Category Archives: Christian truisms

What do you say to a grieving atheist?

I went to my first Meetup with the Atheist Community of San Jose last night (what a hip group!). The guest speaker was Rebecca Hensler, founder of a project called Grief Beyond Belief.


Rebecca has founded a “faith-free” online community for people who are grieving over the deaths of people they love. It seems fairly obvious that ‘reassurances’ about God, angels, and heaven cannot give comfort to people who don’t believe in such things. But as Rebecca shared her experiences and insights, it became clear that such expressions can be worse than unhelpful — they can compound a grieving person’s trauma.

Her talk contained a few examples of things that believers had said to ‘comfort’ her about the loss of her son Jude, who had lived only three months. These utterances ranged from lame apologetics (e.g., Jude’s death was God’s way of prompting Rebecca to start a grief support organization) to absurd speculation (e.g., “[My adult daughter who died] is holding Jude in her arms right now.”)

She also identified some expressions that are hurtful to anyone who is grieving — chief among them, “I understand how you feel” (especially when followed by “because my cat died”!).

It was especially valuable to hear anecdotes from her life and from online conversations she had moderated, illustrating how deep and debilitating grief can be. This made it even clearer why religious or superstitious ‘comfort’ affects nonbelievers the way it does.

During Q&A, I asked Rebecca for her thoughts on “gracious and constructive” ways for a secular person to respond to well-intended faith-based statements, such as “She’s in a better place” or “You’ll see him again in heaven.” Her response was enlightening. I will paraphrase:

  • A person dealing with the death of a loved one may feel little compulsion to be gracious, and this is understandable.
  • An important function of Grief Beyond Belief is to keep its members out of situations where that kind of graciousness is necessary.

As Rebecca’s answer sank in, I realized I had been viewing these hypothetical believer-nonbeliever conversations from the perspective of an activist or evangelist. It’s true that any conversation with a person of faith is an opportunity to help him or her on the path to a more reliable epistemology, but who says we have to leap at every opportunity, regardless of our feelings, needs, abilities, and circumstances? Expecting fellow nonbelievers to be perpetual ambassadors, always on duty, at the expense of their own well-being — well, that’s the kind of irrational values system that drove so many of us out of religion in the first place!

One more take-away: In her talk, Rebecca said that people tend to open up when they are asked to give details about the person they lost. That is not surprising, and it helps illuminate why statements — particularly fantasy-based statements, but really any kind — are so unhelpful for people experiencing grief: They are conversation stoppers. “She’s in a better place [and that’s that].” “You’ll see him again in heaven [so stop being sad].” Giving a bereaved person the floor — to talk, to cry, to be silent — seems much more compassionate than delivering a tired sound bite.

I admire Rebecca for starting and running Grief Beyond Belief, and I’m grateful for what I learned from her talk.


My quadrilemma

Here is just one simple example of the problem of evil:

On Sunday, parents and kids from my son’s Cub Scout den packed food at a place called Kids Against Hunger. Before we started work, the staff showed us a video about the cause. One statistic cited in the video was that more than half of children in Haiti die of malnutrition before the age of 15. Whether that statistic is completely accurate or not, it’s safe to say that many children die of malnutrition in Haiti through no fault of their own.

Children eating food provided via Kids Against HungerAre we supposed to believe (and tell our children!) that there is a god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering but (for good but mysterious reasons) allows many of them to starve to death?

Clearly there is no god who cares about children in Haiti and could prevent their suffering. So here’s the quadrilemma: Is there a powerless god, an apathetic god, a powerless and apathetic god, or no god? (Answer: It doesn’t matter which. As the A-Unicornist writes, “the only thing worse than a God who does not exist is a God who might as well not exist.”)

This isn’t a recreational mental exercise. How we think about this stuff has very real consequences. For example, if we believe in a God who *could* alleviate suffering anywhere and everywhere if he really wanted to, then we must conclude that he doesn’t really want to, because the suffering is there (and always has been, in abundance). And if God himself thinks there is a good reason for people to suffer, why should we bother to help them?

Now I know what you, my dear apologist, are thinking: “People suffer *so* we can help them.” Well, that’s a shitty reason. Do you really think a benevolent god operates that way, that it’s ‘all-loving’ to allow (or cause) many people to suffer and die because *some* good will come from *some* people helping *some* of them?

“Life isn’t fair, but God is good” — this is true only if “good” means “less cruel than he could have been.”

Irreconcilable and not worth reconciling

ImageI challenge you to do a web search on “reconciling tragedy with God” and find one search result that adequately does that.

Find one blog post or book excerpt that explains, to your satisfaction (not its author’s satisfaction), why the suffering that humans experience every day — not just in Connecticut last Friday but everywhere all the time — is a necessary part of the “perfect will” of a god who “is love.”

Looking on the bright side is not enough. The challenge is to explain why there has to be a dark side in the first place.

The best anyone can do in this regard is to say “We can’t know God’s purpose in allowing [or, rather, designing!]  this kind of suffering.” This is a non-explanation. If a god is so sovereign and mysterious that nothing he does ever has to make sense to us, then “reconciling tragedy with God” is a pointless exercise.

Bizarrely, belief in this kind of god is no more consoling than believing in no god. Either way, there is no guarantee that you or someone you care about won’t be the next to experience unspeakable fear or pain. So what does it mean when you assert that God is “good” and “in control” and “merciful” and “never gives you more than you can handle” and “answers prayer” and “cares about his children”? The only way for these things to be true of God is for us to strip them of the meanings that they have for everyone else.

Please, for your own peace of mind, admit (or at least consider the possibility) that all the senseless anguish in the world is really senseless, that there is no divine plan that it all ties into, and that it really is completely on us to watch out for each other.

What’s the worst that can happen?

“What if you’re wrong?” the Christian asked the atheist.

The atheist answered:

“I think you are asking, ‘What if the Christian god is real and your lack of belief in him is what disqualifies you from salvation?’

“If that is the question, it is an example of an either-or fallacy. It suggests there are only two possibilities: that there is no god, and that there is a god whose only requirements for salvation are those presented in Christianity. Ironically, the question is also an appeal to fear of the worst-case scenario. So I must point out that there are countless other logical possibilities to consider — some of them far worse cases than the two you have presented.

“Just think of any established religion whose salvation requirements are stricter than those of Christianity. What if you are right about the existence of a god but wrong about what he requires for salvation, and you don’t make the cut?

“If you were consistent in your appeal to the worst-case scenario, you would be striving to identify all the religions that have salvation doctrines and then striving to meet all of their salvation requirements. But it would be absurd to do that. You have to take probabilities into account.

“For whatever reason, you have concluded that the claims of Christianity are so likely to be true and that the claims of other religions are so likely to be false that you can rest assured that you are saved.

“The same kind of scrutiny that has enabled you to rule out the claims of all non-Christian religions has enabled me to rule out the claims of all religions.

“Neither of us is prepared for the theoretical worst-case scenario. But I think both of us feel safe from eternal damnation according our individual views of reality.”

See also: Dear Christian: Do your beliefs pass the pillow test?

If you were put on trial …

“If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

I first heard that question as a teen in youth Sunday school. It was meant both as a challenge and as a way of stating that real Christianity entails more than lip service.

The implication was: “If you say you are a Christian but there is no evidence, start producing evidence!” — a stance that assumes the person in question is a Christian.

Today, when I look at a professing Christian who bears no evidence, I think, “Cultural Christian” or “Not a Christian.” Innocent until proven guilty!

What’s the harm? again

Sorry for this obsession with Pascal’s wager, but I must say there is considerable harm in trying to be a Christian — lots of unnecessary stress, wasted time and inner conflict — if the Christian god is not real.

The three activities that are pitched as fundamental to living a good Christian life — praying (with a Christian mindset), reading the Bible and attending church — are arguably the most counterproductive things you can do with your time if the Christian god is not real.

Christians do these things to counterbalance the ‘natural’ way that they think, feel and operate.

“There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” — Proverbs 14:12 (and 16:25)

Christians are urged to ask, as the basis for every decision, “What does God want me to do?” or to ask God “What shall I do?” The ‘right’ question in Christianity is not “What is the most practical thing to do?” or “What is the most utilitarian thing to do?” or even “What is the most moral thing to do?” but, in essence, “What illogical or counter-intuitive thing does God want me to do instead of what I would have done just thinking for myself?”

Pondering decisions analytically is constructive, but the Bible discourages analysis and instead encourages tapping into God’s wisdom.

And although studying the Bible can be viewed as an analytical activity, the Bible really doesn’t say ‘how to do life’ as much as it says ‘how to deal with God.’ It is an anthology of how various people and groups have fared in trying to please (or just deal with) a god whose rules, judgments and actions are utterly unpredictable. If this god doesn’t exist, the Bible tells you virtually nothing useful — and even if he does exist, it still provides only vague clues, since we are clearly living in a ‘dispensation’ in which God does not interact with people as he did even 2,000 years ago.

Does it matter?

Even if the Christian god is real, he guarantees nothing. The wicked often prosper, and the innocent often suffer. Go to war, walk through gang territory or climb a glacier and there will be no special protection for you just because you are a believer. You may take comfort in believing that any pain you experience is only by God’s permission, but what difference does it make, especially if his reason for ‘allowing’ your suffering is beyond your comprehension? Is there any practical difference between “Stuff happens” and “God allows stuff to happen”?

A fresh take on the old ant analogy

The Onion nails it yet again.

Believe and you will believe

Matthew Chapman, in the “Intelligence Squared” debate “Would the World Be Better Off Without Religion?” (excerpted text begins at the 10:21 mark) :

“There are literally thousands of gods available. Which one you believe in is really just an accident of birth. … How, then, do [people] know that their god exists and that other gods don’t, or that their god is better than the other gods? Because they have been told by an authority figure. He said, ‘Our god is supreme, but he is invisible. We have no proof he exists, but if you have faith — if you make a big effort to believe in him — you will believe in him.’ It’s fantastic: They take the weakest point of the argument and make it a condition of entry, [so] that you overlook it. “

The plausibility-culpability connection

Often, when theists are confronted with logic, knowledge or experiences that seem incompatible with their beliefs, they invoke God’s transcendence of human logic, knowledge and experiences.  But if there is such a god, and he wants humans to believe a certain thing, he must understand that the less that thing aligns with human logic, knowledge and experiences, the less reasonable it is to expect humans to believe it — thus, the less culpable humans are in rejecting it.