Atheist Grief Research

By Jacob Sawyer, Ph.D.

Most know the phrase that nothing can be certain except death and taxes. However, despite the universal experience of loss, death, and grief, relatively little is known about specific factors that influence one’s experience during bereavement, at least from a scientific lens. Research around death and dying (or thanatology, as it is sometimes called), does exist, and recent advancements have helped in illuminating some very helpful concepts. For example, researchers have noted that there is no empirical evidence of a stage model of grief,1 that resilience is much more common than typically thought, 2 and that some individuals develop chronic grief reactions that are persistent, debilitating, and appropriate for clinical treatment, which has been termed “complicated grief.”3

In research that does examine how an individual’s worldview impacts bereavement, religion and spirituality are typically the factors that researchers explore. In fact, a recent study found that in the social science literature from 2001 to 2012, out of 100 articles that focused on atheists, only one examined death, loss, and bereavement in this group. 4 Although the research is fairly mixed in terms of whether or not religion and/or spirituality is helpful, and under what conditions, the sheer number of studies and popular self-help books on the topic suggests that many perceive belief in God/gods to be a more worthwhile question to assess than nonbelief as it relates to bereavement. Even beyond that, it’s not hard to pick up on the assumption that if belief can be helpful during bereavement, nonbelief must be unhelpful. I’m sure many can relate to being told that some negative event was all part of God’s plan, after all.

My frustration with the lack of research on atheist grief led me to conduct my dissertation, and later, an article in-press in the journal Death Studies, 5 on grief responses between atheists and believers after the death of a close friend or family member. In the in-press article, I examined the role of search of meaning, presence of meaning, and the impact of how identifying as an atheist or believer is related to posttraumatic growth (i.e., perceived benefits after loss, such as feeling closer to family members), complicated grief (i.e., prolonged and debilitating reactions to loss), and psychological distress (i.e., depression and anxiety). The results suggested that searching for meaning was a helpful factor, but just for the believers in this sample. My hypothesis was that there would be no difference in scores on posttraumatic growth, complicated grief, or psychological distress in atheists and believers within two years after the death of close friend or family member. This hypothesis was not supported by the results. Surprisingly, I found that believers reported higher levels of posttraumatic growth, but they also reported higher levels of complicated grief and psychological distress. I cannot say exactly why atheists scored lower on measures of complicated grief and psychological distress, but I would imagine that not experiencing anger at God or believing that a loved one is burning in hell would likely play a role.

It is important to note that this study also cannot say that the findings are caused by belief or nonbelief, only that they are related to one another. However, this highlights the need to further examine factors specific to atheists, which I believe can dispel the myth that atheists and other nonbelievers are somehow worse off or less able to go through the process of bereavement in adaptive ways.

1. Wortman, C. B., & Silver, R. C. (1989). The myths of coping with loss. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 57(3), 349. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.57.3.349

2. Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?. American Psychologist, 59(1), 20-28.  doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.20

3. Shear, M. K., Simon, N., Wall, M., Zisook, S., Neimeyer, R., Naihua, D., Reynolds, C., Lebowitz, B., Sung, S., Ghesquiere, A., Gorscak, B., Clayton, P., Ito, M., Nakajima, S., Konishi, T., Melhem, N., Meert, K., Schiff, M., O’Connor, M., First, M., Sareen, J., Bolton, J., Skritskaya, N., Mancini, A. D., & Keshaviah (2011). Complicated grief and related bereavement issues for DSM-5. Depression and Anxiety, 28(2), 103–117.

4. Brewster, M. E., Robinson, M. A., Sandil, R., Esposito, J., & Geiger, E. (2014). Arrantly absent: Atheism in psychological science from 2001 to 2012. The Counseling Psychologist, 42(5), 628-663. doi: 10.1177/001100001452805

5. Sawyer, J. S. & Brewster, M. E. (in press). Assessing posttraumatic growth, complicated grief, and psychological distress in bereaved atheists and believers. Death Studies. doi: 10.1080/07481187.2018.1446061


Columbia University Ph.D., Jacob Sawyer, is a Staff Psychologist and the Project Coordinator for the Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Training Grant at SUNY Albany. His dissertation is titled, “Grieving Without God: Comparing Posttraumatic Growth, Complicated Grief, and Psychological Distress in Believers and Atheists During Bereavement.”

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