How do families and friends of an atheist or nonbeliever mourn their passing when the majority of our traditions are religion-based? Additionally, can someone build a community without religion — and is it even important to do so?
Today’s guest is a “non-theist chaplain.” Join us as we find out what that means as he explains that atheism and ritual are not mutually exclusive. Listen Now!
D.S. Moss is a recently endorsed Chaplain of the Humanist Society. He has spent the past 6 years in pursuit of making meaning of life in service of others and grasping a deeper understanding of mortality. Through the exploration of rituals, ceremonies, and philosophies, Moss formed a practice that offers spiritual support to those without faith in a god. Moss has shared this journey in the form of a podcast series called “The Adventures of Memento Mori (A Cynic’s Guide for Learning to Live by Remembering to Die).”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations, available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast. I’m your host Gabe Howard, and I want to thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today we have D. S. Moss. Mr. Moss is a recently endorsed chaplain of the Humanist Society and has formed a practice that offers spiritual support to those without a faith in God. Mr. Moss shares this journey in his podcast series, The Adventures of Memento Mori: A Skeptic’s Guide for Learning to Live by Remembering to Die. Mr. Moss, welcome to the show.
D.S. Moss: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Gabe Howard: In America, we have a religious answer for pretty much everything. In recovery, for example, one of the primary steps is to turn yourself over to a higher power, which most people interpret as surrender to God. When the death of a loved one occurs, all of our rituals are heavily steeped in religious tradition, and people will comfort the grieving with phrases like they’re with God now. It’s all part of God’s plan and things along that nature. Now, somebody who believes in God, any God, these are kind and reassuring statements. But what about people who don’t consider themselves religious or for the nonbeliever? What is available for them?
D.S. Moss: It makes sense, right, to have that religion, and I would argue that religion was created just for those scenarios, but when we look at the population of Europe and in America, those that don’t identify as religious, it’s almost like 30 percent now. So there needs to be a way and I think the answer is rituals that don’t actually have to do with the supernatural or higher powers, it all pivots around community. Because I think the powerful thing about religion, and I do think religion is powerful, it is those practical lived aspects of it. And I think we can still have those practical ceremonial ritual aspects that religion has in more of a community framework.
Gabe Howard: Now, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about. Now, people have heard phrases like atheism, agnostics, nonbeliever, spiritual but not religion. Now you’re specifically talking about humanism today. How does humanism differ from all of those other examples, but probably most specifically atheism?
D.S. Moss: They’re not mutually exclusive, you can be an atheist and a humanist. This is where I think it gets nuanced. So atheism is not believing in a God, but you can still believe in things that actually are meaningful. So humanism is a personal and a community search for how to live a meaningful life, but doing so in a naturalistic understanding of reality. So the primary indexing is on rationality, reason, but also values based on community. You cannot believe in God and you can believe in rationality, but then you can also still see the importance of those rituals. Throughout history, it’s been dominated by religions. And so the atheists have always been the outliers looking in. And because of that, I think there’s a general bad branding with atheism, there’s this connotation with evil. There’s some sort of like association with if you’re an atheist then somehow that you’re other than good, the idea that somehow if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be good. It is a shame that those two are so interlaced that we can’t separate them.
Gabe Howard: It is. If we could judge people by their actions rather than their perceived beliefs, I think that we as a society would be better off. Now, that’s difficult because we love shorthands as a society, we love shorthands. This person’s good. This person’s bad. How did you make that determination? Because this person goes to my church and this person doesn’t or this person is a member of my club or lives on my block, or there’s all of these just little shorthands that we have to put people in boxes. And those boxes are almost entirely good or bad boxes. There’s no neutral box. There’s never somebody that’s just he’s fine. I don’t have enough information to make an opinion. One of the things that’s always struck me as interesting is that atheism simply means don’t believe in God. That’s the end.
D.S. Moss: That’s it.
Gabe Howard: There’s no second verse. There’s no step two. It reminds me of
D.S. Moss: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: The old Mac commercials of the 80s. Take it out of box. Plug it in. There’s no step three. Atheism, don’t believe in God, the end. It tells you nothing about that other person. It doesn’t tell you their beliefs. It doesn’t tell you anything. Literally it tells you nothing except that they don’t believe in God. So I can understand why you’d want another label for lack of a better word. And humanist, that tells you something about a person, right? You are letting people know that these are your beliefs. What are the humanist beliefs?
D.S. Moss: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: Probably in a nutshell.
D.S. Moss: Humanists believe in a critical introspection of our reality. It’s not saying we don’t believe in mystery. It’s not saying that there may not be something greater than we can comprehend. But it’s like using what we actually have access to through tools and science to then make meaning that is valuable and that contributes to the human condition in the best way possible.
Gabe Howard: It sounds like there’s a spiritual component to humanism and spirituality and religion, in my mind, go hand in hand. Are humanists spiritual? And how do you get spirituality without religion?
D.S. Moss: That’s one of my favorite questions. So I would say I can’t speak for all humanists, but I am a chaplain and personally I consider myself to be very spiritual. And I think it just goes into how we define spirituality. I don’t see, there’s a correlation between religion and spirituality, but they’re not interconnected. So spirits, the root words, it’s Latin, meant breath. To breathe is your spirit. And so taking that, it’s your essence. Spirituality is the act of living. It is actually how you walk through life. I don’t believe that the spirit is separated from the body. How we actually navigate through life is spirituality.
Gabe Howard: Isn’t it difficult to live life just being skeptical of everything? Just looking around and saying, well, I don’t think that’s true, I don’t think this is true, isn’t it just much better to decide probably at an early age and just be like, hey, this is the way the world works and just move forward? Isn’t that one of the advantages of religion?
D.S. Moss: Yeah, I don’t know if I would say that’s an advantage of religion, it’s certainly a tenet of religion. But skepticism is a critical tool for progress, and it’s not negative. To have a healthy dose of skepticism, that’s how we discover new things. That’s how science is based on skepticism. As a belief system, as a way to get better as a human being and make meaning, I think skepticism is probably the most important tool that we have at our disposal.
Gabe Howard: Let’s shift over and talk about handling hardships. Religious people have routines. They have rituals to handle the hardships. How can somebody handle hardships without that religion? Because it just seems like everything is steeped in religion.
D.S. Moss: You know, we can be as non-theist or atheist as we want to be, but we live in the context of religion and there’s no escaping that. It is challenging. That’s one beautiful thing that religion does provide, is if there’s an afterlife, then it allows you to surrender in that transition where when you don’t believe, as I don’t, it makes it very difficult. There’s not a one to one here is the substitute for religion. But I think ultimately it comes down to community because going through hardship, going through transition, it is in part the isolation that people find the hardest to endure. IF we really think about how we can live better in communities than we can actually lean onto one another a lot more and provide hopefully that same method through which we can handle adversity that religion provides. Nearly 30 percent identify as non-religious or agnostic. There’s even a higher percentage that are religious only in the ritualistic ceremonies. Often people don’t even go to church, but it’s just Christmas mass or Easter mass and then either a wedding or funeral. Replacing those same ceremonies, just taking the higher power out of it, that can be done. But it’s going to take a lot of work.
Gabe Howard: Is community necessary to heal from hardships? Can’t you just get through hardships on your own? Do we need to join or subscribe or believe in all of these other things just to move forward?
D.S. Moss: Maybe somebody can. Maybe somebody is strong and they can endure and they can do this on their own, but it’s part of being human. Humans are social creatures, so we are not meant to navigate or endure things alone. Absolutely community is pivotal to negotiating hardship. Just think back and reflect on our last year of the pandemic. Those that have been able to navigate it in the best way possible usually have the strongest family ties and the strongest support groups. Those that are having the hardest time most often are the ones that have unfortunately felt the most isolated from other people.
Gabe Howard: I could not agree with you more. I couldn’t imagine getting through anything without a support system. And obviously the larger the thing is the bigger support system. We’ve talked a lot about dealing with hardship in the context of religion. And we’ve talked about dealing with hardship in sort of the context of no religion. We’ve touched on it. But are there universal practices? Are there things that it just really doesn’t matter what you believe everybody does?
D.S. Moss: Most definitely, I think everybody has a form of values. That’s another thing that gets conflated with religion, is our sense of ethics and values. And so I think every culture, every community has inherent with it an understanding of a value system and principles. And I think rites of passage is another one. Celebrating moments of one’s life, birth, transition into adulthood, marriage, culture celebrate these, oftentimes attached to religion. But that’s just the translation of the ceremony. And they’re absolutely, totally available to everybody without a religious context. And that’s the beauty of humanism, is that it can provide you a funeral service. It can provide you a wedding that touches on all of the beauty of ceremony just without the supernatural.
Gabe Howard: The primary reason that I ask is because I’ve always believed that there is more that connects us than disconnects us. For example, you use the case of weddings and funerals. We’re all largely doing the same thing. And then we get to the bottom and one group’s rituals for the sake of ritual and support and honoring the day in some way or managing the hardship. The other group does the exact same thing, except at the end of it, they’re doing it for a supernatural being, whether God or a higher power, etc. But they look almost identical. Some head over to Joy Organics and buy an edible for pete’s sake, but, honestly if you were sitting there and an outsider watching both groups, you would think that those groups had far more in common. Yet there is sort of this general idea that one group is good and one group is bad. I say that because both sides believe that whatever group you’re in, the other group is bad. Is there a way to move past that and stop looking at people who believe differently than you as bad and instead just look at them as neutral or part and parcel of the same? Because this causes a lot of conflict and upset in our society.
D.S. Moss: It causes a lot of conflict, just look throughout history of how many wars have been started. Man, I hope so. I hope we can actually look at our common good and our commonalities and be able to move past that because we have to. So unless we all get attacked by aliens and have to come together as sort of we are now humans cooperatively, we’re going to have to face the future. Unfortunately, we just, I don’t know if it’s human nature, but we always tend to other in a way. We can find the most minute sliver of difference, and that is what we perceive. So I think it’s going to take a lot of work. I am cautiously optimistic. And that’s also part of the unfortunate drawback of some religion. Somebody in that scenario has to be wrong, that just naturally others. Right? And so when you have four thousand plus religions currently, only one can be right. Only one can be right. And so inherent with that is just consternation.
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Gabe Howard: We’re back with popular podcast host and well-known humanist, D.S. Moss. So we figured out that largely we’re all on the same page, we have some subtle differences, we all need community. The healing process is largely done with others, with rituals, with customs. We all give them different labels. They’re generally the same kind of flavor. Is this really what we’re looking at? That belief systems are personal and that we all are essentially living our lives in really the same way. We just maybe have different reasons to do it. Or once again, am I just incredibly oversimplifying what we have here?
D.S. Moss: I will even maybe take it a step further and simplify it even more is that we were born and we die and in between we need to make sense of things. And that is the journey and experience of all of us, the in-between and how we make meaning. It’s important to people, but the threat of the meaning making not being accurate will cause people to then have that same existential terror of what if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong and there is no heaven? Oh my God. That’s going to completely the house of cards will now fall. No, I don’t think you oversimplifying it all. I think in part we need to distill things until what’s the commonality? And in doing six years of a podcast on finitude and exploration on death, that’s my conclusion. We’re all born into an existential crisis, and religion is the perfect way to make meaning out of a life that doesn’t always make perfect sense.
Gabe Howard: Mr. Moss. Let’s talk about death. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I kind of feel like maybe we’ve been avoiding it up until now because there is this general discomfort with death, but if you’re an atheist and you die, what does your family do? What does an atheist funeral look like?
D.S. Moss: It can look like anything you want, and I always would encourage people to think about it prior, and it’s not morbid at all and really that’s your life party, so you can do anything you want to do as far as a ceremony. Disposition wise, there’s so many alternatives to just being buried into a ten thousand dollar piece of furniture, into a cement block, into a park. So there’s a lot of possibilities. As far as the ceremony for mourning, and this comes back to community. One thing about communities I think is important, and this is something that I’ve discovered myself because I’m get busy and it’s busy, and then next thing you know, you haven’t invested the time to maintain and build communities. If you are in a hardship and you haven’t actually done the investment in community prior to that, it’s hard to start it then. Communities aren’t passive structures. So it does take work and it’s easy, especially now when we’re live in suburbs and online, and of course, now in a pandemic or we’re forced to be apart from one another. It takes a lot of work to build and maintain communities. But if done well, your end of life, it can be a celebration and it can be anything that you want it to be and then provide that support for grief for your loved ones afterwards.
Gabe Howard: It’s fascinating to me, but this is, you know, roughly episode 250-some of Inside Mental Health. And this is the first time that we’ve delved into any sort of what do atheists do about hardship? What do atheists do about rituals? What do atheists do about belief? What is spirituality? And it’s fascinating to me because it’s certainly not the first time that we’ve covered religion. Do you find it difficult to discuss this in any, I’m going to use the word positive, way? Appropriate way? Or do you find that you’re often discussing humanism and non-theism combatively?
D.S. Moss: When I first started the podcast on Death, which is another tricky subject, it was, I thought, considered a taboo topic. The more discussions I got, I realized that isn’t taboo at all. It’s just framing the conversations in the right way. But I have found religion or non-religion to be far more taboo than conversations about death. Yeah, when you confront people’s belief system, it does get combative. And I don’t engage in the combat per se. I have my opinions and I don’t need to change anybody’s mind. I’m not looking to convert people into humanism. I’m not looking to prove that religion is false. By and large, when having these discussions, the more your life is built on a belief system, particularly a belief system in mythology and the supernatural, the harder it’s going to be when you’re hearing a perspective that confronts that. So I would say non-religion is a harder topic to discuss than death by a long shot.
Gabe Howard: Now, your podcast is called The Adventures of Memento Mori: A Skeptic’s Guide for Learning to Live by Remembering to Die. What is a memento mori?
D.S. Moss: It’s a Latin phrase, it means remember that you will die. I think we’re all fairly familiar with carpe diem, seize the day. That was just like the first part of it. It was carpe diem memento mori, seize the day because you need to remember that you’re going to die. Came out of the stoic beliefs as a meditation practice in its inception. But then when the black plague hit, the memento mori then became actually a visual representation. So you see in the [unknown] paintings in the Middle Ages and then it’s often associated with some sort of tactile or tchotchke that you actually can carry or at least see. Where then you are reminded quite frequently of your own finitude. The hope is that you will use that to live your life in the most virtuous, virtuous in the stoic sense, not the biblical sense, in the most virtuous way possible, in the moment.
Gabe Howard: As I’m sitting here thinking about an atheist funeral, and I’m thinking about the 4,300 world religions, that’s according to adherence. And I think about what we all believe, and we all believe that we’re a member of a group that has good values that cares about others. That cares about people. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anybody religious or not religious that said, oh no, I joined a group where we dislike people and we have horrible values. No, we all believe that the religion or non-religion that we are a member of makes us better people. That’s why we joined, for those traditions, that sense of community, and especially for some of us who have been members of our religions since birth, nostalgia, comfort. And then we can talk about death. Everybody dies. It’s just a reality. And when we live long enough, we’re going to know somebody that dies and we all grieve the people that we love. And I do believe this does bind us whether our traditions are steeped in religion or whether our traditions are steeped in non-religion or whatever culture or whatever makes us, us, I think that the grieving process, the funeral process, it’s largely the same. And of course, I was born in 1976, so I was at the right age when dead poet’s society came out and Robin Williams was screaming seize the day. But it’s interesting to think about just from, I don’t know, from a psychological point of view, I know that this entire conversation started with what do atheists do when somebody dies? How do they have a funeral without religion? What’s the psychological component of that, but it’s really so, so much bigger than that. So where can folks find your podcast so that they can learn more?
Gabe Howard: Mr. Moss, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate the time
D.S. Moss: It’s been a pleasure.
Gabe Howard: And thank you to all of our listeners. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please give us a follow. It’s absolutely free. Also, rank and review. Tell other people why they should listen to Inside Mental Health. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations, as well as a nationally recognized public speaker. I would love to be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book with free swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. I will see everybody next Thursday.
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