A while back, I spent a weekend terrified that a very dear friend and former co-worker was in the process of dying. I mean, if you take a long enough view, we're all in the process of dying, but in this instance, I believed that this particular friend was likely to be dead within hours. I spent much of that weekend crying.
Because I have always been a writer, I process most feelings by writing about them. Back in my twenties, I was often so disconnected from my feelings that I sometimes didn't even know how I felt until I sat down and wrote in a journal. For me, all powerful emotions are motivations to write, and my intense grief led me to spend much of that weekend writing my own private eulogies for my friend in my head. As I wrote and revised while walking around the house aimlessly, I kept hitting a barrier. I would imagine posting about the loss of my friend on social media or even just telling close friends about what happened, and I would hear the clichés that often come automatically without thought. One in particular kept sticking in my head, and it made me angry every time: "He's in a better place now."
Based on multiple intensely philosophical discussions, my friend is an atheist. He and I have had entire conversations about Christopher Hitchens, one of his favorite writers among the "new atheists." We've talked about how both of us have fallen away from organized religion. It angered me to think that people would disrespect the memory of my friend by not respecting his...beliefs? Lack of beliefs? I kept thinking about how people often euphemistically describe atheists as "non-believers," and it just made me all the angrier. After all, my friend believes in a great many things. He believes in humans helping other humans. He believes we should be kind to each other. He believes in rationality and science. Why must we reduce a complex and beautiful worldview down to a term concerned chiefly with what it is not?
We are all of us both believers and non-believers, depending on your frame of reference. Southern Baptists believe in a divine Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In addition, they believe in other spiritual entities that they don't consider deity like Satan and angels. However, they do not believe in Krishna. Muslims believe in a monotheistic God with prophets that should be respected and revered. However, they don't believe in Odin and his eight-legged steed Sleipnir. I believe in a beautifully interconnected universe and the wisdom of nature. I don't believe any group has a monopoly on truth or goodness. To broadly group all theists as "believers" while describing everyone else as "non-believers" is ultimately a contrived and tortured categorization.
My friend ended up getting out of that hospital. He's still very sick, of course, but I was thankful that I got a chance to sit and talk with him again. He expressed gratitude as well, not to a divine and transcendent God but rather to his friends who had reached out to his family to support them while he was in the hospital. I promise you that neither he nor I were any less grateful than the most pious of "believers." The human experience is more universal, I think, than our limited categories allow us to see.