Too High a Price to Pay for Comfort

Religion inspires billions of people around the world today to live honest, decent, law-abiding lives. Faith-based charities of every religious tradition have brought comfort, hope, and healing to millions of people who would otherwise starve, lay homeless, and be left to fend for themselves. Religion gives comfort and consolation to so many who have faced adversity in their lives, whether it be suffering from illness, natural disaster, or the loss of someone whom they loved.

http://www.altmuslim.com/a/a/a/2837/

The good that’s done by religion, the peace and comfort it gives to millions of faithful, is often cited as a reason to be a believer despite the manifest harm that it does in the world. Often, paired with this argument, the charge is made that atheists don’t understand the solace people find in religion – that we seek to tear down and destroy without truly knowing what we’re attacking. I have a few words to say to both of these claims.

I understand why people are Roman Catholic. I understand the comfort of tradition and ritual, the deep sense of grounding that comes from being part of the world’s largest and most ancient Christian faith. I understand the attraction of participating in the sacraments as they’ve been practiced for millennia, the sense of treading in the footsteps where the first Christians walked. I understand the intellectual depth and heft that comes of having nearly two thousand years of theological reflection and elaboration to draw on.

The former No. 2 official of the Catholic church in Chicago admitted that he knew 25 priests broke the law by sexually abusing children but did not report them, according to depositions made public Tuesday.

…”I knew the civil law considered it a crime,” Goedert said in the deposition.

—”Bishop remained silent about 25 abusive priests.” The Chicago Sun-Times, 22 July 2009.

I understand why people are Jewish. I understand the comfort of heritage, of identity, of continuity with the past that’s been faithfully preserved in written text and living tradition. I understand the pull of cultural memory, of remembering the thread that runs unbroken through the generations and reenacting the sacred rituals as they’ve always been practiced. I understand the bittersweet joy and stubborn pride that comes with the knowledge that enemies have sought to eradicate your people for millennia, whether by law, by steel or by flame, and every time, your ancestors emerged from the ashes, battered but unbowed. I understand the appeal of having a true homeland, a place in the world that is finally yours and where you can dwell in peace and security.

Plastered across Israeli TV screens for the past week have been pictures of settler youths, some as young as 13, stoning and then trying to lynch a teenage Palestinian in a Gaza village.

…That thump is the sound of a rock thrown by a teenage Jewish settler hitting an unconscious Hilal Majaida in the head. The 16-year-old Palestinian was set upon by a mob of Jewish settler youth, who’d taken over a house in Hilal Majaida’s village of Mouasi in Gaza.

—”Israeli settlers attempt to lynch Palestinian teenager.” The World Today (Australia), 8 July 2005.

I understand why people are Muslim. I understand the comfort that comes from belonging to a worldwide community of fellow believers, one united by faith and creed without regard to race or nation. I understand the vigor and pride of the world’s youngest monotheism, the heritage rich with scientific and artistic accomplishment. I understand the bracing certainty of possessing God’s actual words exactly as he intended them to be read and following the last and truest prophet he sent to the world. And I understand the appeal of simplicity, the attractiveness of stripping away all corruptions and confusions and everything unnecessary, producing a faith as clean and pure and directed in purpose as the desert lands where it was born.

Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan have executed a school teacher in front of his pupils for refusing to comply with warnings to stop educating girls.

…”They dragged the teacher from the classroom and shot him at the school gate,” said Abdul Rahman Sabir, Helmand’s police chief.

“He had received many warning letters from the Taliban to stop teaching, but he continued to do so happily and honestly – he liked to teach boys and girls.”

—”Taliban execute teacher in front of his pupils for educating girls.” The Telegraph, 17 December 2005.

And I understand why people are evangelical Christians. I understand the ecstasy of being born again, the sense of being unconditionally forgiven and cleansed. I understand the excitement of being on a grand spiritual mission, the sense of being a foot soldier in a quest to save the world. I understand the appeal of answered prayer, the promise of miracles all around. I understand the belief that the material world is like a thin curtain over a far more important and unseen world, and the appeal of a book which claims to be the inerrant and infallible word of God to believers, a book which pulls back that curtain and unlocks all the secrets of the future and the world to come. I understand the appeal of a personal relationship with a loving savior who promises he will never abandon nor forsake those who love him, even to the end of the world.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children – naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. ‘We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery…. Parents don’t come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say “what is that there? Not your child.”‘

—”Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt.” The Observer, 9 December 2007.

I understand, but I do not believe. No matter how comforting these faiths may be to their followers, they are still based on supernatural claims for which I see no good evidence. Worse, most of them make assertions that are plainly based on the superstitious ideas of primitive people, and are flatly contradicted by everything we’ve learned about human history and the laws by which the cosmos works. I understand the appeal of culture and tradition, but these are not good enough reasons for belief when these religions make factual claims that are so plainly untrue.

If these factual falsehoods were all that was wrong with religion, one might still argue that it’s worth believing for the sake of the comfort that belief brings. But religion has also wrought terrible evil in the world. And the unnecessary pain, suffering, and destruction that faith has caused is too high a price to pay for comfort. A total catalogue of these harms would be impossibly long, but I can list a few of the major ones: the terror of children who are taught they’ll be tortured eternally if they stray; the monstrous crimes of predatory clergy that were long concealed and abetted by their superiors; the suffering and degradation of women whose faith teaches them that they are inferior; the bloody holy wars waged in the name of God; the violent censorship of free speech and free minds; morality based on fear and obedience rather than reason and conscience; the opposition to the advance of human rights; the opposition to science and knowledge; the propping up of kings and theocracies; and most grievous, the stifling of curiosity, teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance.

Whatever comfort religion brings, whatever solace it brings, it isn’t worth it if this is the price we must pay. There are other, better ways to find comfort, ways that have just as much potential for good without so much potential for evil. There are countless philosophies that, like religion, accentuate the positive traits of humanity, but that, unlike religion, don’t intensify the negative ones.

About Adam Lee

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

  • NoAstronomer

    What I find really annoying is the way that the people who claim that their religion is a simply personal choice that provides comfort and a sense of belonging run cover for the more hardline members of their faith.

    Criticism of militant Jews in Israel is suppressed, violent christian behavior in the US is excused and glossed over. To this day the focus in the Catholic church is more on ignoring than fixing the problems of the child abuse scandal. Many Catholics I’ve spoken to simply don’t understand what all the fuss is about (I’m married into an Irish-Italian family). We’ve all seen the reaction that even the tiniest poke at Islam elicits.

  • Sarah Braasch

    This is genius. Great job.

  • Mike

    Ebon, your writing continues to amaze and impress me.

  • http://2nonbelief.blogspot.com Uruk

    Great post! You’ve hit on some very powerful points, indeed.

  • Maynard

    What is the deal with ceremonies? And blessings? Everything has a prayer and a costume. That’s something I could never fully wrap my brain around. Why force yourself through the mind numbing drivel just so you can prance around in your Sunday best? Or some silly cap and gown.
    On Dawkins site right now there is an interview where he states that anyone speaking out against religion automatically sounds “strident” due to social norms (paraphrasing here). Let’s end that by openly chastising others beliefs in the supernatural the way a non-believer would get chastised from a believer. In a few years, hopefully, it won’t sound “strident” because it’s no longer considered a social taboo.

    My intent is for those who apologize or defend their religion in the face of atrocities, as mentioned in the OP, will begin to distance themselves instead. Let’s end the moderates desire to “run cover” that NoAstronomer pointed out above.

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  • Ritchie

    Dumb question time – What does OP stand for? I’ve heard it used a couple of times on here but not known what it means…

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    This is a great post. Thank you for expressing in words more eloquently than I could have conceived, the problems and follies of religion in our world.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    OP: original post.

  • jo

    Thanks Ebon. It’s very important to acknowledge these powerful feelings while arguing against religion. That’s close to how I felt about Judaism & it was hard not to feel like I was betraying that part of myself by disbelieving/disagreeing. But now I like to think I can have my cake and, uh, study it realistically & critically, too.

  • Lynet

    Powerful post, Ebonmuse.

    But now I like to think I can have my cake and, uh, study it realistically & critically, too.

    I laughed when I read that, jo. It struck me in exactly the right way. I find myself thinking, similarly, that whenever people talk about the advantages of religion, even if I think they might have made a case for the idea that religion does more good than harm, the question always remains: Is that the best we can do? Must we be satisfied with some sort of partial abandonment of critical thinking that must never be improved upon? I think we can do better, seeking to keep the good aspects of religion by finding ways to integrate them into a more realistic worldview.

  • Ritchie

    Thanks Thumpalumpacus.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Nice post. This would be a nice submission to the NY Times Op Ed page, if only they’d print it.

    And here I thought it was going to be about Ray Comfort.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    For the record, I don’t claim to understand every religious belief. There are lots of faiths that I know very little about. Mormonism, for instance – I know in a basic way what Mormons believe, but not, I think, how it feels to be one of them. That’s the sort of knowledge that only comes with a personal familiarity I don’t have.

    But if you have knowledge I lack, share it in this thread! Feel free to continue the theme I started here – share with us, for the benefit of atheists who don’t know, what it’s like to belong to one of those faiths.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    This is a powerful piece Ebonmuse.

  • Alex Weaver

    A total catalogue of these harms would be impossibly long, but I can list a few of the major ones: the terror of children who are taught they’ll be tortured eternally if they stray; the monstrous crimes of predatory clergy that were long concealed and abetted by their superiors; the suffering and degradation of women whose faith teaches them that they are inferior; the bloody holy wars waged in the name of God; the violent censorship of free speech and free minds; morality based on fear and obedience rather than reason and conscience; the opposition to the advance of human rights; the opposition to science and knowledge; the propping up of kings and theocracies; and most grievous, the stifling of curiosity, teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance.

    This is excellent, because a lot of people – especially liberal theists, neopagan types, etc. – don’t seem to realize that “teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance” and “opposition to science and knowledge” belong in the same category as the other items listed. To this, I would add “promoting a formulation of the concept of morality which is at best orthogonal to human welfare,” which is pretty common even in the faiths that don’t actively inflict suffering (in a sense, advocating this attitude towards morality is basically the passive-aggressive version of violent oppression). I would also add, perhaps most importantly, “demonizing rational analysis, critical thought, and concern for evidence” and “promoting wishful thinking as a viable, laudable, and even morally superior, way of attempting to understand the world around us and guiding our decisions,” which (as sides of the same coin) seem to be the one evil that even the most liberal and progressive of religious faiths inevitably commits (it seems to be endemic in the entire concept of a “religion,” actually).

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    First class, Ebon.

    Normally I would say more, but you’ve said it all.

  • other scott

    Kudos Ebon,

    A very nice post. It sums up quite a lot.

    Unfortunately though it seems that most theists will look the other way when something uncomfortable comes up about their own religion. If any other group besides the religous committed any of these crimes the outrage would have been so much greater. If 25 loggers had molested children, they would probably have been lynched. If cartoonists had dragged a teacher out of his classroom and shot him because he refused to read the children Garfield comics every day, they would most likely be dead right now. As soon as something horrendous is done in the name of religion, apologists begin to climb out the walls and everybody looks the wrong way.

  • Entomologista

    One of my friends recently wrote in a blog post that “passivity in faith is as bad as faithlessness”. That doesn’t, of course, apply to atheists. We’re supposed to listen to their bullshit all day long and mindlessly agree with everything they say. And if we don’t, it’s because we’re bad people. It makes me so, so angry.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Alex

    and “promoting wishful thinking as a viable, laudable, and even morally superior, way of attempting to understand the world around us and guiding our decisions,” which (as sides of the same coin) seem to be the one evil that even the most liberal and progressive of religious faiths inevitably commits (it seems to be endemic in the entire concept of a “religion,” actually).

    I agree with every word of this, except it is not confined to religion. You could argue that humanists are also guilty of promoting wishful thinking, or at least projecting some innate morality onto our species that inevitably leads to a continuous improvement of the human condition.

  • Kevin Morgan

    Awesome posting. I love teaching with sarcasm and wit. Some of my relatives were discussing justice Sotomayor and pres. Obama. They believe they are both products of equal opportunity and are not qualified for their respective positions. I wanted to point out the real source of their feelings and so mentioned being in a “shop” the day before where no one was speaking English. I said that, ‘Hey, they’re in America now, learn the freaking language!’ Their response was very enthusiastic until I said it was an Italian bakery I was in. My Italian mother had nothing else to say after that…

  • http://www.melodymcfarland.com Melody

    Wow. Now that’s an outstanding piece of writing and thought.

  • Dave

    Ebon,

    Your logic is impecable, as always. At least as far as it goes.

    I think there are non-religious organizations that have caused as much pain and suffering as religious organizations. And it is the common thread of certainty that runs through all organizations, religious or other wise, that cause systematic pain and suffering in the world.

    Yesterday, Peter Berger, author of In Praise of Doubt, was on the Diane Reim show. He makes the argument that people who are certain they are right are much more likely to bash your head in than people who bring doubt to the discussion of issues.

    And, he adds, it is the people that bring doubt to the discussion that are much more likely to find a good solution to an issue.

    And therein lies one of the major challenges that the atheist community poses to the religious: we tend to find a good solution more often than those who are certain they have the truth.

  • Polly

    Dave, excellent points.

    Skeptics, doubters, and the generally open-minded are perceived as weak and lacking in resolve by those who are full of assurance of the rightness of their cause.

    Almost by definition, you can’t throw yourself completely behind a proposition, movement, or philosophical position until you’ve removed all doubt about its worthiness of such. Until then, you’ll alway hold a little back. You’ll always be considering alternatives. And you’ll always be “cowardly” refraining from bashing in the heads of your ideological opponents just in case, you know, they have a point.

    So, in a sense, faith does give power. It gives you the power to act from a position of absolute certainty with the utmost determination.
    No holds barred…really, none!

    Absolute certainty doesn’t always require faith, of course. But, for those propositions less amenable to logic or direct observation it’s really the only basis of action.

  • Alex Weaver

    You could argue that humanists are also guilty of promoting wishful thinking, or at least projecting some innate morality onto our species that inevitably leads to a continuous improvement of the human condition.

    First I’ve heard of it.

  • http://www.broadsnark.com Mel

    I second Dave’s comments about doubt. I’d also add that the good that many admirable people who follow a religion are philosophical, thinking, self aware, and mature people who have managed to notice some of the better philosophical ideals hidden in the religious texts. But you don’t need tradition, dogma, and self-righteous religion for that. In fact, those parts of religion usually prevent the philosophical, thinking, self aware, mature parts.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Alex Weaver
    One way of looking at the post christian humanist movement is that it assumes that evolution has elevated humans to a level of rational thought that allows us to take for granted our transcendence over baser instincts. It assumes that we have inherited an innate morality from our cooperative hunter gatherer past that can be harnessed intellectually to improve our lot. Actually, I have some sympathy with this view but some philosophers argue strongly that humanism is really only a secular restatement of christianity, placing humans on a pedestal that is actually unreachable. In this sense humanism may be wishful thinking.

  • Alex Weaver

    One way of looking at the post christian humanist movement is that it assumes that evolution has elevated humans to a level of rational thought that allows us to take for granted our transcendence over baser instincts. It assumes that we have inherited an innate morality from our cooperative hunter gatherer past that can be harnessed intellectually to improve our lot.

    This is, generously, at best half-true with regards to the explicit statement as a description of any formulation of humanism I am familiar with. Considering the connotations built into the wording, it’s even worse. Where are you getting this from?

    Actually, I have some sympathy with this view but some philosophers argue strongly that humanism is really only a secular restatement of christianity, placing humans on a pedestal that is actually unreachable. In this sense humanism may be wishful thinking.

    I’ve heard some self-styled philosophers argue LOUDLY that humanists must be “stealing” their morality from Christianity, since only Christians can truly understand or have morality. I’ve never heard of John Gray, but the page you linked is singularly unimpressive with regards to his grasp of the issues or insight.

  • Alex Weaver

    …rereading it, Gray, and yourself by extension, appear to be engaged in a not-quite-outrageous but nonetheless substantial Humpty Dumpty argument, though it’s not clear who if anyone actually holds the views Gray is attempting to attack.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Alex
    I would be the first to admit that Gray often tilts at strawmen. But I think he has some justification with this one. His way of stating humanist philosophy is “Socrates and plato seen through the lens of christianity”. I would say that the christianity he is talking about is the wishy-washy cosy apologetics of modern liberal christianity rather than fundamentalism, but whatever. He claims that humanism uses Darwin to place humans apart from the rest of animals, in the same way special creation does. He would say that humanists do this explicitly, I wouldn’t. However I wonder if they do it implicitly and therefore are indulging in a fantasy that humanity can enjoy unfettered moral progress.
    I’ll come clean, I am in the process of reading “Straw Dogs” so his take on this is at the top of my mind and so I’m probably just thinking out loud. However as I would call myself a humanist I feel as obliged to question my own moral imperatives and justifications as I do to criticise religious ones.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Outstanding post, Ebon – possibly one of your best. I love this bit:

    Whatever comfort religion brings, whatever solace it brings, it isn’t worth it if this is the price we must pay. There are other, better ways to find comfort…

    Well said, indeed.

  • Alex Weaver

    He claims that humanism uses Darwin to place humans apart from the rest of animals, in the same way special creation does. He would say that humanists do this explicitly, I wouldn’t. However I wonder if they do it implicitly and therefore are indulging in a fantasy that humanity can enjoy unfettered moral progress.

    Again, if so, this is the first I’ve heard of it.

  • Scotlyn

    Kudos, Ebon for post – and Dave at #23 – very nicely put.

    Interesting question, Steve:

    He claims that humanism uses Darwin to place humans apart from the rest of animals, in the same way special creation does. He would say that humanists do this explicitly, I wouldn’t.

    Since there is no “humanist” set of propositions or even a holy book to consult, its hard to say how “humanism” uses Darwin or doesn’t. But to me, the point of being a “humanist,” is that I’m human. If I was a dolphin, and presuming a certain level of awareness, no doubt I’d be a “dolphinist.” I’d still be distinguishing myself as a dolphin from all other animals, including humans.

    There’s a difference between drawing a line between humans and the rest of the animals because of a belief in special creation – that is to say that “god,” or someone with “god’s” presumed “bigger picture” point of view, prefers humans to every other being she created – and drawing a line between humans and all other animals because we happen to BE human and not any other kind of an animal.

  • Scotlyn

    For what it’s worth, no one who understands Darwin could “use” him to place humans apart from other animals. That’s the whole point and reason why Darwin’s “dangerous idea” is so threatening to those who can accept the strange and contradictory notion that a God with, presumably, all of eternity to play with and billions of worlds to play in, has such a tiny attention span that the only things that interest him are the doings of one particular species on one backwater planet for a mere 6,000 years!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    But to me, the point of being a “humanist,” is that I’m human. If I was a dolphin, and presuming a certain level of awareness, no doubt I’d be a “dolphinist.” I’d still be distinguishing myself as a dolphin from all other animals, including humans.

    Scotlyn, thank-you. Your perspicacity is exactly what I needed to crystallise the point I was trying to make. As humans, we deify (actually and metaphorically) the human condition. This is explicit in most religions, but in humanism we find other reasons to do this, and other terminology to express it. However the same promises are made, only that humanists frame their salvation in future utopias whereas the religious promise an afterlife. So, given what we know of the way humans actually behave in real life ( and also dolphins incidentally which aren’t as friendly as their apparent smiles would suggest) are WE (‘cos I’m one of them) still indulging in wishful thinking?

  • Alex Weaver

    However the same promises are made, only that humanists frame their salvation in future utopias whereas the religious promise an afterlife.

    ToMAYto, AvoCAHdo…

    (That is to say, neither my experience or you have provided meaningful support for the claim that humanist hopes of bettering the general human condition are comparable to religious hopes of “salvation” or an afterlife. In fact, you aren’t talking as though you realize this NEEDS to be supported.)

  • Scotlyn

    Steve

    This is explicit in most religions, but in humanism we find other reasons to do this, and other terminology to express it. However the same promises are made, only that humanists frame their salvation in future utopias whereas the religious promise an afterlife.

    In one way, I agree with this – for example, in the debate about climate change, it is clear that both sides of the debate are totally human-centred. Those who argue for doing nothing are saying – it’s too much bother, and it’s going to cost us as humans to make such efforts. Those who argue for capping CO2 emissions are saying, if we want to keep a planet that people can live on, we need to take these actions. Very few humans (possible exception my old friend Lynn Margulis) ever take the point of view of the bacteria, for example, who will probably only be slightly inconvenienced by whatever climate changes lie ahead.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that humanism is only about the search for a human-sized utopia. My own humanism is more of the here-and-now variety. I would, for example, choose to save the life of my own child, for example, over that of another animal. That is normal and natural for me, as I am human, and am naturally acting from the particularism of my point of view in the world.

    My argument against any notion of special creation (even if I did grant the existence of a creator for the sake of the argument) is that a human-centred point of view would be utterly inappropriate in a creator of everything. That creator should, IMHO, have the same regard for a worm, a wolf, and a wormhole as for a human.

    Likewise, a humanist point of view that states that human life has an intrinsically greater value than that of a worm, to my mind would be incorrect. Human lives are naturally more valuable to humans. But there’s no reason to think that they are more valuable to the planet or the universe or to any other species that happens to be out there. That would be the most utter hubris.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Scotlyn

    But there’s no reason to think that they (animals generally s.b edit) are more valuable to the planet or the universe or to any other species that happens to be out there. That would be the most utter hubris.

    What I am trying to establish in my own mind is whether or not humanists are guilty of this hubris almost by default. We want to save the planet from our own self destructive behavior, itself born of the belief that we are above the natural order of things. How, tell me, is this functionally any different from the privileged assumption of special creation?

  • Alex Weaver

    What I am trying to establish in my own mind is whether or not humanists are guilty of this hubris almost by default.

    Given that the definition/formulation for “humanism” you have given is in denotation a half-truth, and in connotation wildly dishonest, as a description of the sentiments of any self-proclaimed “humanist” I have ever met, I honestly don’t see why you consider this an interesting or useful subject to debate.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    alex
    O.K stop telling me what humanist ain’t, tell me what you think they are.

  • Scotlyn

    Steve

    We want to save the planet from our own self destructive behavior, itself born of the belief that we are above the natural order of things. How, tell me, is this functionally any different from the privileged assumption of special creation?

    It’s not. The view that we are “above the natural order of things” is a “human chauvinist” view. The “save our planet” campaign is really a “save the humans” campaign.

    For me, the creative tension is in firmly holding on to the knowledge that in the bigger picture, we are nobody special, and we are absolutely inseparable from the natural order of things, while at the same time recognising that in our own minds, and for a particular value of special, we are special and different to everything else. The second factor strongly influences my own instinctive choices and preferences, but the first factor rules when I’m making a serious attempt to apply impartial reason to whatever it is that I’m thinking about.

    Do I support green initiatives and think/worry about the prospects of my grandchildren inheriting a habitable environment? Yes. Do I believe we are the ultimate trick this planet will ever produce, or that the planet would really suffer from our loss? No.

  • Danikajaye

    This is the most appropriate thread I could find to put this.

    What comfort can athiests offer other atheists and theists alike when they are in the throes of grief?

    A little background to why I ask this question- My fiance Ric was one of the groomsmen at his best mate’s (Ross) wedding along with another of Ross’s best mates Scott. On Saturday (less than 48hours ago) Scott was riding his off-road motorbike when he stuffed up a jump and was hit in the chest by his handle bars and punctured his heart. He died within a minute or two and couldn’t be revived. He was 2 weeks short of his 21st birthday. It has left a lot of people devastated. My fiance and I didn’t know him well but some of our good friends were very close to him and aren’t handling it well.

    A lot of things people say and the comfort they take is derived from religion. I’m not about to start being insincere and saying that he is probably in heaven or saying things like “only the good die young”. If he had been older we could take comfort in the fact he had a long life- but he didn’t. If he had been terminally ill we could console ourselves with the fact he isn’t in pain any longer.

    I was wondering if anybody had any thoughts on death from an atheist view point that could help deal with situations like this. Most of Scotts mates are dealing with this by drinking until they pass out and randomly ringing his mobile phone to listen to his voicemail message. I’m wondering if any of you have any thoughts on death that can help pull them through this?

  • Ritchie

    Danikajaye -

    A very sensitive topic, certainly, though one I think we atheists should not shy away from.

    The most obvious comfort (I would say) would be to look around at all the people are hurting because Scott is gone. He clearly was loved to have people so devastated at his loss. Is that in itself not a source of comfort?

    (On a side note I’m actually finding this post a lot harder to type than I thought I would. Kinda feels like I’m being disrespectful or callous because obviously I didn’t know him. Nevertheless, I’ll press on…)

    The addage of ‘celebrating the life rather than mourning the death’ might be a cliche, but things are usually cliches because they are true. Perhaps there is comfort to be found in counting having known Scott as a ‘blessing’ rather than his untimely death as an injustice.

    Lastly, I would like to think that religion need play no part in people supporting and comforting each other through a time of mourning. You are all there for each other, and surely that is wonderful in itself – the human compulsion to comfort the upset and share the burden of sorrow? In our empathy lies humanity’s greatest strength.

    As a warning though, I remember back to my grandmothers’ funerals where I sat through religious ceremonies and heard a lot of well-intentioned but thoroughly Christian sentiments and ‘comforting’ platitudes. I found it was best to bite my tongue and accept the comments in the spirit in which they were intended. I’m sure you don’t need me to point this out, but much as we should be outspoken in our atheism, I think this is probably an inappropriate time to attempt to counter the barrage of religious sentiment that is bound to come your way. It is enough if you are there to offer the emotional support and practical help that an human being can provide.

    As I said, this was a harder post to write than I anticipated. I’ve re-written it several times, and I’m still not happy that it doesn’t sound entirely sanctimonious. If anything I’ve said is insensitive, then I’ll only apologise, but I hope this give you a new perspective on your question.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It may be small comfort, DJ, to point out that he died doing something he loved, but it is there. I hope I die living my life, too.

  • Kennypo65

    Danikajaye, I was a Roman Catholic at 17 when my mother died, I was an atheist at 40 when my father died. With or without faith, it still hurt like hell. I wish there was something I could say that would make it better. The truth is it hurts and in time, it hurts a little less. I’m sorry, I was trying to be comforting but I slipped into honesty. Was he loved? Did he know it? I’ve learned something over the years that I have never shared with anyone until now. When you love someone, the worst thing that can happen isn’t that they won’t love you back; the worst thing that can happen is that they will die. Sorry, what I’m trying to say, and really sucking at it, is he died knowing that he was loved, and no one can ask for more.

  • Xtech

    Too High a Price to Pay for Comfort

    Well said, without anger, concise and quotable. So glad I found this site. Thank you.