Atheist condolence: “I CAN’T pray for you”?
Posted: 22 March 2009 08:06 PM   [ Ignore ]
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First a question about a general situation I suspect many of us encounter, then an illustration from my recent experience.

Question: What, if anything, can an atheist say to comfort someone who’s suffering some acute or chronic ailment or other hardship?  Are there some good atheist versions of “I’ll pray for you”?  I’m not really hoping for deep analysis here—though that’d be interesting—but more just personal experiences of effective (or ineffective) alternatives to invoking the supernatural.  Or perhaps atheists and other skeptic-types aren’t well-equipped to comfort people, at least the type of comfort that entails dubious predictions and baseless assurances.

Recent experience: About two weeks ago Bill, an acquaintance from over 15 years ago (my former boss at a high-school job), was hospitalized after a severe snowmobiling accident.  When I went to his CaringBridge website to find out more and leave a note, I was dismayed at the preponderance of religious content in the “guestbook”: Nearly every entry mentions prayer or god, and some attribute his improvement directly to the power of prayer.  Here’s an example: “Wonderful news about Bill’s progress.  It proves your care, his determination and all the prayers are helping to get him through that horrendous accident.” (For anyone interested in seeing more, here’s his site.)

My reactions to this were quite mixed.  On one hand, it’s heartening to see so many people conveying their sympathy and well wishes; Bill’s guestbook now has over 700 entries.  I’m even willing to believe that these expressions of support—whether we call them “prayer,” “positive vibes,” or whatever—favorably impact Bill’s recovery and his family’s emotional (and perhaps, in turn, physical) well-being.  On the other hand, I’m bothered that so many people felt compelled to mention a supernatural source of healing and comfort.  Or maybe what bothers me is that so few people offered a naturalistic alternative.  But then, what can you say that’s comforting from a rational, scientific viewpoint?  Not many options left when god, prayer, miracles, angels, and the like are off the table.  Yet it’d be nice to offer some emotional support that’s consistent with a naturalistic worldview.

In my own note I expressed my shock at the news, support for Bill and his family, gratitude for advances in medical care, and optimism about his ability to pull through this personal tragedy and inspire others.  But somehow that just didn’t seem to have the reassuring impact of, for instance, “We have the promise that when ever two or three agree in prayer God hears us. The prayers for you are in the thousands. We join our prayers with others for healing and recovery.”  I mean, what can an atheist say to compete with stuff like that?

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Posted: 22 March 2009 08:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Exactly right. We can’t compete with that. Fantasies comfort people and there’s nothing we can do to change that. That’s all the more reason why we must build strong secularist communities that consist of people who care about and support each other, and why we must increase our numbers.

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Posted: 22 March 2009 09:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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When it comes to the loss of a loved one, I always say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. My thoughts will be with you and your family.”

In the case of a grave injury or illness, I have a friend whose toddler was hospitalized last year with a severe illness. Everyone else was “praying for the baby.” I simply said to her, “This must be so difficult for you. I will keep Junior in my thoughts. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you.”

Offer your sympathy, then offer to help the family. When everyone else is offering prayers, offer to make dinner and bring it over to them. Offer to walk their dog or feed their cat or pick up their mail while in the hospital. Whatever would be helpful in their particular situation. Offer something solid and physical and helpful. That is often the best way to show true support. Of course, some people prefer privacy when grieving or dealing with an ill family member, and that should be respected. But offering the assistance shows how much you care. To me, that is worth more than a prayer.

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Posted: 23 March 2009 06:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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It’s kind of like the modern equivalent of huddling together around the fire while the thunderstorm rages outside the cave entrance.  At a time like this, there’s really nothing you can do.  You want the comfort of other people, offering reassurance, not a detailed analysis of the atmospheric conditions responsible for lightning.  Takes Jules’ advice, above.

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Posted: 23 March 2009 09:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I see a lot of people dealing with the death of their pets, and I’ve found a lot of value in a Buddhist approach. I simply try to acknowledge their feelinsg and be quietly present for them, without deliberately trying to ameliorate their discomfort. I get a lot of feedback from people that they find my demeanor gentle and helpful, so I think the approach works. I avoid any discussion of religion and just offer a non-commital smile in response to any “Now she’s with God” comments, and I’ve not had anyone seem uncomfortable with my lack of religious approach.

A couple f years ago, a young girl in 1st grade at my daughter’s school was diagnosed with brain cancer and eventually died. The comunity response was great, but as Adam found it was overwhelmingly religious, complete with pleas for 24 hour prayer vigils and so on. The parents kept a blog, and the were clearly, desparately trying to make the whole thing seem like a deliberate part of a loving creator’s benificent plan. I found that disturbing, but of course I’m not going to challenge anyone’s strategy for coping with that kind of pain. Still, I managed to make a meal and participate in a small way in the community response without sharing in the religious dimensions. I did feel a bit the odd man out in that situation, but I felt strongly that the need to help out in the face of suffering was more important than my discomfort. I wished at the time I could have done more, but I definately didn’t get great encouragement to participate, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was my lack of religious enthusiasm or the fact that, as usual, I’m one of the few men in a group of mothers in most school community activities.

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Posted: 23 March 2009 10:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t really think this is a competition. People are usually just comforted to know someone else cares and is thinking about them. I think some good examples of what to do have already been given. Keep in mind that actions speak louder than words and in times like this the affected family can use all the help they can get. Other friends can pray all they want, but god isn’t going to come down and help them cook a meal or take care of the dog while they are at the hospital all day. A well meaning atheist on the other hand might do it for them.

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Posted: 23 March 2009 01:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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This has given me an idea.  I’ve going to write something like the following and have cards printed.  I’ll ask that those cards be handed out when or just before I die.

“I’m sure you know that I’m an atheist who has always been annoyed at being exposed to words and ideas like prayer, god, heaven, holy, spirit, etc.  I’d appreciate it if you respect my wishes and avoid praying or claiming you are praying for me, avoid telling me or any of my friends or relatives I’m in heaven or in a “happier place”, and other religious drivel.  I’ve ceased or am ceasing to exist - live with it.  My only legacy is what people remember of me.  Don’t muck it up with pious babble.”

LOL

Occam

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Posted: 23 March 2009 01:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Occam - 23 March 2009 01:04 PM

This has given me an idea.  I’ve going to write something like the following and have cards printed.  I’ll ask that those cards be handed out when or just before I die.

“I’m sure you know that I’m an atheist who has always been annoyed at being exposed to words and ideas like prayer, god, heaven, holy, spirit, etc.  I’d appreciate it if you respect my wishes and avoid praying or claiming you are praying for me, avoid telling me or any of my friends or relatives I’m in heaven or in a “happier place”, and other religious drivel.  I’ve ceased or am ceasing to exist - live with it.  My only legacy is what people remember of me.  Don’t muck it up with pious babble.”

Sounds good, Occam!

grin

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Posted: 23 March 2009 02:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Occam - 23 March 2009 01:04 PM

This has given me an idea.  I’ve going to write something like the following and have cards printed.  I’ll ask that those cards be handed out when or just before I die.

“I’m sure you know that I’m an atheist who has always been annoyed at being exposed to words and ideas like prayer, god, heaven, holy, spirit, etc.  I’d appreciate it if you respect my wishes and avoid praying or claiming you are praying for me, avoid telling me or any of my friends or relatives I’m in heaven or in a “happier place”, and other religious drivel.  I’ve ceased or am ceasing to exist - live with it.  My only legacy is what people remember of me.  Don’t muck it up with pious babble.”

LOL

Occam

“I appreciate the kindness of your intent, but I ask you to respect my wishes as I approach my death. I have lived, to the best of my ability, a life of integrity, and believe that ideas like prayer, god, heaven, holy spirit, etc., have made my life and the lives of others harder, have made an unnecessary muddle of things and have divided the world - brother against brother in every form imaginable. They have been a constant source of irritation for most of my life. They have no basis in any known fact. Please respect my wishes and refrain from using these ideas in reference to me.”

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Posted: 23 March 2009 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I appreciate the thoughts so far on this.  The suggestions to make concretely supportive gestures are great, although in some long-distance situations it’s tough to offer more than communication (e.g., written notes, phone calls) or thoughtful shippable gifts.  The Buddhist approach has some appeal; I’ll try to look into that.  I also wonder if existential, cosmological, or other perspectives offer comforting things to say without reference to imaginary beings.  Of course, what comforts one person might deeply disturb someone else.

Although I don’t tend to view personal-tragedy circumstances as opportunities for competition among cultural competitors, I do sometimes feel like theists have a pretty unbeatable game in this domain.  Not surprising, I suppose, if a major role of religious and other supernatural belief is to cope with mortality.

I wonder: What would motivate Hallmark or other greeting-card companies to develop a line of distinctively atheistic sympathy cards for bereavement and other personal hardships?  I wouldn’t doubt someone’s already targeting this market; I’m off to Google this ...

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Posted: 23 March 2009 03:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Occam - 23 March 2009 01:04 PM

This has given me an idea.  I’ve going to write something like the following and have cards printed.  I’ll ask that those cards be handed out when or just before I die.

“I’m sure you know that I’m an atheist who has always been annoyed at being exposed to words and ideas like prayer, god, heaven, holy, spirit, etc.  I’d appreciate it if you respect my wishes and avoid praying or claiming you are praying for me, avoid telling me or any of my friends or relatives I’m in heaven or in a “happier place”, and other religious drivel.  I’ve ceased or am ceasing to exist - live with it.  My only legacy is what people remember of me.  Don’t muck it up with pious babble.”

LOL

Occam

Occam, no matter what you print or request, there will be ONE relative who will insist you were mistaken, and they are going to pray for you whether you like it or not! (We went through this with my Dad, who wanted no service and no prayer.) So for fun, you might put a little something extra on those cards that says something like “This means YOU, Uncle Bob!” just for one last kick in their rear before you go.  wink

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Posted: 23 March 2009 05:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Ah, ever the carefully phrased version by a lawyer.  Thanks, PlaClair, but just because I’m dead or dying, I don’t want to let anyone forget my years of cultivationg the persona of a crotchety old fud.

Jules, fortunately I had very few relatives, and I’ve outlived all of them but my daughter and two ex-wives.  I trust my daughter and my second ex-wife, and I’ve made it a point to choose friends who aren’t religious nut jobs.  But you’ve got a point.  They might have the memorial at the local Unitarian church, and the stupid new minister would try to slide in a couple of theological comments.  Well, I’m going to write myself a nice script and record it on a DVD to be played at the service.  That way I can tell him and anyone else who adds this nonsense to their “eulogy” to shove it.  LOL

Occam

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