01/07/2013 04:59 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

Among Atheists, Talk Of Death

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I've been thinking a lot lately about the "nones" -- the one in five Americans who answer "none of the above" when asked about religion on surveys -- and how this growing segment of America's population approaches the end of life.

Most nones have some kind of belief in God, spirituality or a higher power without attributing it to a specific religion, but unlike followers of many religions, they don't always have a concrete belief in the afterlife. And among the nones, the increasing number of atheists by definition don't believe in a spiritual existence after death.

But of all of the deaths the nation has experienced in the last year -- including but not limited to the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. -- the public conversation about suffering and mourning has often been couched in the language of faith.

In "The Blessings of Atheism," a New York Times opinion piece that ran this weekend, atheist author Susan Jacoby took issue with the "endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated" by murders, such as in Newtown. "Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life," she wrote.

But Jacoby in part blamed atheists, who have made strides in political battles over issues such as the separation of church and state and keeping religion out of public institutions, for having such a limited voice when it comes to death.

"This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans ... do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers ... the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot."

In conversations with atheists, I've found that despite the lack of secular institutions and the loud voice Jacoby mentions, there's a broad need for atheists who can talk about death, console the grieving and oversee funerals and burials.

"My opinion is that memorial services and funerals are for the living. It's an important part of the grieving process for family and friends to have a way of memorializing the person. I think it's cheating your friends and relatives to not allow something like that," says Reba Boyd Wooden, the executive director of the Center for Inquiry Indiana and the co-director for the organization's national secular celebrant program.

Wooden, who also performs weddings for atheists, began training secular celebrants three years ago and says the demand for non-religious funerals and conversations about death has slowly but steadily increased. Like religious funerals, the gatherings often include readings and shared memories of lost loved ones, but no prayer. "For secular people our afterlife is the way we lived, the contribution we made to society, our influence on other people," Wooden says.

"There is very little to sugarcoat about death for the nonbeliever ... there is nothing personally comforting about our own existences' end, nor that of our loved ones," says Paul Fidalgo, who lives in Portland, Maine, and works on communications for CFI. Fidalgo believes the topic of death among atheists has been little explored outside secular circles. Death "is simply a fact that we must accept, and in all but the most dire and exceptional cases, struggle against," he says.

Jesse Galef, communications director of the Secular Student Alliance, told me death is a topic that regularly is discussed among the organization's members. The group has encouraged chapters to tackle the topic at meetings and has prepared a list of questions for them to discuss.

Here are some recent stories I've been reading at about death and nonbelievers:

  • One recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that reminders of death in peoples' lives made them more religious. The results applied among Christians, Muslims and agnostics, but not among atheists.

Are you an atheist, a nonbeliever, secular humanist or count yourself among the "nones"? How has the conversation about death come up in your life? What are you reading about the topic?