An Atheist at a Christian Funeral

My blogging break has been longer than I expected, due to various factors. I’m preparing this weekend to present a paper on the Baron d’Holbach, a famous eighteenth-century atheist, at the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Once I’m back from the conference I plan to write some posts about books I have read recently, including Ara Norenzayan’s recently published Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict and Ken Macleod’s SF novel The Night Sessions. In the meantime, here is a post of a more personal nature.

Last week, I attended the funeral for my husband’s grandmother. A few minutes before the chapel service began, my husband’s aunt asked him and his brother if they would like to give a reading. They were uncomfortable with this, so I said I would do it if no one else wanted to. I hadn’t really thought about what I might be reading, which turned out to be a passage from the first Letter of John (1 John 3:1-2).

You might expect that I would have a problem with reading a biblical passage at a funeral. I don’t believe that the Bible is the word of the Lord, and I don’t participate in any other elements of religious services (except for the shaking of hands, which I treat as an act of general goodwill). I know that for some atheists, being asked to read a biblical passage would present an ethical dilemma. Was it okay for me, an atheist, to read a biblical passage at a funeral? Was it a betrayal of my atheism to do so? Or disrespectful to the believers at the service?

Let’s take the disrespect issue first. I didn’t ask any of the family members what they thought — there really wasn’t time — but I felt that it would have been hurtful and insulting to renege on my offer to read. I needed to read the chosen words as if they had meaning, despite my own feelings about them, because they did in fact have meaning for several people at the service. I kept my mouth steadfastly shut about my atheism and did my best to read as if I were a believer. Did my atheism somehow demean the reading? Saint Augustine of Hippo argued that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the worthiness of the minister; in other words, the power of the sacrament depends on the grace of Jesus Christ, not on the human agent who administers it. My Augustinian interpretation of the relationship between scripture and the person reading it is that, for a believer, the word of the Lord remains the word of the Lord no matter who is speaking it. A mere human can’t diminish it, so my atheism did not have an impact on the reading.

As for the question of whether I betrayed my atheism by reading scripture at a service, I guess I just don’t see this as a real issue. I chose freely to do the reading, to honour the need of a grieving relative for whom the words were comforting. What mattered more than my non-belief was the ability to speak with composure in front of a chapel full of mourners. Also, since religious texts are just texts, not magical spells or poison (pace Christopher Hitchens), I didn’t suffer any harm from the reading.

In fact, I enjoyed it; I hadn’t given a scriptural reading since junior high school, when I was still a Catholic kid, and I liked having a text to think about while I listened to the service. I also liked being able to do something for my relatives. I don’t know my husband’s extended family very well, so this moment became an opportunity to forge a bond with them. Far from being a sacrifice or burden, reading scripture for them felt like a gift.


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