That said, and having embraced this distinctly minority position, my ears perk up when I hear of others in my tribe. I've heard tell of a few atheists talk about how it gets hard to hold onto disbelief when confronting death. You know how they say there are no atheists in foxholes? Well, there are probably no foxholes anymore, but I bet when there were, they housed an atheist or two. I'm calling bullshit on that cliche.
For me, death isn't the problem. I like Roger Ebert's position on it, quoted(ish) from memory: "I was perfectly content before I came into this world and I expect to be perfectly content when I leave it." I think this is such a sensible way to approach death.
For me, my atheism gets hard because sometimes I dearly want to say to someone "I'm praying for you." When horrible things happen to people I love, when they're going through something awful, I'd like to be able to say, "I'm praying for you," since that feels proactive. Shit, I want to pray for people. I want to feel like I have some control over the terrible thing that is happening.
I was brought up, you see, churched. And not bad-churched. There was not bad touching. No nun ever beat me. My mother never told me I was making Jesus cry. I was brought up good-churched, loving churched. I was brought up to do the sign of the cross when an ambulance passed as natural as saying "Godblessyou" when someone sneezed. And, as a child, I believed that my sign of the cross meant that the person in that ambulance wouldn't die.
And then as I got older, my sign of the cross grew less miraculous. It became respectful acknowledgment of the potential seriousness of the situation; an outward sign that I did not want whatever poor soul was in that ambulance to die.
And then I got older still, and I recognized that sign of the cross as superstition. As much superstition as throwing salt over my shoulder when I knocked over the salt cellar. But less silly. More like knocking wood. Knocking wood is a valuable superstition; it's good to be aware of your hubris. It's good to want that person in the ambulance to live.
I think for a lot of people "I'm praying for you" is a lot like that sign of the cross - but more personal. And it means much the same as "I'm thinking of you." It's a comfort when you're going through terrible things to know that people love you, care about you. I've gone through no great tragedies beyond those that a woman my age would reasonably expect to, yet even those tragedies were alleviated with the knowledge that people loved me and genuinely, desperately wanted to alleviate my suffering even though they knew they couldn't. Suffering is lonely work. Knowing that people care helps a bit.
We are all of us, believers and atheists alike, helpless to the gods or fate or nature or whatever. I imagine prayful people might even tell me that that's the point.
Sufjan Stevens has this wonderful song "Casmir Pulaski Day" that he wrote about a friend who died of bone cancer. It's the saddest song I've ever heard and makes me cry every time I hear it. It touches me even though that song is steeped in his Christian faith; a faith I have rejected. At the end it goes:
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window
All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes
I don't believe in god. I don't believe that a man called Jesus walked the earth and then died for my sins and then rose again. But I also believe that all stories are true. And he takes and he takes and he takes ... I get that. All these stories are true.