Monday, February 28, 2011

The times when only an atheist can help

I remember the sermon I heard the last time I went to church, it was the old "How hard it is to be a Christian," spiel.  The message to the flock was to stand up for their beliefs, be not afraid to profess Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and stick to their guns no matter what others  may say. At the time that I heard this message I already had thoughts of embracing atheism and it was one of the few times in my church life that I thought the priest was speaking directly to me. How right the reverend  was. I had to have the courage to stand  for what I believed and I left church that morning more convinced I should make a move. The preacher cautioned us about the difficulties we will find trying to swim against the tide. Again, I was right there with him. Sometimes being an  atheist is like trying  to paddle your way against an oncoming tsunami.  Christians  in spite of their protestations to the contrary generally have no idea what it means to suffer or be ostracised for their beliefs. We atheists on the other hand face what they speak about in their sermons every day of our lives.

I try to remember that "last" sermon as I go through life now. I live  in Canada and as a member of the skeptic community here I have as many non believers as believers in my circle even though I am a relatively recent deconvert. Still, no matter how many meet-ups skeptics may have we are nothing compared to those on the believers' side. While we congratulate ourselves for being able to get 20 members to discuss the threat to society posed by magical thinking, an average sized church can pull in 200 on a Sunday morning even on a bad day.

Standing alone in reason

Being an atheist is a lonely road and I think all of us get overwhelmed from time to time as we try to navigate through the tempest. Many of us try to put on the bravado, claiming that we live according to reason alone and therefore don't care if we find ourselves alone in reason. Some even resist making the connections with others of like mind, lest  they commit the unpardonable sin of falling into " group think." This tendency has  led to the famous cliche that trying to bring together atheists is like herding cats. However, in cutting ourselves off, we are  refusing to face the reality that we accuse religious people of avoiding.  Atheists are human beings first and  humans are social animals.

The times when we need to depend on society the most are those moments where we are emotionally at our most vulnerable. Indeed, that is why many people claim they stay in church. It is great to have that community when you find yourself or a loved one in hospital with a chronic illness or after an accident. Apart from times when we are in need, there are times when those close to us or people we admire in our communities fall into misfortune. We want to be there to show our love and support and help in whatever way we can.

The thing is, it is in the tough situations that the atheist feels most isolated. We can live as atheists with persons of all creeds, work with them , laugh with them, share with them and even engage them in polite debates on the subject of religion. Many of  our colleagues will agree with much of what we say, nod when we talk about how faith has kept back developments in stem cell research, laugh with us when we talk about the idiocy of a 6000 year old world and concede that God's existence is not consistent with logic or available evidence. All is fine and secular until that moment of tragedy strikes, then  everyone seems to become a fundamentalist. Suddenly, everyone around you runs to religion, including the "skeptic" you thought was on your side. The whole experience reminds me of how children all scamper for a seat when the song stops in "musical chairs."  In this case, the atheist is the one left standing, wondering why the sudden rush to find a faith to sit on.

Platitudes on a Platter

If  the tragic situation includes a death, the desire to cling to faith becomes even more intense. From the comfort of their favourite doctrine the masses choose from a menu of " Platitudes on a Platter" that the church lays before them. Here are some popular ones they dish out :

  • You need to trust in God
  • His soul is at peace
  • I will be praying for you and your family
  • May he rest in peace and rise in glory
  • He's in  a better place now
  • She's safe in the arms of Jesus
  • Thank God that she was taken quickly
  • Thank God it wasn't any worse
  • God knows and understands
  • God will find a way
  • Trust in the Lord and he will give you strength
  • The Lord will not give you more than you can bear
  • She's singing in the angelic choir now
  • He's been called to higher service
  • Heaven must have needed another angel

Many people do find comfort in these words and it helps them through.  For atheists such statements ring hollow, very hollow indeed. We get no comfort from utterances relating to a fictional being we no more believe in than the magic tree frog in the garden. Neither do we feel that we are doing any good when we are forced to join in this chorus of "God talk" when someone else is suffering. In fact this talk  often makes us feel worse, it's almost like injecting us with a virus on our death bed. For the Christians are trying to comfort us with the very thing that we consider to be the source of so much of the world's ills.

I don't think that people that are not atheists really get this. You can't blame them. We live in a society where religion is what you turn to in the darkest hour and the greatest gift you can give people at this point is "spiritual upliftment" which equates to just picking one of the "Platitudes on a Platter." That is the formula, the only method we are taught to show that we care. We know the believer is sincere, but we atheists still feel empty, with greater stress facing us because we have to pretend that we are ever so touched by the words. Any indication that we are anything but fully appreciative and we are likely to feel the wrath even as we are already consumed with grief.

What would happen if they were sick and we told them how earnestly we were praying to our tree frog for their speedy recovery? Would they tell us that even though they are not tree frog followers, they appreciate the sentiment? Hardly.We would be severely reprimanded for making a mockery of them when they were suffering. Even if they were paralysed from the neck down I am sure they would find the power from somewhere to give us a hard slap in our face. Yet, anything less than total commitment and participation in appealing to their God and we are just cynical ungrateful people. They just don't realise that their God is  our tree frog.

In recent weeks I have become all too aware of these types of situations. "The Thinking Atheist" had a very moving podcast last week that dealt with these issues in "Grief without God." I am aware of an atheist in the Caribbean that has recently had to deal with this issue following a death of a member of staff. What I have learnt from these things, is that in these situations, only an atheist can truly relate. That's right, regardless of how close friends and family may be to you in these circumstances only another person who leans not on faith can truly understand how you feel. The atheists are the only ones that can offer you the support that you need, the dose of  non-sugar coated reality  that works.

There is another reason why it is difficult to get support when the chips are down if you are a known atheist. Horrible as it sounds, atheist suffering actually strengthens a believer's faith. One of the most troubling realities to persons of faith is the fact that so many atheists seem to live happy and fulfilled lives. It's not that religious people want ill to come of non believers but they need some support to keep believing that a God  is making things better for them. Seeing us suffer may hurt them on a personal level but it gives them a relief by providing evidence, albeit  using confirmation bias, that life is not so good without God after all. They tell themselves that your condition would be far better if you just opened your heart to Him. That's why atheists in hospitals have nurses trying to convert them everyday. It helps remove the cognitive dissonance if the followers can bring someone to Jesus, it strengthens their faith to know that they are doing the work of the Lord in their professional lives. Saving an atheist's life so that he can get up next day and continue to bash your religion just doesn't seem like it would be part of  God's plan.

It's frightening to think that a caregiver may be less willing to go the extra mile to save you when you don't believe, that they may be interested more in saving you in soul than in body when you lie on the operating table. However, that's the reality of atheism and the price you have to pay for standing in reason and you are likely to feel the isolation when you are at your lowest ebb. Not because the people in the world don't love you and want to see you well, but because the worldview that they feel they must maintain  for their own welfare, requires you be kept on the outside until you say the magic words, " I believe."

Words of comfort without God

Curiously, this inability to understand in times of trials, atheist versus theist, seems to go only one way. Now that I can no longer pick from the "platitudes on a platter" to help a friend in bereavement, I have been forced to challenge myself. It means I have to think of something meaningful to say. What I do these days when trying to comfort friends in grief is to write a sentence or two on the life of the person lost and include something they did or said to me that  has made a difference in my life. I have found that the persons grieving have been very appreciative of these short tributes and have expressed how moved they were to hear that they loved one touched me in a personal way. It's quite different from the simple "thank you" I got when I just used to pick from the "platter" in days gone by. My friends never seem to realise that God is absent from the notes I send. One day maybe they will acknowledge that referring to God at the end of a tribute is simply branding, like sticking on a "Nike" label on your shoe.  It makes absolutely no difference to the message, it's just an attempt to gain divine legitimacy.

So there it is. We can come to the aid of the faithful but they will never be fully able to embrace us where we are. What does that mean? It means that we have to be there for our fellow non believers wherever they may be. We cannot provide promises of divine protection, but we can reassure them by telling them that we understand them and fight many of the same battles everyday. We have survived thus far and therefore there is a good chance that the atheist friend in the struggle will prevail as well. That is often all that is needed for a non believer to go on to fight another day.

We are dotted in remote corners of the world but the internet has allowed us to close some of the divide, becoming "atheists of the gaps" as we seek to make each others' journeys a little less lonely. Yes, there are truly times in our lives when only an atheist can help. We must remember that there is strength in numbers and that the more of us that can be there for the struggling atheist the more effective the movement will be. So, we "cats" need to get over our fear of the collective, and not be so terrified of being part of the herd. Otherwise, with the increasing din of  the fundamentalists, we just won't ever be heard.

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