Annoying statement from my mother in law


Discussion by: JanErikT

Every time I am saying something a bit negative about religion or even just commenting on something religious, my mother in law (who is an agnostic, or at least she says so) says that "When your laying there dying, everybody’s a theist". And that sentence really annoys me, and I haven’t really said anything good back because I feel I don’t have a good argument for why that is wrong. I mean that it’s a completely BS thing to say, but can’t shake the felling that she is probably a little right; some atheist will probably pray when close to death. But is that relevant? They are scared and close to dying, wouldn’t they try anything to stay alive?
Any ideas how to respond?


  1. Just tell her that the second after death there are no theists.

    Fear can elicit many irrational actions. However, I have personally seen two atheists pass away and remain godless through the whole process. They were two very strong people. I hope I have the dignity and strength that these two displayed during some stressful times. BTW, what does her statement prove??? Nothing. Just because a dying brain sees a light as it starves for oxygen does not prove that the bright light is heaven.

    I almost wrote “tell her to die and get back to you after”, but I am trying to be a kinder, gentler crookedshoes.

  2. “When your laying there dying, everybody’s a theist”.

    1. I guess Christopher Hitchens has something to say here!
    2. If she reduces her argument to “Many” or “most of them” I hope she can provide the statistics.
    3. Just for the sake of argument, what if everybody was a theist when they were dying? The lack of belief based of absence of evidence is still the logical choice.
    4. What value does it add to theism when a dying person, out of fear and agony screams”I believe in God”.

    There is so many things wrong with this statement. the right thing to do is to to ask her what does she means by that? What is it she’s pointing to? Does she think that not believing in a god based on reasoning and critical thinking becomes less RIGHT when a dying person suddenly is a theist based on no evidence?

    Is she an agnostic -theist or agnostic- atheist? If she’s an Agnostic atheist, isn’t that the case that she’s an unbeliever too? She doesn’t know whether a god or gods exist and she doesn’t believe in something she doesn’t know anything about and can’t confirm it. It’s just some of those WTF moments.

  3. If someone said that to me, I would reply, “So?” And my follow-up line would be, “Being a theist does not mean there is a god.” If my interlocutor sought to argue the point, I would simply maintain this stance by insisting that belief in something does not make it true. In this particular case, it makes no difference whether one is a theist or an atheist on one’s deathbed, for death is the end of all one’s thoughts and beliefs. If you would like to be a little more lighthearted with your mother-in-law though, you could say that on your deathbed you would still be the atheist you are, but would remain open to surprises, especially nice ones.

  4. I would ask her how many atheists she has witnessed become religious at the last minute, I doubt she has. Crooked shoes has already mentioned two instances of atheists dying and staying atheist and I am sure that is the normal response. Just because she would cling on by being irrational does not mean others would.

    From my perspective as a haemophiliac, I have had a few situations when I have been close to death and have never thought about changing. The last was a couple of years ago following a haemorrhaging duodenal ulcer, my HG count dropped to 3.8, which would normally be fatal, and I required 10 units of blood, the first two of which were not dripped in but the hospital staff were squeezing the bags to force the blood in quick enough. It was actually quite an interesting experience, having a doctor each side inserting setting up an IV in either arm and then forcing the blood through appeared to be a sort of human equivalent of a Formula One pit stop. I was never overly-concerned, either I would survive or not. Perhaps being a regular bleeder helped, it was something I was used to but I certainly did not think any religious thoughts.

    I am not sure whether this story is true or not but I can believe it. The comedian WC Fields was an atheist and shortly before his death a friend saw him reading a hospital bible. When asked what he was doing with it, Fields replied: “Looking for loopholes.”

    • Much respect.

      In reply to #4 by Stephen Mynett:

      I would ask her how many atheists she has witnessed become religious at the last minute, I doubt she has. Crooked shoes has already mentioned two instances of atheists dying and staying atheist and I am sure that is the normal response. Just because she would cling on by being irrational does not me…

  5. I watched my atheist wife of 27 years die far too young and not very prettily (intubated, nil-by-mouth for three months). It was a very nasty and very rare cancer where the death rate is nearly 100%. She was conscious and lucid to the end. At no time did she change her views about atheism, and neither did I start praying for her. Her mother, a pretty devout churchgoing Christian, pretty much lost her faith when her (only) daughter died, following the reasoning that even if we’ve all got to go some time,if there were a god he would not make us go like that.

    I know anecdotes are not evidence, but your MIL is talking nonsense.

  6. Aside from the logical weakness of her argument, her grammar is crap. It should be “when you are LYING* there dying…” Aside from that, Crooked shoes’ rejoinder of “The second after death there are no theists” seems the perfect reply.

    *LAYING requires an object, so the only sentence possible would be “If a hen is laying an egg there and dying….”

  7. In reply to #6 by Stevehill:

    Hey, I know how much that hurts (because of my own loss). Hopefully sharing your pain helps you deal with it. I feel some of it now too. You are an inspiration to me and (hopefully) all who see your candor. honesty is the hardest policy.
    crooked (Jim)

    I watched my atheist wife of 27 years die far too young and not very prettily (intubated, nil-by-mouth for three months). It was a very nasty and very rare cancer where the death rate is nearly 100%. She was conscious and lucid to the end. At no time did she change her views about atheism, and ne…

    • In reply to #9 by crookedshoes:

      In reply to #6 by Stevehill:

      Hey, I know how much that hurts (because of my own loss). Hopefully sharing your pain helps you deal with it. I feel some of it now too. You are an inspiration to me and (hopefully) all who see your candor. honesty is the hardest policy.
      crooked (Jim)

      BTW I wish I knew her and feel honored to know her through you.

      I watched my…

      • In reply to #10 by crookedshoes:

        BTW I wish I knew her and feel honored to know her through you.

        Thanks. It was ten years ago now, so I’m pretty much over it, in so far as one ever is. She was a pretty gutsy lady. Her consultant, one of the three or four leading oncologists in the UK, said she was the bravest person he had ever met.

        She was a (properly-qualified, non-woo) psychotherapist. A fact she never revealed to her medical staff. We used to play games rating them all on their bedside manner and counselling skills. “Was that a good way to tell someone they are probably going to die?” “No I’d give her about 3/10. Where she went wrong was….”

        • In reply to #20 by Stevehill:

          I do wish the “like” button said something more neutral like “approve”…but even that doesn’t do it. Many times I’ve wanted to show my support for, empathy with, or sadness over a post. Liking it just doesn’t cut it. It was most moving to hear about your wife, Steve. Knowing about her helps.

  8. We can all say declarative things without qualification. I think that your mother in law either is making a reactive statement to the idea that everything can be rationalised or she is expressing an empathetic response to the idea of facing death alone and in many cases broken.

    Similar to the response that there are no atheists in a cancer ward.

  9. You should ask her if she has evidence to back up that assertion or is it just her opinion.

    Then ask her if she thought it would make the slightest difference.

    If there are no gods and no afterlife, then it doesn’t.

    If there are gods and a person hypocritically changes their lifelong commitment to rationalism, then that may well cost them their place in heaven for embracing what is convenient over what is provable, and is therefore the wrong thing to do.

    Pascal’s Wager has too many holes in it to make it a reliable guide.

  10. I can think of 4 responses:

    • How does She know? Even if she’s a Nurse in a Hospice, and frequently at the bedside of people who are dying, that does not give her any special insight. Is she a Mind Reader?

    • Fear of death is common and we are all tempted to compromise our principles in the face of extremes. Although death is not an extreme, in the bigger picture, that’s extremely difficult to see on a personal level.

    • There are plenty of instances when people have obviously not been religious while dying – She is plain wrong. Though it is difficult to find examples to quote. There is a good reason for this absence: Relatives who are religious have an incentive to publicise deathbed conversion. People who die atheists are either an embarrassment to religious relatives, or they simply died a natural death – nothing to report.

    • I was reminded of the time when an Old Man lay dying. He told his Daughter to: “Go out and find me a Catholic Priest, a Rabbi and a Pandit (Hindu Priest)”.

    His Daughter replied: “But Dad, your a Presbyterian, why?”

    Old Man: “Today, I hedge my bets.”


  11. I’d say that of course it’s not surprising what years of brainwashing, propaganda, religious hyperbole, threats and fear can do to a person. Death, prayer and salvation are religion’s most manipulative marketing tactics.

  12. Every time I am saying something a bit negative about religion or even just commenting on something religious, my mother in law (who is an agnostic, or at least she says so)

    Many who claim to be “agnostics”, are merely theists with a few doubts, or are simply posing as having a “moderates in the middle” (fudged) position between two views, to appear “reasonable”.

  13. Because it’s not true, that’s why. So a good response to your mother-in-law’s line is,
    “Oh, and you know a lot of atheists, do you?” (then it’s up to the other party to provide evidence). You can leave it right there, but if you wish to continue, you can say that it is not only wrong, but irrelevant to whether religion is true or not. Finally, bring it back to the believers and say that there are no true believers in hospitals. If you believe God can save you, but go to a doctor or hospital and use medical help, you’re not really a true believer. “There are no true believers in fox holes. Otherwise there would be no fox holes.”

  14. She’s making an unfounded claim based on her opinion.

    And anyway, if you’re slowly sinking in quicksand, and the only thing to grab onto is a cooked strand of spaghetti hanging from a tree limb (for some weird reason), you are probably going to grab it at some point and pull it down. Does that mean you suddenly think spaghetti has the tensile strength to support your weight as you pull yourself out? No, probably not. You are just responding to the drive to try anything to survive. And that survival instinct is the product of evolution.

    So even if some atheists are willing to try a desperate prayer as they die, it certainly doesn’t mean that they suddenly believe, or that there is a god listening. In the end, they know the spaghetti will snap.

    Having said all that, I have never heard of any atheists having ‘deathbed conversions’ other than a few famous ones, which are claims that have been debunked.

  15. This is related to the no atheists in foxholes argument which conflates faith with despair, because as a matter of survival we do all sorts of crazy things when we’re desperate.

    But just because someone does something radical out of despair doesn’t make that true to their character, and just because people will say things under duress or necessity doesn’t make them true. In fact, generally quite the opposite.

    Otherwise torture would actually work as a means to gather intelligence. And swordpoint conversions would actually work.

    I will admit that when I have to face death, I may wish for life to continue. I might hope that this is just a simulation and I’ll be allowed to respawn, but that’s because I really like living and want to continue doing it. That’s not because I think it is likely. (In truth we have no idea how plausible the simulation argument is.)

    It is not cowardice to run from artillery, nor is it hypocritical to pray as you die any more than it is to (as is also common on the battlefield) beg for your mother.

    • In reply to #24 by —
      :email: !binary |-
      :username: !binary |-

      I have a strong suspicion that your mother in law is right. At the end of the day when you are in such a situation you go and no one will ever know what were your last thoughts.

      Not in my Dad’s case, — :ema. To the end he talked of how important death was. He told me our deaths gifted those alive “the best seat in the house” to view things from, Man, the world, the universe. Life and understanding can only evolve if we also die. We all contribute to the collective adventure.

      I liked Mervyn Peake’s un-greedy epitaph-

      “To have lived at all is miracle enough.”

  16. People also empty their bowels upon death. So? Death seems to bring out all sorts of crap. Furthermore, wishing for something out of desperation or fear (including a god) doesn’t make it any more real.

  17. A bit of nuance here. Religion does not necessarily imply theism. A dying Buddhist or Jain may believe in a better next incarnation, but still doesn’t think of believing in a “God”.

  18. Let’s say it is true. You don’t think straight when you are under stress, and Christian buzzards are circling hoping for a last minute score.

    Next I don’t trust a Christian who claims a death bed conversion when they were the only witness. They don’t tell the truth about anything else either. Anything for a toaster.

    I suppose though pressure for death conversion in the most sincere. They are not going to get much out of you in tithes.

    • In reply to #30 by hawksy:

      If you are having prolonged conversations with your mother in law, I fear you have already died and gone to hell :)

      I don’t believe in mothers in law. They’re just scary things made up to put boys off getting married too soon.

  19. Your mother in law annoys you….. welcome to the club!!

    If this has happened so often that it annoys you, my guess is that you are also annoying her!

    She doesn’t want to hear your athiest views…. why waste your time??

  20. I died once and I was resurrected. Not by a miracle of some god. I woke with 3 doctors around me, one shining a light in my face. All I could think about was how grateful I was to those hardworking people, and to the science that allowed them to resuscitate me. It didn’t shake my atheism one bit. Indeed it made me more convinced of how important reason is.

  21. the problem with her comment, like so many comments i really hate, is it’s an ill-informed mantra that to the person spouting it, sounds profound and meaningful.

    so let’s disect.

    firstly, this simply has no evidence to back it up. one sad fact about dying, is it’s very likely you’ll be alone when it happens. the comforting image of an elder family member surrounded by their loved ones in a nice warm bed just isn’t the way most of you 7billion apes will finish up. you’re too selfish and violent and there simply aren’t enough of you to spare someone to be there taking a survey at everyone’s last moments.

    secondly, there is evidence available if you want to look for it. nursing homes, hospices etc. the places you think of as sad yet the very few times any of you will get to have your hand held at the last minute. the anecdotes i’ve heard from care workers is that people don’t become more religious or less, they become more tired, less interested, just wanting it all to be over soon regardless of if they think they’re going somewhere nice aftarwards or not.

    then you have the less plesant deaths, the violent ones, people killed in wars for example. some call out for god. is that because they changed from atheist to theist in that last moment? who knows?

    some have been heard calling for their mothers. do they suddenly believe in parents suddenly appearing in the middle of battlefields and whisking them away to safety? i’m guessing not, i’m guessing it’s a response they have little control over but either way would you suggest this is evidence for a class of superhuman deities who happen to be our mums as well? some just cry. why cry? that’s what babies do for attention, is everyone just a big cry-baby when they die?

    the response i’d give to such a comment is “how dare you be so disrespectful to the dying?” how would she like it if a man made such a sweeping comment about all women?

    I would then consult the works of Les Dawson for some choice mother-in-law jokes

  22. Is she claiming that religious belief is intuitive to humans? It probably is. So is murder and various other anti-social activities that have been conditioned out of the civilised mind. People who are dying are also often incontinent – does this also mean that they are slovenly?
    If a philosophies strongest evidence of support rests on the behaviour of delirious people in their last moments of life then it has profound weaknesses. What do people say when they’re at their most rational? Oh yes, they often reject religion and all its absurdities.
    Anyway, were’s the evidence supporting the claim?

  23. Christopher Hitchens in the 60 minutes interview he says he wants to say something amusing when he dies. All humor aside fear of dying can have a profound effect on a person psychologically, but it ultimately comes down to how you are prepared for death. Christian faith would have you question all of your thoughts an actions throughout your life and repent for anything “god” says is wrong. As a non-theist the belief in eternal damnation for misdeeds is not present. A rational person would believe that death is an inevitable part of living, and face their death admirably and be remembered for their good deeds and good heart. Know that no matter who is right about what happens when you die you will live as a memory in the lives of all the people you touched with your kindness, wisdom and understanding. The people who really matter will remember you not for which fantasy you believed in about “afterlife” , but for how you lived your life .

  24. The comment from your mother is law might actually not be stupid, if she means that ultimately everybody believe because of fear of death.
    On the other hand, if she means that dying people have access to higher truth, then simply ask her why she thinks so. What is your true view point: when you are healthy and thinking straight, or when you are panicking on the verge of dying ?

  25. I have an aunt who only goes to church for weddings and funerals. She still holds on to a belief that there is a god but obviously doesn’t get involved in the rituals of organised religion. I would guess that she has been baptised but don’t know for sure. One day my uncle and I were discussing religion and I stated that I was an atheist. He himself is pantheistic in his beliefs so we often have good open discussions on the whole subject of religion. I remember once my aunt asking me why I was a Heathen. (some theists describe atheists as Heathens) I told her that I was actually a baptised and formally indoctrinated member of the C of E but lost my faith when I was refused the body of Christ as a child. I discovered it was because I hadn’t been to confirmation. I felt pretty rejected when the vicar put his hand on my head and whispered that I wasnt ready to recieve the body of Christ when I thought I was good and ready. I believed in him as much as any of the other members who were kneeling in the front row, so in my mind I was entitled to take the body of Christ. I realised from that moment that the church was just a club with an initiation process and I didn’t want any part of it. I only ever enter a church out of architectural curiosity these days. I never became an atheist overnight but that event was the catalyst. I suppose I have the vicar himself to thank for my atheism, or as some would say, my Heathenism. 😉

  26. Last year I found myself in the Emergency Room at Stanford University Hospital. I won’t go into details but my condition was life threatening. But here’s my point. I was amazed to discover that I was glad I was an atheist.

    Had I been religious I know I’d have been praying to God for a recovery and if that recovery didn’t come my faith would have been crushed. It seemed to me that my atheism gave me an odd sort of advantage.

    I know how odd that sounds but it was true. I just hope that you never have to find yourself in a similar situation.

  27. Tell her about Christopher Hitchens! After all, how many counter-examples do you need to refute her “Everbody’s”? You only need one. Point out that you and CH have one thing in common: neither of you are crazy, or stupid.

    Here’s another point: tell her that of all the people who die in hospitals, very few ever ask for a chaplain or priest.

    Or just say, “Oh, please do SHUT UP!”

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