Ask Richard: Atheist Asked to Give Religious Reading at a Funeral January 13, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Asked to Give Religious Reading at a Funeral

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

By the time this is answered, it will be a moot point because the funeral is tomorrow but I thought I would ask. My young cousin died very unexpectedly and our family is having a Catholic ceremony for her. I am an atheist and while this is known to my immediate family and probably to a good portion of my extended family, I am not sure that my aunt knows it. This is important because she asked me to do one of the readings at the funeral. Wanting to be supportive, I said yes. One of my other cousins who is also an atheist is doing the other reading. When I first said yes, I had very few misgivings because I was doing it more for my aunt and family than for me. However, I wonder more and more whether I should have opted out. I worry my aunt or other people may find out about my atheism and resent that I did not decline the offer. Additionally, I worry that I may be compromising my beliefs by actively participating in something I don’t believe in.

I will still end up doing it because I want to make this funeral as easy as possible on my aunt and but I do wonder whether it would have been better for everyone if I had politely declined.

Besides my grandpa, whose funeral was not religious and whose death was not surprising, this is the only other funeral I have been to, much less participated in, so I am very new to how to handle any of this.

Note: I would like to point out that I do not hide my atheism and that most people know I am one. It is just something that I have never blatantly declared at family gatherings though I have argued against religion plenty of times.

Thanks for your time.

Dear Amber,

I admire what you have done for your aunt and your family. They are lucky to have you as a family member. You are both conscientious and compassionate, which is what gave you this feeling of having a conflict. Such conflicts happen to people of high character.

I assume that your aunt is your deceased young cousin’s mother. If so, that means that she is in severe grief, and since it was unexpected, she’s in shock as well. She has serious pain, and she needs plenty of support and comfort. In a state like this, every task can be magnified to the level of overwhelming. She needs things to go smoothly and easily.

I don’t think you need to worry about compromising any belief of yours by actively participating in this. You’re following a principle that I think we too often neglect in favor of other concerns:

Compassion and loving kindness.

When trying to decide what is the right thing to do, people seem to follow a handful of principles or values, even if they aren’t very conscious of them. I have seen five principles to be very commonly featured in their inner deliberations:

Respect and Respectful Treatment
Compassion and Loving Kindness
Honesty and Truthfulness
Fairness and Equality
Promoting and Permitting Freedom

These have no order or rank. Any one will be an obvious element in a given situation, but life constantly puts us into predicaments where following one of those principles means going against another. Then we have to use our judgment to decide which one to favor over the other. People may have their general preferences, but it is never a good idea to mechanically follow the same one principle in all situations. Each decision should be made keeping in mind the effect our actions will have on others, not just always being “true to our selves” in a self-centered way. We should weigh the needs of others as well as our own. The balance is found in a different place almost every time.

For instance, you could have applied honesty and truthfulness, and told your aunt that you would not be able to do the reading. That might serve your personal sense of propriety, but you also considered the effect that your action would have on her while she is in this very vulnerable and needy state. So you chose to let compassion and loving kindness guide you in this particular situation. In my opinion your judgment call was sound. You decided that the benefit to her was far greater than the small sacrifice of your intellectual comfort for a few minutes’ worth of reading.

In some other situation, being kind might have to take the back seat to honesty. Every one of these principles can be pitted against one or more of the others in the sticky, prickly circumstances through which we must daily pick our way. We try to use our best judgment, often with insufficient information, and often when there are no painless solutions, and we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.

This is not easy, simple or “fair” in the way that a child might use the word. Life ain’t fair. We try our best to do the right thing, and we still get our lumps. Keep trying anyway. Cookie cutter, mechanical, unchanging responses to life problems prescribed by moral systems claiming absolute authority from a superhuman source are for childish minds that cannot handle the ambiguities and complicated dilemmas of real life. Real adults have to use their judgment, freshly reconsidered every single time.

I don’t think it’s likely that your aunt or others will be resentful if they learn that you don’t believe what you had read at the service. Being willing to do that says a great deal about how much you care about her and the others in their grief. If anyone questions you about it, just calmly say that all that mattered to you was doing what she and other people needed for comfort and solace, and that’s all that should matter to anyone in this circumstance. The fact that you don’t believe the words you had read neither subtracted from nor added to any power of those words. That is entirely up to the listeners.

I hope you recited the passages with a tone of passion and conviction. It was for those who wanted to hear it, not for you. I hope it helped them to begin their healing. Your healing, as a human-centered person, was helped by your willingness to do what it took to soothe them in their pain.

My heartfelt condolences to you, your aunt, and all of your family.

Here is a related post about how to relate to religious people in times of grief. As one of two atheists in a Catholic family, you might find it helpful.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Mihangel apYrs

    For what it’s worth, as a man of 57, theoretically agnostic, practically atheist I’ve been to christeneings (once as godfather), weddings, and funerals. I’ve sung the hymns and cried during religious music, and it doesn’t touch my integrity.

    I do these things because it makes people happy or eases their pain, and I do it unbegrudgedly as a gift of love or friendship. If you don’t believe it means as much as “abracadabra”, but I would say the Lord’s prayer for someone dying if they needed it, for them.

    I will have a secular funeral and expect my religious friends to accept that (though they can pray if it makes them feel better.

    These are rituals,and are done for ritualistic reasons. Some take the words in their meaning, for others the words and music set the scene for an end to that event.

    Don’t worry for doing the humane thing

  • I can’t think of anything to add to another wonderfully insightful and compassionate post from Richard. But I do want to offer my condolences to Amber- I’m so sorry that you’ve lost a loved one so young and unexpectedly, and I wish you the best in getting through this and in supporting your family in this time as well.

  • Tori

    Wonderful response, well said, with sensitivity and compassion. I’m really enjoying your blog, thank you!

  • Lynet

    I do like reading your responses, Richard. I’ve been wondering recently if I’m too blunt, and sort of floundering about what I’ll do about it if I am. Your list of principles gives me a set of things I might sometimes value more than indiscriminately saying what I think, so if I do decide I need to change, I can value respect or loving kindness more, rather than valuing honesty less.

  • AWayfaringStrainer

    I think Richard’s response is a good way to frame the issue. I once found myself in the same situation and agreed to read a bible passage at the request of the widow. She later asked if that was all right, as she remembered about my lack of beleif. I said it was no problem and that I was glad to help out. As Mihangel stated above, it all just ritual.

    At the same time, it helped that the passage, as I recall, was rather generic. If they asked me to lead the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I either would have said no or felt very guilty while doing it. Reading the generic, ritual passage, helped my friend in a very difficult time and I was happy to participate, in the same way that I would have read poem that she picked out, regardless of whether I liked the poem or not.

  • Bob

    I have been asked to read at memorials before, not necessarily because I have a particularly strong faith, but because I am gifted with a good speaking voice.

    When I read the selection the family and the pastor (settled upon by an Episcopal mother, Buddhist daughter – who holds some strong opinions about evangelical Christianity, and Agnostic daughter), I was not there to preach the gospel or read from the Bible.

    I was there to speak to my mother-in-law; that’s where I put my focus. The voice follows the body, and my words came out well. (The pastor later remarked that I have a calling, something I get told by evangelicals an awful lot.)

    The words are unimportant for such moments; it’s the emotion and comfort you put into your voice when you speak them, I think.

  • Amber,

    Hypothetically, it would be nice if you had the latitude to be able to choose what passage from the bible you read. I’m sure there are lots of passages friendly to a humanistic perspective in there. Although, with the stress of a funeral, it might not be appropriate to push back on something like that. Sometimes you just have to be a good trooper and do and say whatever the family needs you to do and say in times like this. I wouldn’t worry about others viewing you as being disingenuous. If they were worried about that, they could have given you a passage from the bible not filled with supernatural overtones.

  • Defiantnonbeliever

    Amber, I’m sorry for your loss and that of your relatives.

    I’ve avoided attending services that were likely to have any woo. At others I’ve simply sat or stood silent and offered my personal condolences for people’s loss. There’s no way I could bring myself to read from any religious text with anything but contempt let alone one chosen for me, so I would beg off somehow. It would be hard enough for me to celebrate a life lost and write even the briefest woo free eulogy. I hate to not be there to show appreciation of a life, on the other hand participating in rituals of woo, to me show less respect and appreciation. Deaths are hard enough to face without the traditional imposition of loathed woo.

  • Kristi

    You can make it spiritual without making it ‘religious’. There are thousands of words you can find to comfort, they don’t have to be from the Bible.

  • Kristi

    I should have added.. there really are a lot of touching scriptures in the bible as well. Reading them for the comfort of others, in my opinion, would not jeopardize your integrity all. In fact, I think it would show even more integrity to do this ~ for your family. Think about this, most Christians would never partake in the rituals of other religions, no matter for the sake of whatever. Most plainly will not do it, and here you are concerned over it. This is showing how tolerant of other beliefs you really are, and this is exactly the kind of example people need of atheists.

  • If the young cousin’s favourite poem was the “Owl and the Pussycat” (not that that would be allowed at a Catholic funeral) and you volunteered to read it out – there wouldn’t be a problem.

    They’re just words.

    And to be fair the bible’s not all crap – a lot of it is actually just poetry.

  • M. Huang

    My question is, in what ways can a non-believer’s “beliefs” be compromised?

    Does the mere reading of religious texts in the context of a human ritual such as a funeral count as a compromise?

    How about participating in the slaughter of livestock (not to be later eaten) as a sacrifice to a deity you don’t believe in?

    I suppose both are compromises to the integrity of non-belief, but the first is as trivial as “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

    In the absence of religion, you’d probably still have a funeral/wake, and not a sacrifice of livestock. Funerals are for living people to grieve – who cares if you read texts, sing songs or sit in silence?

  • DA

    Good answers, Richard.

    I often find that when people I know are grieving, they’ll ask me or another unbeliever for some weird sort of validation, like “Do you think she’s somewhere better now?”. I don’t think there’s anything tricky at work, just some need to hear someone say it. In these situations I generally say things that, while not strictly speaking lies, are definitely dodges. I don’t want to lie to people, but at the same time funerals are just not the place to start with the cold nihilism of death bit that I think is ultimately more accurate. I’ve told people before that I liked their awful cooking, I can sure as hell tell a Catholic friend whose son killed himself “Yeah, I’m sure god wouldn’t count that against him”, especially when his religious tradition has him scared shitless that he’s headed for hell.

  • Darryl


    As usual, you have taken a sensitive and pragmatic path. I think your advice counts as plain, old wisdom. You put the proper face upon atheism.

    All the best,


  • LL

    Another excellent response, Richard!

    Not only do you give great advice to the letter writers, you inspire all of us to want to be better human beings, atheist or otherwise. For that, thank you. 🙂

  • John Ueng

    You can acknowledge that faith is how some people find comfort, you don’t have to say you don’t believe in it, or that it’s a delusion, you don’t need to bring it up. Comforting the grieving should be your sole purpose of the reading, because that’s how understanding and tolerant we atheist are, we are compassionate before we are dogmatic, especially in such times of other’s grieving.
    Show them how compassionate, understanding and considerate we atheist are, they will be moved and touched by your generous gesture later on when they find out you’re an atheist. They will reflect on themselves and ask themselves: would I do that for an atheist? If not, why not? Your compassion and generosity will inspire them to reflect and question themselves and their faith. It is not a curse, but an opportunity for you an atheist to show what atheists are all about, “compassion”.

  • walkamungus

    Especially if they’re using the KJV — then a *lot* of it’s beautiful poetry.

    Amber, you did the right thing. If someone asks you later why you did the reading if you don’t believe, simply say, “But my aunt believes, and I did it for her.”

  • ButchKitties

    I was asked to carry up the communion gifts during my Catholic grandfather’s funeral. Actually, I wasn’t asked. I was volunteered by my mother without being asked. She doesn’t know that I’ve formally defected from the Church. I went along with it. Fortunately my brother and cousin were also volunteered, so I was able to go along without fully participating… though I did get an earful from my mother for letting my brother carry the communion in my place. I guess the two oldest grandkids were supposed to be the ones to do that.

    I told myself that if religion is the opiate of the masses, then immediately following a death is a time in which an opiate is okay. It’s fine to pop a Vicodin in the week following a bad skiing accident, but if you’re still popping them a month later, then you likely have a problem.

    Problem is that people who take a painkiller for an injury generally know that just because the pain is gone doesn’t mean that their femurs aren’t shattered anymore. People who use religion as an opiate have a harder time telling the difference between being numbed and being healed.

  • McWaffle

    Depending on the content of the reading, I might not agree. I would feel extremely uncomfortable and downright dishonest standing in front of my family and going on about God/Jesus/what-have-you. I wouldn’t want to celebrate a loved one’s memory by being dishonest; I’d feel slimy and gross. Not because of the content per se, but because I knew what I was saying to be untrue.

    So, if the reading was super Jesus-y, or went on and on about Heaven etc…, I’d politely decline to do it, without giving any particular reason.

    If it was a more poetic section that wasn’t super Jesusy, I’d do it.

  • Hipopotamo

    Being the eldest grandson, I was unoficially in charge of delivering the requiem when we put my grandma’s ashes to rest.

    My very catholic relatives wanted to spread the ashes at grandma’s birthplace, and we happily obligued. I think that is kind of poetic.

    When the moment came, I realized I was expected to say something, so I did.

    What I did was to do a nice remmbrance of grandma, what she did, what she achieved, what she thaught us. Never I had to mention heaven or god, and, as some commenters said above, it really didn’t matter. What the family needed was comfort and closure, which I think my little requiem provided.

    Amber, congrats on what you did, family is always important.

    As for the “is the person in a better place”, I usually give a noncommital “yes”. Again, closure and compassion.

    As a colateral note, I have been asked to say grace at dinner at my BFF’s relatives, and there I escape again with a thank you speech to the hosts and wishes for more shared time with friends. Only my friend, who knows of my atheism, gave me a side smile.

  • Carlie

    Fred at Slacktivist just did a post on a similar subject.
    “It doesn’t matter if you find the way they choose to mourn “most peculiar,” or “strange” or “offensive.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with them. You’re not there to agree with them, you’re there to mourn with them.”

  • BlueRidgeLady

    I’m very sorry for your and your family’s loss.
    I hope you feel comfortable in the decision that your participation showed love and that is actually what helped your aunt. Funerals are for the living, those left to feel and suffer- and you did comfort her. Being *present* for/with someone is more comfort than a text in a book.

    We all need someone like you during such a time like that. The pain of the loss of a child is something I can only imagine, and something no one should ever have to go through.

    Best wishes for your loved ones.

  • Wow. This exact thing happened to me too only I’m not “out” with my extended family. I agreed to do the readings and then right before the mass the priest asked me to do the prayers of the faithful too. Strange day.

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