since you've passed away. I will never forget the gift of your friendship and how you fathered me. I want you to know that our dance will never end and when I return to my essence and we will be united again.

Eternal Love from your Biker Babe,