Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Should an Atheist Argue with a Dying Person?

Here is an interesting asymmetry.

The other day a terminally ill friend was talking about how he'd come to grips with his fast-approaching death, and that while he was sad about it, he was comforted by the knowledge of what awaits him in heaven. "Oh, no," I replied. "There is no Heaven or Hell. When you die, you're dead, and your soul, which is a made-up concept in the first place, simply ceases and your life is over. It's really a very comforting thought, you know, that you won't have any more worries."

This didn't really happen, of course. But that fictitious scene was inspired by a close friend of mine whose wife is dying right now. Many years ago, he and I sailed together for thousands of miles in the South Pacific, and although I haven't seen him in decades, he's on my Facebook Friends list and we communicate. Every day, he posts his wife's ups and downs, and every day, their close Christian friends offer support and prayers. And although I feel very much sadness for their dilemma, and wish them the very best, as an atheist it's difficult to know what to say when a close friend asks for prayers.

This got me to thinking about the asymmetry of the situation. If I were terminally ill, most Christians I've known would have no hesitation about praying for me, and telling me that they were doing so. In fact, they'd have no trouble at all telling me my atheist beliefs are simply wrong.

Why is it that in extreme situations, it's OK for Christians to express their beliefs, but not for atheists to do the same?

It happens that I'm very content with the facts. I consider this life to be a magnificent journey, one that must be lived in the here-and-now, because when when it's done, I'm gone. I've done many good things in my time, raised some wonderful children, worked in the environmental and medical sciences to improve the world, and generally lived a moral life that, I hope and believe, has made the world a better place. I know that my life has been worthwhile, and that's enough. I don't need any promise of an afterlife to make me feel better, or to distract me from this life.

More importantly, I don't need religious people trying to convince me that I'm wrong, or offering their sincere but ineffective prayers. If someone told me, "I'll pray for you," what they're really telling me is, "I don't respect your beliefs, so I'm going to waste my time doing something ineffective that won't help you, rather than spending that time doing something for the living."

We need to live in this world, and make our lives good now, because this is the only chance we get.


  1. Great post.

    A Christian woman whom I like once told me, "I know you don't believe in it, but I'll pray for you."

    That might sum it up, Christians use the offer of prayer to make themselves feel better about situations that really can't be improved or to get out from under offering real help.

    Rather than "arguing" (pointless and possibly mean) what if we simply told them we were terribly sad that they were ill or dying and that we wanted to celebrate remembering their life with them and asked what we could do for their memory/posterity?

    That’s all more meaningful than promised prayers that I doubt happen most of the time, anyway.

  2. Yeah, I think it's because they think they offer hope while what does the athiest offer...oblivion?

    In terms of athiesm it might be best to consider what hope one can give. For example, all the people that person has touched on in their life, they remember that person - their memory of that person is pretty close to the person that was alive, so that means they live on in other people and how those other people affect each other and how they are remembered and so on, thus a continued sort of life. Kind of like a ripple on a pool - even when the thing that made the ripple is removed, the ripple lives on.

    If they don't like the ripple, they'll just reformat it to some religious paradigm that comforts them - and if they do like it, you genuinely comforted them with some hope that's really on offer.

  3. I guess as a christian I take comfort from the personal knowledge, relationship and friendship that I have with God in knowing that I have a hope and a future. Just this last few days I have been with a friend who "believes" in God, but doesnt have that personal relationship with him. She is coming to the last couple of days in her life and is starting to realise the possabilities of what lays ahead. I could never pressure anyone into being a christian as thats not what its about. That would be like pressuring someone into a close relationship with someone they have never met before, that can be scary and horrific for some people.
    What makes me a christian is a special relationship with God himself, where he has shown me personally that he is there. This seems a strange thing to say, and for those who arnt christian to understand. God has shown me himself through, the bible, through prayer, and through many physical healings to both myself and others I know.In each way God has drawn me closer to him and more in love with him.
    In my understanding that God sent his own son Jesus to take the punishment for the wrong things that I have done. He gave his life so that I can have a loving and amazing life with God. How can I refuse such a precious gift.
    If I say to someone I will pray for them, then I believe it is a very important thing to do, s it is communicating to God the needs and thanks of situations. Sure he already knows, but he is my friend and listens, just as a friend does that would be sat by my side.
    I have seen many amazing changes in peoples lives when they have asked Jesus to be a part of their lives. I have seen people freed from both mental and physical illnesses, people freed of addictions that are taking over their lives and killing them, where God has interviened and healed instantly where Doctors couldnt. Where God has taken away the cravings and pains, and heald them physically.
    I have seen people healed of life threghtening illnesses, cancer disapearing when Doctors can do nothing, even with a dear friend 6 different strains of hepatitus healed! Then my personal experiences of being healed of life thretening tumors, and surviving surgery when the doctors gave in. This was all done through prayer. Litrually!
    If these can be explained in the physical realms then why cant they do it? This is why I believe in sharing Gods love with people, even as they are dying.
    I respect it if they dont wish to hear, and I can pray in my own time for them.
    With all the things ive seen and experienced I cant believe that there isnt a God, a great Phycision that can do this, and Great loving God that can and wants a relationship with you.
    If all it takes is to sincerly pray with a open mind and heart " God if your really there, show yourself to me" what is the reason not to? He will reveal himself if you give it a go, even if you dont believe in him, just keep a open mind and heart.
    If you do have any questions or comments, then feel free to email me, littlesmiffy1980@hotmail.com
    what can be so scary about it all?
    God bless you all,

  4. One doesn't need to proselytize or be hurtful and still be true to one's belief. In such a situation, you can console this person not by saying you'll pray for them but by saying, truthfully, that they are in your thoughts and you sincerely hope for the best. If pressed, you can reply that you do not share their beliefs and it would therefore be inappropriate to offer a prayer, yet still offer your condolences and support.


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