Friends

41


Discussion by: Stefan Depuydt

First of all, forgive me, I am not very smart and my english is bad since it is not my first language. The fourth I think before Dutch, french and German.

I am an atheïst. I was raised secular. Today, a theïstic freind was telling me about her son and how she hopes he is in heaven, so she can be with him after her death. As an atheïst, I would tell her, there is no God, there is no heaven and I will tell you why. But she was really depressed and as I said a close friend and yes she knows that I am an atheïst. But she looked at me to confirm that her son is in heaven and that she would see him again. I changed to subject. I couldn't tell her the truthed that would have made her more depressed. I couldn't lie either, I don't know why, I just couldn't say yes he is in heaven. How do you handle a situation like this?

Once again forgive me for my bad english.

Thank you.

41 COMMENTS

  1. This is a moral dilemma encountered by almost every atheist I know. It comes to a point where you are asked to betray everything you stand for in order to put someone’s mind at ease. I think every individual reacts differently and each situation is different. I know when my resolve was put to the test, I eventually gave in and said that I would add my prayers for her recovery. ( as if the weight of numbers helped to bring about the desired miracle). I felt awful afterwards.

  2. You can’t confirm that her son is in heaven, and neither can a religious person. Religion relies on faith. Unless asked, I’d not say anything to upset the woman. Even then, if she wants you to confirm that her son is in heaven, maybe just say what I have outlined here . . .

    “No one knows for sure if {name} is in heaven or not, but if you are religious, you can hope. As for me I am NOT religious and don’t have such a hope for me, or my friends or my family, or anyone else. But I do feel for you, and you have my sympathy. If I can help in any other way, I’d be glad to do so.”

    Being a-theists doesn’t mean we need to be a-holes.

  3. If asked directly I’ll usually say something along the lines of, “I don’t know about an afterlife but I do know that death does not prevent me from experiencing the love I still have for that person.” That’s factual. In that same vein, I think Helen Keller (coincidentally another atheist) once said something like, “…what we have enjoyed we can never lose, all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”

    It’s amazing, really, when you think about how we can hold on and revisit our memories of those we lost.

    Mike

  4. This is harder to answer when it is a child, because for parents who are very dedicated to their children, the death of a child seems like loss of their purpose for living. I only have an answer for people who have lost a parent.
    I lost my mother as a teenager and it was shattering, but now that I am her age when she died, I can see her in the mirror, especially around the eyes. It is a great comfort, to know that so much of her being is still very much alive inside of me. Over the years, I have encouraged all my bereaved friends to do that, to remember how much of their deceased loved one still lives, not just in their memory, but in their very cells.
    For someone who has lost a child, all you can say is that while they were alive, they felt loved, and if there is a spirit after death, that spirit surely remembers love. It’s a bit phoney, but it’s a little less phoney than adding to the cartoon fantasy of heaven.

  5. You could just say I don’t know.

    However this is the problem with religion being forced to not express an opinion or look a bastard because someone hasn’t greived properly because relgion says well they’re really not dead. It’s really quite selfish. My grandmother went into a nervous breakdown when she began to question her faith as she never faced the death of her husband. Faith then becomes a psychological loaded gun ready to go off unless everyone around them maintains the collective delusion.

  6. Where I am from people make God statements. Like ‘God rest him’ , or ‘God be good to him’ and statements like ‘ I know he is in heaven smiling down on us’ , the fact is I am usually never challenged by any of these statements , I see them as an expression of hope. If I have to indulge in anything like funerals , removals , I go through the motions more out of solidarity than anything else. I don’t pray at any of these events. My sister in law lost her mother(she was young) a few years ago and she asked me did I believe in religion , basically if she would see her mother ever again and to my shame I said something non descript and wooish something like I was interested in the universe and it was really big and we are very small and that ‘there was alot of space out there’. Kind of like the expression that ‘space is a terrible waste of space’.

    Damn , I should have said ‘I don’t know’.

    If in these circumstances if you don’t want to offend, you can say ‘I don’t know’.

    But you do raise a point , in seriously unjust scenarios (Violent death , Youth illness and death,chronic disability,gross poverty and impoverishment ) ‘believing’ maybe entirely reasonable, it may mean survival , ahead of chronic depression, despondency and death,. I think many atheist seem oblivious to this.

  7. if your friend knows you’re an atheist it’s unfair to put you on the spot like that. “I’m not the one to talk about these things” is the most honest and inoffensive answer i could think of.

    • In reply to #7 by SaganTheCat:

      if your friend knows you’re an atheist it’s unfair to put you on the spot like that. “I’m not the one to talk about these things” is the most honest and inoffensive answer i could think of.

      If the friend was really depressed, she was feeling, not thinking. At such moments, any comforting and soothing words are most welcome. A temporary balm, if you will.

  8. I think you handled it about right. When someone is grieving is definitely not the time to discuss our lack of belief. I would change the subject by asking them details about their loved ones. Talking about lost loved ones is therapeutic and people rarely get the chance because most people think they’re doing them a favor by not dwelling on it. Doing this allows you to show you care without having to lie about beliefs you don’t have.

    If the person pressed on the heaven thing, I’d say something like, “Well, a lot of people do believe that.” If pressed further, then I’d gently inform them of my lack of belief. By this point, they would deserve to hear it, and if they’re subsequently offended, it’s their own fault.

  9. My mother has been very sick for a long time. She is a Catholic and her friends are always telling me “we’re praying for her” and things like that. I never use that as a chance to laugh at them and tell them all the things I think are wrong with religion in general and catholicism in particular. They are just trying to help and express empathy and I appreciate their good wishes even though I totally disagree with their beliefs.

    Someone in an earlier comment said “This is a moral dilemma encountered by almost every atheist I know” I think its a real stretch to call these cases moral dilemmas. To me its just a question of being polite. There are some circumstances where you know you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind and to start being confrontational is really just about you enjoying pissing people off (believe me I know the feeling I like it too) rather than being true to your principles.

    • In reply to #9 by Red Dog:

      My mother has been very sick for a long time. She is a Catholic and her friends are always telling me “we’re praying for her” and things like that. I never use that as a chance to laugh at them and tell them all the things I think are wrong with religion in general and catholicism in particular. Th…

      I beg to differ with you on this one. I’m the person who felt as if it were a moral dilemma as I was torn between standing firm and saying something soothing but not in conflict with my sense of reality and mouthing something that I consider to be nonsense. This is not an easy situation in which to find yourself. I liked the person very much but I really felt compromised. I know that this is an emotional reaction, and I appreciate the suggestions for a tactful response.

  10. I approach it this way. If I was at a funeral, and someone started talking about the deceased like they were a great and gentle person, and I knew they were no such thing, it’s not the time or place to insist on accuracy. There is nothing wrong with letting a person express themselves at times without openly disagreeing with them. We can have that discussion later. On the other hand, I see no reason to agree either. A neutral response is best at these time.

  11. I had this dilemma a while back and just resteered the comment to the following. “More importantly you have your son in your heart and thoughts so his affect on you still lives on within you.” I my situation, I found that this refocused my friend to the reality of his actions in the future would be affected by his daughters affect on him which had some lasting effect. We then talked more about what he could do in memory of her, things that are more tangible.

    hope this helps.

  12. I sympathise with your friend but trying to emotionally blackmail others into buying into their world theistic view is a crappy thing to do no matter the context. Some might argue religion is all about substituting emotion for evidence indeed the bible takes this to the extent one should disown children, parents etc if they do not agree with the christian faith.

    You have done what any honest person should do in my opinion. There are plenty of theists in the world (your friends pastor for starters) who would be happy to reconfirm her beliefs, let her seek that kind of solace from them and not someone she knows does not believe in her chosen divinity.

  13. There is nothing forcing you to continue the conversation by answering her question as it was stated. She wasn’t really looking at you to assure her that her son is in heaven. Sometimes we need to look past the words people are saying to really get at the heart of the matter. Mostly people just want acknowledgement and understanding in times of loss. People usually want to hear that you are listening and understand their pain. No one really wants a debate at times of loss and you need to wipe that idea out of your head. Say something like “I can see you miss your son very much. I am so sorry for your loss.” in more pressing situations, you could offer to cook a meal.

  14. I think everyone needs to be able to acknowledge that not everyone agrees about the afterlife and how it works. Atheists may think one thing, but someone of faith will have their own beliefs. They are not wrong, you just don’t agree with them. Equally, you are not wrong, but they disagree with you. There is nothing wrong with allowing you to comfort your friend, without giving up what you believe.

    • In reply to #18 by MrEMan:

      I think everyone needs to be able to acknowledge that not everyone agrees about the afterlife and how it works. Atheists may think one thing, but someone of faith will have their own beliefs. They are not wrong, you just don’t agree with them. Equally, you are not wrong, but they disagree with you….

      I’d like to repectfully disagree with you here. We may never know who is right, but someone is right. There either is or is not an afterlife. So while I appreciate you trying to be nice about this, in what other area of your life do you think like this. The doctor who cut of the wrong leg was not wrong, he just had a different interpretation of the X-ray. The aircraft mechanic wasn’t wrong to not sufficently touque the engine mount bolt he just had a different interpretation about how tight it should be. This is not some inconsequential problem this is the religous trying to define the terms of social discourse.

      Ask yourself this. Why is it hurtful for an Athiest to express their athiesm in this circumstance? Why would it be considered by most (including most here) rude to point out that there is no heaven? If they just have a different belief, and we have a different belief no issue. But religion demands everyone shares the collective delusion or none can.

      Specifically in this case you are concerned to knock the faith of a person at their most vunerable because their faith has not psychologically prepared them for what death almost certainly is. The end! So we Athiests are stuck being hypocrites or looking like arseholes. What is more the collective false hope of lost loved ones then threatens to collapse on the poor buggers if they start seeing the light so to speak.

      I may chose very carefully when and where I express my athiesm for all the reasons stated above, but I don’t have to like it, and I certainly don’t condone it. It is not okay to expect this.

    • In reply to #18 by MrEMan:

      I think everyone needs to be able to acknowledge that not everyone agrees about the afterlife and how it works.

      There is no evidence of it existing let alone “working”! This is mythological human centred egotism. It should be obvious that living organisms raging from viruses and bacteria to elephants, do not have “afterlives”. Everyone does not need to agree. As with engineering ideas which don’t work, some people are just plain wrong!

      Atheists may think one thing, but someone of faith will have their own beliefs.

      Beliefs without evidence (the definition of “faith”) allows any belief in anything no matter how ridiculous.

      They are not wrong, you just don’t agree with them.

      No! They are most likely wrong because whimsical thinking without evidence is a process very unlikely to produce reliable results.

      Equally, you are not wrong, but they disagree with you.

      Unevidenced wishful views are not equal to the scientific view of the material universe, which accounts for matter and energy in systems including living ones.

      There is nothing wrong with allowing you to comfort your friend, without giving up what you believe.

      True. There are times for objective challenges, and times for sympathy and sensitivity to the emotional state of others.

  15. That is very likely how the Great Lie got started. People are tempted to tell likes to children when a pet, sibling or relative has died.

    Nobody really believes it, or they would kill themselves.

    Unless she asks you what you believe, you are under no obligation to offer a lecture. Especially when this nonsense drones on and on in funeral ceremonies, I just shut up. No body asked my opinion. Contradicting would just be perceived as a desire to hurt.

    If you want to convince someone, the worst time is when they are clinging to the lie with both feet.

    • In reply to #19 by Roedy:

      That is very likely how the Great Lie got started. People are tempted to tell likes to children when a pet, sibling or relative has died.

      Nobody really believes it, or they would kill themselves.

      I stumbled across the Ricky Gervais movie The Invention Of Lying the other day. never watched it before due to the (rightly) bad reviews but it had its moments and i loved the way the whole idea of god, heaven and commandments suddenly arose from a desperate attempt to placate his mother in her last moments then having to deal with self-contradictions on the fly.

      lets face it religion was never invented by anyone sitting down and thinking it through before spreading the word (apart from scientology maybe)

  16. I do not crap on anyone who is grieving. I also do not crap on anyone who doesn’t ask for it. That doesn’t mean that down the road I’d back off if this grieving mother came at me over the issue…. however, at the moment that this was occurring, I’d let her have her comfort in her time of need.

  17. Theres no dilemma, as an Atheist can can still be a kind and loving human…. so yes her son is in heaven and she will be reunited with him… this is what she believes in… whats the problem, it’s called a “white lie” and people do it all the time, about what people are wearing or the quality of their meal, or their latest haircut…. so why wouldn’t you do this now…. have some empathy.

    • In reply to #24 by GRAViL:

      Theres no dilemma, as an Atheist can can still be a kind and loving human…. so yes her son is in heaven and she will be reunited with him… this is what she believes in… whats the problem, it’s called a “white lie” and people do it all the time, about what people are wearing or the quality of their meal, or their latest haircut…. so why wouldn’t you do this now…. have some empathy.

      Yes, you’ll find most on this tread would do that, me included. However, I for one don’t like lying and I don’t like being told I have to. I resent it. I resent it for reasons I’ve stated above, namely it harms people. Granted, once you are in the delusion then crammiing someones face in it is no way or time to deal with this is ineffective, not the time or place. I cannot wait until socal pressure makes people whatever thier beliefs make no assumptions about my beliefs.

  18. Your English is actually very clear. What your friend is looking for is probably not an objective statement regarding the probability of an afterlife; she just needs to be comforted and have someone take care of her for a while. Don’t worry too much about absolute truth for now; it’s not a scientific paper you’re writing.

  19. Take she Ambert Camus too reading, it s good way for alldays living. Or more seriously, Boris Cyrulnik. (In french, i suppose translated in english and german) doing good thinking life after death personn we lost. Speaking she to life who s continuing, and be happy without dellusion life after death, but do it with love . trust on she. Take she youre friendly, and explane she mustlive again, but death is definitive. She can remember of is good moment of the death personn, is the only way.
    Fabien M

  20. In reply to #28 by DonaldMiller:

    After all in a situation like that it isn’t about you, it’s about the other person

    That’s exactly the way I see it. Its why I can’t really see this as a serious moral dilemma. Its a question of what is more important, the feelings of one or more people in extremely tragic situations or some individual’s desire to be blunt and absolutely truthful.

    You said that Chomsky called Dawkins a religious fanatic, I’ve read and heard Chomsky speak quite a bit and I don’t recall him saying that, do you have a reference?

  21. In reply to #29 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #1 by Nitya:

    This is a moral dilemma encountered by almost every atheist I know. It comes to a point where you are asked to betray everything you stand for in order to put someone’s mind at ease. I think every individual reacts differently and each situation is different. I know when my…

    I felt badly about agreeing to pray for my dear friend because I set myself high standards in my personal honesty and integrity. I can assure you that I showed my friend every bit of genuine concern,encouragement and empathy that I could muster because I very fond of her and had her well being at heart. What I find very difficult is just going through the motions. If I’m not honest with myself how could anyone else trust me to be truthful?

    My crack about the “weight of numbers” was put there because I have a great deal of difficulty following the logic. I can not reconcile the fact that an individual can submit a lone prayer for a parking spot and their wish is granted and yet an entire village has to pray for the recovery of an ailing child, and the outcome may still be unfortunate.

    There must be something in my mode of thinking that is contrary to the majority of the population …except for other atheists. Frankly, I can’t see why you have difficulty with that.

  22. I simply don’t understand why you find the notion of ‘being true to yourself’ problematic in this circumstance. I could have lied…well I did lie!! But agreeing to pray for my friend after I had been so supportive in every way, made me feel awful.

    • *In reply to #37 by Nitya:

      I simply don’t understand why you find the notion of ‘being true to yourself’ problematic in this circumstance. I could have lied…well I did lie!! But agreeing to pray for my friend after I had been so supportive in every way, made me feel awful.

      Well that’s just it it made you feel awful. In a circumstance like this it seems obvious to me that we should be going out of our way to make the bereaved person feel better not those around them. Perhaps you’re young and lucky enough to have never had anyone close to you die or be ill. When it happens, at least for me it can at times be unbearable. I’ll take any comfort I can get, even people who I would tear to shreds if we started talking politics, if those people say they are praying for me I just say thanks. And knowing how it feels I want to reciprocate to others who are in the same situation.

      I think that’s really the core issue. There are times when religion is not the most important issue. When just being human is more important than arguing about whether or not God exists and comforting a bereaved person is clearly such a time.

      I actually had this very thing come up today. An older woman who has helped me out a bit with my mom told me that her mom is sick and asked me to pray for her. In that situation would you really have replied “Ha! Good luck with that, as if praying will help.”? I think I even told this woman a long time ago I was an atheist but people in this part of the country remember what they want to and if you seem like a nice person they assume you are a Christian. In another time and place I would be happy to have a serious discussion with her about atheism but this was clearly not the time. I didn’t say I would pray for her mom but I said something like my thoughts are with her and I didn’t feel bad about saying it at all, I would have felt bad to not be empathetic and to return her kindness with my dogmatic insistence that atheism must be promoted at all times, that is the way a religious fundamentalist acts, not a rational empathic person.

      • In reply to #52 by Red Dog:

        *In reply to #37 by Nitya:

        I simply don’t understand why you find the notion of ‘being true to yourself’ problematic in this circumstance. I could have lied…well I did lie!! But agreeing to pray for my friend after I had been so supportive in every way, made me feel awful.

        Well that’s just it it…

        If the shoe were on the other foot, would you do the same? I think that genuine sympathy and empathy is preferable, in my case anyway. I don’t really mind what people say by way of consolation, as long as its from the heart and not fake.

        Both my parents died in 2009, so I do know what it’s like to lose loved ones. Their lives had become intolerable as they were both in their late eighties and not in good health at all. Friends and family who expressed themselves honestly and said words that were genuine and heartfelt were really helpful. I was able to detect their sincerity and concern. Some however, are capable of bringing forth fake tears at will. I’m not consoled by this in anyway.

        BTW, the last couple of years before my parents died were unbelievably painful. To watch one’s parents, who were once so capable physically and mentally, slip into dementia and lose their mobility, is heartbreaking.

  23. In reply to #38 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #37 by Nitya:

    I simply don’t understand why you find the notion of ‘being true to yourself’ problematic in this circumstance. I could have lied…well I did lie!! But agreeing to pray for my friend after I had been so supportive in every way, made me feel awful.

    I just don’t happen to…

    Umm…I think I agree with you. I still had inner conflict nonetheless.

  24. Hi Donald,

    I’m not sure that the need for religion has evolved. I think it’s a choice that a highly intelligent brain makes in order to shield itself from depression. TBH I see that ‘choice’ as largely concious and not inherently instinctive.

    I think the reason that we have religion is purely because of evolved intelligence.

    In reply to #33 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #6 by Pauly01:

    Where I am from people make God statements. Like ‘God rest him’ , or ‘God be good to him’ and statements like ‘ I know he is in heaven smiling down on us’ , the fact is I am usually never challenged by any of these statements , I see them as an expression of hope. If I ha…

  25. In reply to #41 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #39 by Nitya:

    In reply to #38 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #37 by Nitya:

    I simply don’t understand why you find the notion of ‘being true to yourself’ problematic in this circumstance. I could have lied…well I did lie!! But agreeing to pray for my friend after I had been so supporti…

    Hi again. There are passages worth quoting and I have done so myself in the past. As with most atheists, my knowledge of the bible is fairly extensive. I’ve read many chapters but I couldn’t stick it out in its entirety. Mostly it’s just horrible, primitive drivel, though the odd passage is worth remembering.

    I consider being truthful to myself a very high priority. At times it’s far easier to go with the flow, but unless I really run the risk of hurting someone, I can be counted on to stand up for my views. If I were asked directly if I thought a child was in heaven, I’d probably mumble something conciliatory but I very much doubt that I would say yes, straight out.

  26. Not very smart

    Excuse me? You are writing, excellently, in your fourth language, and know 9 languages in total. Not too shabby…I wish I wasn’t that smart…oh, wait a minute, I’m not. If I didn’t know any better, I’d be really cynical and be calling you a Poe. But I guess living in Belgium one is subject to a variety of languages. Nice place btw, I’ve stayed at Ypres.

    Back to the situation you found yourself in, in my opinion you played it perfectly. Without offending your friend or surrendering your own integrity you did the only thing left. It is your friend that should be feeling guilty. Knowing you like you say she does, as being an atheist that is, it was she that put you in an awkward position. Perhaps in her depression she was not thinking that far ahead. Perhaps it was through her mourning she wasn’t thinking too straight. We’ve all been there. But isn’t worth you beating yourself up over and sometime in the future your friend might come to realize that what you actually did, not commenting either way, was very charitable, given the circumstances.

  27. In reply to #41 by DonaldMiller:

    Oh, by the way, in case you’re wondering what the bible passage was that Hitchens quoted, with his memory, I’m sure he quoted it right off the top of his head,…

    Christopher Hitchens was a master of his Art. He could quote all kinds of literature right off the top of his head, including many bible passages. He is sorely missed.

  28. Hi Donald,

    I never really get into this stuff because I think it will always really be assumptive. So I admit I am not willing to look at this because I think the basis is flawed and it fit’s that somehow evolution can explain everything. From time to time I see posts on RDFRS (not suggesting yours) that people seek to replace the ‘guiding’ hand of god with the ‘guiding’ hand of evolution.

    Anyway my opinion on this is that religion is largely a result of our process of learning; how we draw conclusions and make deductions. It’s a by-product of an intelligent reason based brain.

    The brain is essentially looking for patterns so as it can draw conclusions and make deductions. Religion will follow when you throw emotions into the mix and fluctuating(no woo) brain biology.

    Many here are stuck in the same state about morality , etc. Instead of seeing that an intelligent brain, that is informed by history and experience , shy’s away from destructive behaviour , and naturally adopts behaviour that is more conducive to social harmony.

    In reply to #43 by DonaldMiller:

    In reply to #40 by Pauly01:

    Hi Donald,

    I’m not sure that the need for religion has evolved. I think it’s a choice that a highly intelligent brain makes in order to shield itself from depression. TBH I see that ‘choice’ as largely concious and not inherently instinctive.

    I think the reason that we…

  29. In reply to #34 by DonaldMiller:

    He said, Hitchens and Harris were religious fanatics because they believe in the State Religion. Somehow I remembered it as having to do with making atheism a religion.

    Thanks for that link. With all the Chomsky I’ve watched there are still clips I haven’t seen and that was one. I think Chomsky makes a great point there and its a point that Dawkins and most of the people on this site usually ignore in spite of their claims to reason and critical thought. That is that its possible to be an atheist and still have highly irrational dogmatic beliefs and Sam Harris and Hitchens both fall into that category when they start talking about Islam and US foreign policy.

  30. I would respond with a little tale from my own life. I lost my first wife, after 27 years, to terminal cancer when she was 50. After a while, I got over it, and remarried.

    So when we all end up in heaven, who am I supposed to love best and be faithful to?

    Surely any conceivable outcome will be less than “heaven” for one of us?

  31. I wouldn’t advise telling fibs, but hitting a recently bereaved person with the brutal truth, as we see it, can be very cruel. For a long time now, if devout friends or relatives wish to believe in miracles, then I don’t go out of my way to disappoint them. Here is a little story to explain my reason.

    A week after my graduation in engineering, my uncle and aunt wanted me to visit them to see a miracle. I was then as I am now happy with Cicero’s “There are no miracles; what was incapable of happening never happened, and what was capable of happening is not a miracle”. Nevertheless I went to witness the miracle.

    They had a neon light over the door of their bedroom with elements shaped in the form of an ornate cross. The miracle was that regardless whether the switch was on or off, the crucifix glowed. Being a newly graduated smartarse, I proceeded to dismantle the switch; the flipper-spring had jumped off its anchorage. I repositioned it and the neon crucifix returned to normal; lit when the switch was on, and stood in darkness when off.

    After killing that miracle, the look of utter disappointment, even despair, on the faces of my aunt and uncle shall haunt me to the end of my days. I know miracles are irrational, but we humans have only come down from the trees a couple of million years ago, so give us a break fer krisake.

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