Gavin Dunbar on Grief, the New Atheism, and understanding our Humanity

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The last decade or so has seen a great resurgence of radical skepticism not only about God - the "new atheism" – but also about Man. It is skepticism updated with reductionist attempts to explain human existence and experience, thought and feeling, in terms of matter alone. The mainstream view trumpeted in the "intelligent" media is that the moral sense, love, and reason are really just survival mechanisms developed in the course of human evolution. The mind is just the tool of a social primate developed in order to give it a competitive edge in procreation. As the effort of 'the selfish gene' to replicate itself, the mind can have no inherent claim on our loyalty. And God is just another construct, one which we would do well to discard. (The self-contradictory nature of such radical skepticism is rarely noticed. If reason is just a construct of the selfish gene, then the claim that reason is just a construct is itself a construct.)

The new atheists proclaim their gospel with the fervour of believers: God is dead, man is free, free from the destructive illusions of religion and morality, of reason and virtue. But then a someone dies, suddenly and cruelly, like the young man known to many in ..[this] parish [in [Eastern Georgia] who was killed in a freakish accident last weekend. And his death casts a pall of grief over his family, his friends, their families, his school, and many others. Yet if he was no more than an arrangement of molecules, a selfish gene struggling to replicate itself, there can be no reason for grief, or for the love that grieves, since these are (we are told) essentially selfish survival mechanisms left over from some earlier stage in hominid evolution. Friendship is just another illusion. But of course we do grieve, even the atheists. And in so grieving, they grieve better than they know (or think they know).

The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others. For to grieve the death of such a young man is implicitly to affirm the reality of the soul. Man is embodied, to be sure; but what is embodied is a soul, capable of memory, reason, and love. To grieve the loss of anyone then is to lament the departure of a unique being, whose mind and heart have touched our lives in spontaneously beautiful and inimitable ways. To grieve is to travel even beyond the lost life of a loved one to the origin and source of the love we have known, and there to register our gratitude. To grieve, therefore, is to affirm that there is a higher source of value than 'the selfish gene' - there is a God, who is absolute truth and goodness, the very possibility of knowledge and love.

To love, to grieve, is to affirm the dignity of man; and to affirm the dignity is to acknowledge gratefully a special instance of God’s creative and lifegiving power expressed in one whose unique nature is gone. When we can no longer grieve, it is not God who dies, but we ourselves.

As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, God "whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts to us in our pains". In our griefs God shouts, ‘the Lord thunders out of heaven’, and his thunder dissolves the attempt to live as if he does not exist. We easily forget him; but he does not forget us, nor does he forsake us; and he permits these pains and griefs to fall upon us that we may turn to him again, and know him truly, not as our enemy but as our friend: as the one who “bears our griefs and carries our sorrows”. Our first need “in all our troubles” is (as the Litany teaches us) “to put our whole trust and confidence in him”. He confronts our grief and bears it, that he might transform sadness to joy, despair to hope, and death to new life. He does this in our souls and minds - a space from which the selfish gene is banished by necessity, and the soul that dies to itself inherits eternal life.

God shouts in our pains; and we awaken from dreams to the fact that he has travelled this way before. “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4) up to and into his Cross. The young man who died, the friend of so many, once – wonderfully! - said, “If we really believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of.” The friend who takes our grief and carries our sorrows confirms his testimony: “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he … said, Behold I make all things new” (Revelation 21:4, 5).

------The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of Saint John's, Savannah, Georgia

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeChurch HistoryParish MinistryDeath / Burial / FuneralsMinistry of the Ordained* TheologyAnthropologyPastoral Theology


Posted March 3, 2012 at 9:40 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



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1. Undergroundpewster wrote:

Excellent.

“To grieve is to travel even beyond the lost life of a loved one to the origin and source of the love we have known, and there to register our gratitude. To grieve, therefore, is to affirm that there is a higher source of value than ‘the selfish gene’ - there is a God, who is absolute truth and goodness, the very possibility of knowledge and love.”

March 3, 1:45 pm | [comment link]
2. sophy0075 wrote:

Our family knew that boy; our daughter went to school with him. He was a great kid. Father Dunbar’s message is a great comfort.

March 3, 4:09 pm | [comment link]
3. Hugo Guzman wrote:

I’m not sure if you realize this, but every time that you willfully spread misinformation about what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be an atheist you’re doing your faith a disservice. What you don’t realize is that articles like this are often the straws that break the proverbial camel’s back (e.g. help believers make the final, decisive leap to abandon their faith). I see it happen on an almost daily basis, so in a way I thank you for this maddeningly inaccurate portrayal of atheism and atheist individuals.

Atheists can and do grieve, can and do behave morally, can and do understand the true meaning and value of humanity.

P.S. If anyone’s interested in a more balanced viewpoint on what it means to be a grieving atheist just Google “grief without god” or check out this link for starters:
http://i.imgur.com/xs7VR.jpg

Or, just talk to some atheists instead of getting your information second-hand. We don’t bite, or eat babies, or worship Satan. And who knows, you might just learn something new and come away with a different perspective.

June 7, 9:05 am | [comment link]
4. Phaid wrote:

Like Mr. Guzman, I too find it sad that you spread disinformation regarding who atheists really are. I would hazard a guess you have either 1) never met an atheist or, 2) have never sat down and had an in-depth conversation with one. What I find particularly troubling with your article is your comment that The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason is the same as it is for any other human, albeit Christian, Jew, Muslim, Daoist, Hindu or Buddhist. I suppose the comment could be made that there is no good reason why a Christian grieves, believing as they do in an afterlife of eternal bliss. The death of a loved one should, in that construct, be a time for celebration and not grief.  But, such an argument would be as cold, heartless, unthinking and uncaring as the one posited by you.

My sincerest condolences go out to the family who tragically lost the young man of whom you refer. Just as my condolences went out to a family I know (atheist family) of a young girl whose life was taken by a reckless motorist.  Grief, and the reasons for it, are universal to all humans, and not just the monopoly of one particular group, no matter the belief system.

June 7, 4:34 pm | [comment link]
5. Jeffrey Olsson wrote:

I spent more than a few years in ministry in Northern Manitoba and in Winnipeg, where I was an Anglican Clergyman in the diocese of Keewatin and Rupertsland. I grew tired of listening to diocesan colleagues “blame” victims for having been abused, and for watching them butcher logic like you have in this message. Someone needs to say it: You are dead wrong about atheists. Demonizing them and building a “straw man” argument about those who choose not to believe in the Christian faith is cheap and short sighted. I recently watched your message get passed around Facebook where people commented on it. Virtually everyone that read it sees through the facade, and called it for what it is. Bigoted and mean. Non beleivers are just as capable of mourning as you are.  They love their children just like you do and they cry when someone they love dies. We all do that, every human being does that. I left the faith because of people saying and doing things just like you. It sickens me to think that you that little effort into a message, and still people see you as someone to be consulted.

June 9, 9:25 am | [comment link]
6. Flamingo wrote:

“God is dead, man is free, free from the destructive illusions of religion” - You’d have been right if you’d have stopped right there.  But you didn’t.  You obviously are woefully ignorant about atheism.  Atheism - a disbelief in the existence of deity.  That’s it, that’s all atheism is.  There’s no mention of “morality and virtue” and as for “reason”, well, reason is why we’re atheists.  We’re not only capable of thinking but we do and use our reason to determine that god is a non-existent construct used to explain unexplainable natural phenomena in the centuries before science and to make people feel better about what they have no control over, such as death.  “Oh, it’s ok because she’s in a better place, I’ll see her when I’m dead, we’ll be together forever.”

This is a phenomenally ignorant screed but I’m sure someone will believe it.

June 29, 8:26 am | [comment link]
7. Ambidexter wrote:

As an atheist I’m used to theists sneering at me, threatening me with Hell, and accusing me of various things ranging from Satan worship to being sexually abused as a child to being angry at various gods.  But rarely has my humanity been questioned.  Mr. Dunbar claims that I, like every other atheist, am “free from the destructive illusions of religion and morality, of reason and virtue.”  I will grant that I am free of religion, but I’d like to know where Mr. Dunbar gets the idea that I reject morality, reason and virtue.

I have a moral system based on altruism and the Golden Rule.  I don’t steal, rape, assault, or kill people because I don’t want those things to happen to me.  What’s more, I pre-emptively don’t do these things or anything else generally considered immoral.  I think that’s a better basis for morality than “I have to be moral or else God will spank my bottom forever” or even “I’m moral because that’s pleasing to God.”  A child is good for fear of punishment or for hope of reward from its parents.  An adult is good because that’s how adults are supposed to behave.  So I reject Mr. Dunbar’s accusation that I’ve discarded morality.

All too often when I’m discussing the evidence for belief in gods, the theist retreats to “I don’t have any epistemological evidence for my beliefs, I just believe.”  Faith is considered a virtue by theists.  Sorry, Mr. Dunbar, but theists are the ones most likely to reject reason, not atheists.

Virtue is similar to morality.  I try to be virtuous because that’s the proper, correct, mature thing to be.  Besides, virtue is rather malleable.  What may be virtuous to one person may not be to another.

All I can tell from Mr. Dunbar’s screed is that he dislikes atheists.  Perhaps if he talked to some of us, we might be able to shift his prejudices enough that he’d stop denying us basic humanity.

June 29, 5:53 pm | [comment link]
8. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#7 Ambidexter

As an atheist I’m used to theists sneering at me, threatening me with Hell, and accusing me of various things

I am sorry, that shouldn’t have happened

I think that’s a better basis for morality than “I have to be moral or else God will spank my bottom forever” or even “I’m moral because that’s pleasing to God.”  A child is good for fear of punishment or for hope of reward from its parents.

Well, I suppose those could be motivations for a Christian, but I suppose there might be another motivation: that of a deep and profound love so that that morality becomes part of who one is and part of a deep longing placed in one’s heart, so that in serving one is served, and in giving, one receives.

June 29, 10:06 pm | [comment link]
9. MaryLynne7 wrote:

You sound like a kind man, but I don’t think you realize how incredibly hurtful this column is in so many ways.  To say that I, as an atheist, do not or could not grieve because I don’t believe in a soul is, first of all, profoundly wrong - we do, in fact, grieve. 

Second, I find that I can grieve more deeply and honestly now than I did when I was a person of faith.  When my mother and stepmother died, my deep pain, anger and sadness was diverted and complicated by the religious messages I received to subvert those normal human emotions.  Somehow I was supposed to be grateful to a merciful God for ending their suffering from lung cancer and taking them to Heaven?  Without being angry at him for giving both of them lung cancer in the first place?

When I lost my father-in-law more recently, I could feel what I felt - pain, anger, sadness, regret.  I could miss him, know he lived on in our memories and the family and good deeds he left, and be angry and sad without feeling I wasn’t “trusting God” by my anger that a good man died too young.  I grieve more deeply because I know this one life and consciousness is a precious gift and there is not one more moment of awareness for any of us any time in eternity after death. 

If anything, why do you grieve?  Death is not final.  You will see your loved ones again.  The Christian cannot give any reason why he grieves.  Except, of course, that you can.  You feel the loss of those you care about, as do those without faith. 

I read your column as saying that you don’t see how YOU could survive grief without God,  Do you understand now that does not mean that those without God do not grieve?

MaryLynne
Ohio

June 30, 9:35 am | [comment link]
10. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#9 Hi MaryLynne7
Far be it for me to be an apologist for the Rev Gavin Dunbar, but I don’t read him as saying that Atheists do not grieve nor that Christians should not.  I think he is extrapolating logically from the view that goes back to BF Skinner and the Behaviourists [rather than secular humanists] that

The mainstream view trumpeted in the “intelligent” media is that the moral sense, love, and reason are really just survival mechanisms developed in the course of human evolution. The mind is just the tool of a social primate developed in order to give it a competitive edge in procreation. As the effort of ‘the selfish gene’ to replicate itself, the mind can have no inherent claim on our loyalty.

Skinner’s view which I suspect many Atheists would not go along with is that we are pre-programed for survival and therefore that can at its most extreme lead to the idea that denial of liberty is not a problem because we have no real choice anyway.  His ideas were latched onto by people to argue for eugenics in a less kind age, but they pop up from time to time in different guises.

There are certainly humanist arguments which would reject Skinner and those who argue from him, for a non-deity based morality and many of the French rationalists took this line.

Everybody grieves, Christian or atheist, and whether you believe in the afterlife or not, the absence of someone you care about hurts, and it is good that it does, because it gives us empathy with others who grieve and that is why we are all so outraged by murder or genocide.

For the Christian though, that faith does make a difference, which I would find it hard to explain except for what it means to me:
1. You do consider all human life precious, the unborn, the disabled and the elderly because of its relationship to God and the capacity for it to have a relationship such as you yourself may have found.
2. I was sitting at my desk some years ago thinking about my own elderly dad and what I would feel when he goes.  The idea popped into my head ‘what would you feel like if you didn’t have your heavenly father?’.  I would call it one of what I feel are ‘God moments’ when I realised that I had a father who would never leave me, never die and always be there and I was just overwhelmed.

Now that is not to say that you also do not find comfort in a different way, staring at life without religion.  Grief takes its course and we care to lose others whether we believe we will see them again or not.  I don’t think one forgets, but perhaps over time, one minds less.  That is also how grief seems to work.

I am sorry to hear about your losses.

June 30, 10:16 am | [comment link]
11. Ian Rennie wrote:

“The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others”

I’m sorry, but this is simply untrue.

I grieve because I miss those who have died.  I grieve because they are gone forever and I will never see them again.  If anything, I have more reason to grieve than someone who believes they will see their loved ones again.

Even if “love, and reason are really just survival mechanisms developed in the course of human evolution”, that doesn’t stop them being real.  I only appreciate art because I have evolved to be very good at pattern recognition.  I only find food tasty because of electrical impulses going from my tongue to my brain.  That doesn’t stop me thinking that Guernica is moving, or that a perfectly seasoned steak is delicious.

Understanding the processes behind emotion does not lessen emotion.  Rather, it allows a fuller understanding of what we feel, and with that fuller understanding, we may achieve greater wisdom.  Accepting that the world we see is the world there is does not diminish my feelings.  To suggest that it does demonstrates a lack of understanding of the position of atheists.

June 30, 12:20 pm | [comment link]
12. MaryLynne7 wrote:

10 - Pagentmaster -

Thank you, I appreciate your effort.  I do understand where he is coming from - the Skinnerian, nihilism view that he describes is a common misconception that people of no faith deal with.  But - do you see that he is wrong?  I am active in the atheist community and I know of no one who doesn’t care about others, isn’t moved by art, who doesn’t value moral sense and love just because we believe it came from brain chemistry and evolution-shaped behavior instead of from a deity.  I am in awe of how amazing the human brain is, I am profoundly aware of the privilege of being a consciousness aware on the planet right now, and I was moved to tears by the sight of the Grand Canyon.  Have you ever met anyone of no faith who is as he describes?  Do you think he has? 

You know, not even behavioral psychologists are strictly Skinnerian anymore.  Has he read any recent brain research?  Yes, we are finding that more and more of who we think we are is shaped by chemistry, electrical impulses, genetics and early experiences, but that does not negate our experience of who we are. 

Regarding your more personal notes:  I do understand.  I remember.  I was a person of strong faith.  I remember the comfort of knowing someone was watching, that there were reasons for everything that happened, whether I knew it or not. 
1. I also value life.  This is it, all we get.  No practice, no re-do.  I value it because of that.  There are an infinite number of people who never got to be born at all - we are it, the choosen few to be alive.  What a shame it would be to not appreciate it and use the opportunity to learn all we can and make the world a better place.
2. “There is some omnipotent deity who is watching us and either causes or allows bad things to happen - and that’s supposed to be comforting???  I’m way more comforted by the idea that the universe doesn’t care about us and everything is random.”  Yes, God was comforting in my distress, but once I started asking questions, it wasn’t really a choice - I couldn’t be comforted by something that did not seem to be true.  I’ve typed and erased a dozen times here - blog comments are pretty much the worst way to explain or hash out important ideas.  It was hard losing faith - I saw my belief in God slipping away and didn’t know what would be left.  It looked empty.  But I’ve found that dealing with the truth I’ve found, based on the evidence for some ideas and lack of evidence for others, is very comforting.  We are gone after death, except in what we’ve left behind.  I keep my loved ones alive through memory and through being a good person in honor of who they’ve been in my life. 

I don’t fear my own death.  My consciousness dies with my brain.  As Mark Twain said, I was not inconvenienced before I was born and don’t expect to be after I die.  All there is is to make the most of it while we are here.

June 30, 4:51 pm | [comment link]
13. Ambidexter wrote:

The thing that annoys me most about Mr. Dunbar’s essay is that he ascribes certain beliefs and views to atheists which neither I nor any atheist I’ve ever encountered accept.  Contrary to his preconceptions, atheists are not nihilists.  We have hopes, dreams and desires.  We love others.  We get satisfaction from achievements and suffer disappointment from failures.  In short, we’re just like everyone else except we don’t believe in The Big Guy In The Sky.

As MaryLynne7 said in #12, most of us were believers.  I went to 12 years of Catholic grade school and high school.  I know Aquinas’s proofs of God and how they rely on logical fallacies like special pleading and presupposition.*  I know how St. Juvenal of Jerusalem invented the Assumption of Mary to keep the Byzantine Emperor happy.  I’m familiar with Christian theology in general and Roman Catholic theology in particular.  I also understand how comforting many theists, particularly of the Abrahamist religions, find the idea of TBGITS.  I read a lot, talked to many people, and even prayed before I came to the conclusion that atheism was the only tenable belief regarding gods.

So I do understand many reasons why theists believe in TBGITS.  I shared those beliefs for years.  Unfortunately Mr. Dunbar does not understand why atheists don’t believe in TBGITS.  If he did understand the reasons for our atheism, then he wouldn’t toss some quite insulting allegations at atheists.

*Thomism has become popular with certain philosophers trying to rehabilitate it.  Keith Ward merely refines Aquinas’s presuppositions and indulges in a bit of handwaving.  Edward Feser explains quite concisely how many people misinterpret Aquinas but doesn’t actually show how Aquinas is right.  Feser accepts Aquinas’s arguments as essentially axiomatic.

June 30, 7:01 pm | [comment link]
14. Flamingo wrote:

It would be nice if Rev Dunbar would actually speak to some atheists before making pronouncements about things he obviously knows nothing about.  I, too, was a Christian at one time.  Questioning and reading the bible took care of that.  I realize it’s very comforting to say that, “Everything happens for a reason.”  It appears to give meaning to random, meaningless events.  I recently was planning to buy a house when the deal fell through 2 days before closing.  I was very disappointed and many people said to me, “It just wasn’t meant to be.  There’s a better house out there waiting for you.  You weren’t meant to move right now.”  Etc., etc.  Really.  All that happened is the deal fell through.  Period.  There wasn’t a sky god who found me a better house that she wanted me to buy instead and so made the buyers lie about the house from day one.  How absurd.  But it made people feel better to say it and it makes people feel better all the time to believe it.  “I’m disappointed now, but god has a plan bigger than my plans.  It’ll all be better later.”  It’s comforting but it’s not reality.  It’s hiding in a mythological world and believing in a fairy tale to make yourself feel better.

July 1, 7:30 pm | [comment link]
15. Smaug wrote:

The problem with this piece is not that the writer claims atheists don’t grieve—he explicitly says that they do.  The biggest problem with this piece is that the writer didn’t sufficiently take into account the almost bottomless capacity for people to misunderstand a point and read things into a comment which aren’t there.  And there’s one other problem that I’ll save for the end.

Rev Dunbar is making a debatable philosophical assertion—he explicitly (it’s right there) says that atheists can and do grieve and do respect the grief of others, but he claims that the logical implications of atheism lead to nihilism.  Sorry, people, but that’s not a personal insult, any more than it is a personal insult to claim that the logical implications of the doctrine of hell would lead one to endorse the persecution of heretics.  A person making such a claim is not insulting modern day believers in the doctrine of hell if he acknowledges that in fact they don’t advocate religious persecution—he is making a (debatable) point about the logical implications one of their doctrines.

In all seriousness, Rev Dunbar should take into account the fact that people love to read their ideological or religious opponents in the most uncharitable way possible.  All you can do in the face of willful or emotional misreadings is emphasize about fifteen or twenty times that yes, atheists do grieve, do feel compassion, are decent human beings, are as good and often better than Christians, and throw a few other points like that into the mix before making the claim that their behavior is better than their belief system.  (Incidentally, I should probably make it clear about fifteen or twenty times that I don’t endorse this argument—it’s a longstanding philosophical problem, the basis of morality, and you can’t solve it in a few paragraphs, if you can solve it at all.)  Even after that you can still guarantee that some will willfully misunderstand.

July 2, 8:15 am | [comment link]
16. icecreamassassin wrote:

Smaug -

“The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others. For to grieve the death of such a young man is implicitly to affirm the reality of the soul.”

I’m not sure I’m misunderstanding Rev. Dunbar’s point - either I actually believe in the existence of a soul and am willfully denying it, or I do not actually have the capacity for grief.  Rev. Dunbar’s proclamation of an implicit affirmation of the existence of the soul simply does not follow.

However, where I think you are confused is where the insult is being felt.  It’s simply kind of insulting for someone to say “the problem with the atheist position is that they believe that <bunch of things that many atheists do not believe>.”  That’s all really.  I’m not really insulted with his argument per se…it would be about as useful or meaningful for me to say that I was ‘insulted’ by the wrong answer on a math test.  It just looks like (certainly to me) that he is arguing against strawman positions that the majority of atheists simply do not hold (I’m aware that I’m making an assumption here with the word ‘majority’, but my personal experience seems to bear it out as true).

Also, not really to your point Smaug but really just a general comment:
“To grieve the loss of anyone then is to lament the departure of a unique being.”
This simply doesn’t make sense to me.  I grieve not because of the ‘departure’ of a unique being, but because of the ‘loss’ of a unique being.  That unique being is gone and thus I mourn for that loss.  I’m not sure where ‘soul’ fits in to this equation.  Frankly, if there *were* a soul, and feel less inclined to grieve - after all, that unique being hasn’t been completely lost - s/he still exists, feels, loves, laughs, etc.  My grief, in that case, would primarily be me missing their presence in my life but not a grief in the fact that existence has lost a unique being.

July 2, 1:15 pm | [comment link]
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