Kicking the Crutches Away

In a previous post, I defended the conclusion that atheists should, under certain circumstances, evangelize on behalf of atheism. I recently read a story that bears on this conclusion, thanks to a recent edition of the Grand Rounds medical blog carnival – a beautiful and moving post titled “The rites of passage“, about a badly injured old man admitted to the emergency room who kept himself alive, seemingly by an act of pure will, until a priest could be found to administer him his last rites.

I am not ashamed to admit that this story touched me deeply. As I wrote in the essay “Stardust“, there are real reasons why the need for religion is so enduring and so strong in human beings. We atheists forget this at our peril. The injustices perpetrated in the name of faith need to be strongly criticized, there can be no doubt about that; but if in the process of doing so we overlook the very real and sincere reasons why people believe, we risk appearing insensitive, angry, dismissive of the things people hold most sacred.

Religious apologists without number have accused atheism of being a gloomy, dismal worldview that deprives people of hope. This is not true – if anything, atheism is a liberation, a freedom from the heavy, clanking dogmas and ossified creeds of religion and all the unnecessary guilt and fear they engender. But the question remains: what, if anything, should we say to the people who have grown dependent on religion as the source of meaning and purpose in their lives and who may have little time left to change that decision?

I advocated atheist evangelism on a political and not an individual level, but this does not answer the basic dilemma. If we truly believe that atheism is a positive and beneficial worldview, as I do, then should we not want everyone to adopt it, even the dying man of that story? Or is it, under some circumstances, better to allow people to persist in what we see as a delusion, and if so, what does that say about the relative value of the truth?

This is a complex and difficult issue, one that does not admit of bumper-sticker solutions. However, there is one moral principle that I hope brings clarity to the discussion. Namely, I believe that it is deeply wrong to bother people with issues of lesser importance when they are in the midst of a life-or-death crisis, or any other serious personal tragedy or catastrophe. Some religious evangelists prey on people in their weakest and most vulnerable state, but we should be better than that. After all, we have no concern for “saving souls”.

This principle should help guide decisions in cases such as these. I stand by the claim that atheism is a positive worldview, and more importantly, that it is true; and I stand by the claim that we should encourage people to adopt it for these reasons. However, I do not think it serves any worthy purpose to preach at the bedsides of the dying. If a person recovers and has a rich and full life ahead of them, one that could be improved by their becoming atheists, then I would not hesitate to offer them this good news. On the other hand, if a person is passing away who has been sincerely religious all their life, then to be honest, what harm will it do them to remain religious for just a short while longer? In the absence of crippling, ongoing harm their beliefs are doing them, basic considerations of respect suggest that we should not intrude upon their lives in the most personal of all moments.

There are two exceptions that occur to me, both related to the significant clause “absence of ongoing harm”. One is if their beliefs are actually causing their jeopardy – for example, a Jehovah’s Witness who is dying and refuses, based on their religion, to receive a life-saving blood transfusion. The other is if the person is not at peace with their situation, but is in a state of emotional distress due to their beliefs – for example, a dying theist consumed with fear of damnation. In both cases, it would not be improper to try to help that person by encouraging them to adopt atheism, even in their last moments.

A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
“Choose Faith in Spite of the Facts”
Photo Sunday: Stone Wall, Winter
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Dominic Self

    I don’t think you actually have to go this extreme to find situations where you ‘go along’ with religion without complaint and just chill out (something atheists are lucky enough to be able to do!). You’d have to be a bit sad to jump up and down in the middle of a wedding to protest at the religious bits, or boo the school nativity play. :) Like death, the religious element isn’t really substantial enough to be central to the rite of passage so it’d be sucidial to let a position against religion dictate your life. Plus you’d lose all of your friends pretty quickly :D

  • Montu

    For the most part I agree with this article, I don’t believe it to be tactful to try and advocate atheism to those who truly need something else to help them through a critical situation in their lives, or at the moment of death. However, I don’t agree with the last paragraph. First, I don’t necessarily agree that the Jehovah’s Witness is wrong by choosing to simply pass away without interference, even if that choice is based on a religious belief. Even from a rational viewpoint, it still makes some sense if you think about it in terms of natural selection. Without technology, or in a different time period then the one we live in now, a blood transfusion would not be possible, therefore this person would die anyways. Death is not bad, it is a very important part of life, and even though technology has allowed us to live longer and healthier lives, I don’t believe that it is wrong to say that someone shouldn’t be allowed to make the choice to refuse treatment. An atheist could just as easily refuse treatment because they believe it interferes with natural selection. But I think that it should be a choice made by the individual. Now I should make it clear that I mean this choice should be allowed on a personal basis, by someone who understands their choices, I DON’T believe that a person should force this choice on others, such as parents refusing treatment for their child. If treatment can help another, and that person wants the treatment (or is not old enough to know one way or the other), then treatment of course should be given, regardless of what those around the person believe.

    I also disagree with trying to convert someone who is dying and afraid of eternal damnation, because this person may actually have reason to fear this. As I read the above statement of converting a scared dying person, it sounds to me that it is operating on the belief that this person has lived a relatively good life. However, this is not always the case, this person may be realizing that they spent their entire lives hurting and abusing others, themselves, or have been a down right bad person. In their dying moment, they will come to realize that they don’t have a second chance to rectify their lives, so yes, if they are religious, they are probably very scared that they’ll be damned. However, I can see converting to atheism in this situation as being almost more frightening then the fear of damnation for this reason: the belief in an eternal life gives the believer the hope that they may be able to “repent” (for lack of a better term), and believe that they may be forgiven, eventually, even if it’s after death. However, if you convert this same person to atheism, and tell them that there is nothing after this life, everything that they have done up to this point will be the grand total of their existence, and forgiveness will not be forthcoming, this seems like it would be even more frightening, because it lacks hope. What does it matter to us if this person dies believing that one day they may be forgiven, if they only spend enough time in hell? If this person dies knowing they have been wrong, but their belief system allows for forgiveness at some time in the distant future after death, shouldn’t we allow them that hope?

    I think this may be something that we forget as atheists, that religion is most powerful, and perhaps most useful to those who haven’t tried to do the best they can, at the end of their lives. As atheists, at least in my experience, we try to make our lives as meaningful as we can, because we know that in the end, this is all we have (and I’m in no way saying that this is the only reason that we try to make our lives meaningful, just a part). I think we tend to forget that this isn’t the case for everyone, and that religion has a tendency of being used by those who live otherwise unfulfilling lives as a hope that there’s some forgiveness. If we do try to convert, I think it’s helpful, and perhaps most tactful, to do it in the beginning or middle of a person’s life, when they still have a chance to make their lives better (if the person is a “bad” person), and leave their beliefs alone once a person reaches their death bed.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I think the article is a little to focused. I mean, on such a tiny matter, it’s not worth really having a general rule of thumb. But even beyond that, the general rule should still be respect of their religion; whether they are dying or not, we shouldn’t trying to deconvert people when they don’t want to hear it. Even if that person is dying because of that belief, that is their call; living in a way that makes you feel fulfilled is much more important than just living. People like that probably see the choices as “die happily” or “live miserably”, they logically might take that first option.

    And Montu, I partially agree with the children issue; but then again, I don’t entirely. Recently, a member of my extended family had cancer, but as a minor, the government was attempting to mandate his treatment. My aunt wanted to take him to some other hospitals and get some better treatment, but they actually threatened to take her kid away. Just pointing out that that’s a decent rule, but be careful of exactly how you use it.

  • Montu

    BlackWizard, wow, I’m sorry! That’s not what I meant at all, and what the government tried to do to your aunt is terrible! As a general rule, I don’t believe that government should step in and tell a person what kind of treatment they can and can not get, and in this case, I think the government is particularly wrong. Your aunt was quiet obviously trying to get the best treatment she could for her son, the state had no right to tell her that she couldn’t do that! I don’t even know what to say, that just makes me increadibly angry.

    My point was this: a parent has the responsibility to make sure that their children live a full and healthy life. If the child becomes sick, it is the parents responsibility to bring that child back to health, and as such, they should take advantage of all availble technology and resources. A parent’s personal religious belief should not be forced on the child, expessially if it hinders their well being. At no point do I believe that the state should be involved in this situation (other then to simply provide the money nessiccary to pay for treatment (though I can see it being neccissary if the parent is putting the child in undue harm)), it should be the will of the parent to raise their child to be a healthy adult.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    Well, my point was just making sure that there is a clear difference between parent’s not giving what maybe SOME would call the best treatment, and religious issues quite clearly damaging children. I especially brought it up since it’s become common lately to do things similar. See, my aunt wanted to put my cousin through some alternative medicine methods. They worked, actually, but still, she had the threat. I guess I just wanted to put some clear limits on it. Even though I dislike it, there are few things that I would limit that parent’s could do because of religion unless it’s clearly dangerous.

  • Montu

    Ah, I see. Well, personally, I don’t have anything against alternitive medicine, as long as it’s working for the patient. And sense it was, I think it was wrong of the government to step in and say she couldn’t do it, sense he was getting better. I am really sorry for what happened to your cousin and aunt, though. I hope he’s doing better.

  • Azkyroth

    Why didn’t my earlier comment “stick”…

    Hmm. As I attempted to say, I’m inclined to agree, though I’m curious how this would apply to dealing with people who are facing the prospect of losing someone they love (particularly if the person is concerned that their loved one will be facing damnation, etc.).

    Anyway, I think some of you are confusing concepts a bit here. I agree with both you and Adam (I think): a person should be “allowed” to refuse treatment for themself (it’s a valid gender-neutral pronoun *now* ^.^) on religious grounds in the sense of being legally permitted to do so, and not being physically prevented from doing so. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to convince the person to do otherwise.

    As for the alternative medicine methods, I can empathize on the strong-arm tactics, but the fact that most alternative medicine methods haven’t been vigorously evaluated by medical science, and that the majority of those that have tend to prove ineffective aside from the placebo effect, would be enough to make any rational person wary of wasting time and energy pursuing them instead of methods that have been properly evaluated. What methods are we talking about here? And what’s their known success rate?

    At any rate, an analogy I’ve used for a while is that freedom of religion no more grants a parent the right to endanger their child’s health or life by refusing them necessary medical treatment than it permits them to slaughter the same child on an altar as a blood sacrifice.

  • Luciano Dondero

    Well, I don’t see how that story has any relation to whether one does or does not argue for reason and against obscurantism — which is what atheism vs religion boils down to — the man is afraid of going to hell, he wants to get a priest to save his soul. Does his waiting one hour, two hours, whatever, before dying, change his life?
    On the other hand, it shows that we can actually delay death with our willpower, which is rather significant from a materialistic standpoint.
    Do you know Scott Atran’s book on religion? It’s pretty good on putting together a history of our various needs for consolation in the face of death and how this interacts with our cognitive abilities.

  • BlackWizardMagus

    I’m trying not to make my personal anecdote the focus, so I will try and sum up my point here. Basically, I worry that because it’s usually more religious/spiritual people who use alternative medicine that it’s more and more common to assume that alternative medicine is as irrational as the belief of it’s users. And it’s not. Already, there are many herbs and other natural substances that have been shown to have a notable effect on cancer or other bad diseases, but instead of being embraced, they have been completely ignored by the mainstream medical society and in a few cases outlawed. I never totally believe on side of a story, so I am sure it’s a little exagerated, but I do not think it’s a complete lie either. And I think that part of the cause is that because the more rational people tend to go straight to a doctor and the more old-fashioned and usually religious people use alternate routes that anything but mainstream care is being considered dangerous, instead of merely a minority. And so I jumped in with my rant because that is simply not the case, and it’s dangerous to ignore all the potential in natural cures simply because it’s adherants are usually less scientists.

    To add something else; my cousin had lukemia specifically (and Montu, thanks for the hope of his getting better, but he died just before Thanksgiving last year), and he was allergic to chemotherapy, so he went and got treatment in Germany. The treatment there had been tested and worked wonders (the only reason my cousin died is because a court order, threatening to take my aunt’s baby twins, demanded my aunt and cousin return to the states), but here was actually seen as foolery.

    I talk too much, sorry. My point is that we need to be careful with issues regarding children and religion. I don’t morally support forcing a kid to follow a religion or to pray, for example, but I am even more opposed to forbidding it. We have to cautious, lest we make a religious war out of this, which will only serve to strengthen the faith of theists, and the medicine issue is an important one to watch.

  • Ebonmuse

    Hello folks,

    I’m back in town with replies to everyone’s comments. I appreciate your patience.


    I don’t think you actually have to go this extreme to find situations where you ‘go along’ with religion without complaint and just chill out (something atheists are lucky enough to be able to do!). You’d have to be a bit sad to jump up and down in the middle of a wedding to protest at the religious bits, or boo the school nativity play.

    Indeed so, and I thank you for pointing that out. Not only would that sort of activity not win any friends, it would probably make them even less inclined to listen to us in the future. I do believe that atheists should evangelize, but I also believe that evangelism should occur through effective channels, and harassing believers in a way that reflects poorly on all nonbelievers.


    First, I don’t necessarily agree that the Jehovah’s Witness is wrong by choosing to simply pass away without interference, even if that choice is based on a religious belief.

    I do believe this, and I’ll explain why. As a universal utilitarian, I believe that all people should have the most happiness they possibly can in their lives. By choosing to die when ordinary treatment could have saved them, a Jehovah’s Witness (for example) is denying themself all the happiness they could have subsequently experienced, and they are in effect cheating themselves. For that reason, I condemn that belief as morally wrong, just as I condemn all religious beliefs that encourage believers to deny themselves the happiness they could otherwise have had.

    On the other hand, I would hardly advocate that they be forced to accept treatment. As Azkyroth said, that is their choice to make, whether I agree with it or not; a mature and competent adult has the right to refuse any medical treatment for themselves, even life-saving treatment. But we can certainly encourage them to do otherwise. (On the other hand, I think withholding ordinary treatment from children based on the parents’ religious beliefs should be considered criminal child abuse. The Supreme Court put it well when they said that parents may make martyrs out of themselves, but they do not have the right to make martyrs out of their children.)

    As I read the above statement of converting a scared dying person, it sounds to me that it is operating on the belief that this person has lived a relatively good life. However, this is not always the case, this person may be realizing that they spent their entire lives hurting and abusing others, themselves, or have been a down right bad person.

    Perhaps, and if that is the case, then I recommend they should be left alone to come to terms with death in whatever way they can. If a person has spent their life engaged in evil, then I certainly wouldn’t advocate giving them comfort which they do not deserve. However, many religions, especially Christianity, teach that all people deserve damnation regardless of the good they try to do, so it’s not unlikely that there are many basically good people who still fear for the fate of their souls upon death (here’s one such story, written by a former believer). If that is the case, I would not oppose efforts to rescue them from their fear, either at their death or at any other time in their life.


    But even beyond that, the general rule should still be respect of their religion; whether they are dying or not, we shouldn’t trying to deconvert people when they don’t want to hear it.

    I don’t entirely agree with that. Most religious believers never want to hear it; if we stayed strictly to that rule, we’d be all but silencing ourselves. We have as much right to speak in the public forum as any religious group and I think we should take full advantage of that. However, I do agree with this comment insofar as I do not think we should personally target theists who have expressed disinterest in our message – i.e., we shouldn’t go around knocking on doors on Sunday mornings. But as for the rest of it, such as writing letters and editorials or appearing on TV or radio, or other forums aimed at the general public, believers will just have to come to terms with the fact that there are people, and messages, out there with which they disagree. We have to live with that, so they can put up with it as well.


    Do you know Scott Atran’s book on religion? It’s pretty good on putting together a history of our various needs for consolation in the face of death and how this interacts with our cognitive abilities.

    I’ve not read it, but I know of it – I recently finished Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, which references Atran numerous times, as well as Pascal Boyer. One of Dennett’s more interesting theses is that susceptibility to religious belief evolved as a by-product of susceptibility to hypnosis, which was selected for because it made people more liable to experience the placebo effect and therefore more likely to survive sickness or injury in the ages before medicine. I understand that other evolutionary psychologists have reached similar conclusions.

  • Interested Atheist

    The title reminds me of an article Farrell Till wrote in response to a self-proclaimed ex-atheist called Jones
    part of which goes like this:

    What do you tell the woman dying of cancer whose only solace is in the arms of God?

    I would tell her the same thing that I would tell an Islamic woman dying of cancer whose only solace is in the arms of Allah. She doesn’t need a crutch. If she will just look reality in the eye and recognize that there is no deity in the sky looking after her, she would probably be able to accept her condition with more dignity and a lot more self-respect than if she put her hope in just a pipe dream. One of the things that I quickly learned after my deconversion was that there is something very self-satisfying about having the courage to admit that this life is probably all that I have or will ever have. If the woman dying of cancer could come to realize this too, she would have no trouble coping with the reality that death will probably be the end. I am almost 71 years old, and I can truthfully say that I haven’t the slightest fear of dying. It wasn’t that way when I was a much, much younger Bible believer.

    You are so compassionate that you attempt to kick that crutch right out from under them, with the assumption that they will not need it.

    Would Jones think the same if I was devoting my time only to the debunking of the Qur’an? I doubt that she would. Her problem is a very basic one: she assumes that Christianity is the truth, and so she sees someone who debunks it as a rather despicable person. I happen to have a different view. I think that anyone who can help a person escape the bondage of religious superstition is doing that person a huge favor. Let’s suppose that there were people still living today who, like king Mesha of the Moabites, thought that Chemosh was a real deity who looked over his chosen people. Would Jones think that I was kicking the crutch right out from under these people if I tried to show them that they were in bondage to an absurd superstition?

    And when they fall, Farrell? What then? Do you have the alternate solution to that which cripples them?

    If they see the truth and have the courage to accept it, they won’t fall. They will find themselves in a much more satisfying condition than when they were leaning on the crutch. I can see by her comments here that Jones can’t even imagine a life that is courageous enough to accept obvious realities like the finality of death. If she could imagine that, she would be an entirely different person.

    Or will you just be content to watch them fall on their collective ass?,

    As I have noted above, if they have the intellectual maturity and courage to accept obvious reality, they won’t fall on their collective ass. They will stand taller and be more satisfied with their lives.

  • Loren Petrich

    I’m reminded of the Royal Lie theory of religion, put forth by Plato in his dialogue Republic nearly 2400 years ago. In Plato’s Republic, Plato’s society’s religion, Hellenic paganism, was to be banned because it is full of (to Plato) bad examples like heroes lamenting and gods laughing. In its place would be various official lies, including a “royal lie” that was to be the Republic’s official religion. Which was designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of the Republic’s philosopher-rulers.

    Plato’s opinion was ahared by others in Greco-Roman antiquity like Strabo, Polybius, and Livy; in the Renaissance, Niccolo Machavelli also shared it. But these days, this sort of argument is not stated with the honesty of past centuries; it’s often veiled with pseudo-agnostic posturing (“we don’t really know what the truth is, so why not believe something that’s convenient?”).

    But however horrible such an opinion may be, one has to congratulate those who were willing to state it honestly.

  • Philip Thomas

    The Royal Lie fails as a method of running a society, because people aren’t good at living a lie: The ruling elite at the time of the Lie may be prepared to maintain the pretence, but they will eventually have to bring new members into the elite, and when you tell these new recruits about the Lie, there is a chance they will get angry and wreck the whole system. A bit like the way communism collapsed once belief in the dogmas faded.

    One obvious solution is to construct a Lie which you tell to everybody, thus eventually creating a society where the Lie is believed by everyone, even the elite whom it supports: I suppose one could theorise this is how many societies evolved…

    The other obvious solution is to not to use a Lie as your building block, but that’s harder than it seems.

    Anyway, earlier people were suggesting that a sick person should be allowed to choose death if they want it: I oppose this course as both immoral and dangerous. Immoral, because life is more important than choice. Dangerous, because a climate of euthanasia can lead to people thinking they ought to die…

    As for spreading the word, bad manners are unlikely to help (given one can’t use force)- so I agree with Adam there.