How Much Comfort Does Religion Really Provide?

In past posts, I’ve argued that we shouldn’t specifically target the beliefs of people in dire straits who rely on their religion for comfort. But there’s an underlying assumption that at the very least deserves examination: Does religion actually comfort people in desperate circumstances? Does it make them feel better than they otherwise would?

This seems like it should be obvious, but things that are obvious aren’t always true. Take this study reported on Science Daily, which examined the link between superstition and uncertainty about the future. The researchers found that superstitious beliefs give people a reassuring sense of control over outcomes that they otherwise thought of as beyond their power, and that superstition was more common in people who didn’t believe they were in control of how their lives were going. No surprises there, of course. The surprising finding is that, after they were asked to contemplate their own death, people’s levels of superstition went down.

Possibly, the explanation for this is that people use superstition as a coping strategy because they believe it will help them avoid undesirable outcomes. But since we know that death is unavoidable, superstition’s value as a coping strategy is decreased. Although the study didn’t directly address religious beliefs, the implications are obvious.

On a similar note, there’s this study from 2009, on the correlation between religious beliefs and end-of-life care. Since we’re always told that theists have faith in salvation and an afterlife, while atheists have no other existence to look forward to after death, you might expect that the atheists were the ones who’d demand the most aggressive, expensive medical care to extend their lives for as long as humanly possible. But in fact, the results were the opposite:

Terminally ill cancer patients who relied on their religious faith to help them cope with their disease were more likely to receive aggressive medical care during their last week of life, a study shows.

Patients who engaged in what the researchers called positive religious coping, which included prayer, meditation, and religious study, ended up having more intensive life-prolonging interventions such as mechanical ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation….

The patients who reported a high level of positive religious coping at the start of the study were almost three times as likely to receive mechanical ventilation and other life-prolonging medical care in the last week of life as patients who said they relied less on their religious beliefs to help them deal with their illness.

A high level of religious coping was also associated with less use of end-of-life planning strategies, including do-not-resuscitate orders, living wills, and appointment of a health care power of attorney.

The reporters wrote, in a masterpiece of understatement:

It is not entirely clear why terminally ill patients who report relying more on their religion would choose more life-prolonging medical interventions.

Now, the obvious explanation is that this is because of religious opposition to euthanasia – that believers feel obligated not just to refuse any measure that might shorten their life, but to accept all treatment so as not to even give the impression that they want to hasten their own death. But even going by this reasoning, one might expect that the rates of aggressive end-of-life care among believers and nonbelievers would be at best equal – not that they’d be higher among believers, and much higher at that. Shouldn’t there be some subset of believers who don’t choose the aggressive option, who are content to “leave it up to God” whether they live or die? Why doesn’t that effect show up in the data?

I’d like to propose an unorthodox explanation: Is it possible that religious believers, or even just a subset thereof, aren’t as absolutely confident in their beliefs as they so often claim they are? Is it possible that faith unsupported by evidence isn’t as helpful or as reassuring as its advocates claim – even, dare I say it, that some of these people doubt the very things they profess to believe? And if that’s true, might it also be true that these believers aren’t as immune to rational argument as we often think?

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.

  • Chris

    Or maybe, despite putting up a good virtuous front, they know they’re actually sinners (since the most successful religions define pretty much everyone as sinners) and are afraid they’re going to hell.

    Actually, I think the explanation may be even simpler than that: less ability to grasp just how long a long shot some of those “aggressive interventions” are. If God wants them to succeed, then they’ll succeed, so go ahead and give Him His chance.

    Meanwhile the atheist knows that it’s going to be a lot of money out of their heirs’ pockets for a few days of pointless suffering. Who is that good for? Nobody.

  • Nathaniel

    One mustn’t forget the influence of Catholic and other religiously run hospitals. Ironically enough, they often don’t seem content to let people die naturally aka “let god decide,” but seem doctrinally intent on prolonging the mortal coil as long as possible.

  • Lynet

    The title of this post is a jolly good question.

    I’m sure that there are circumstances where religion provides comfort of a sort. Nonetheless, I suspect that theists are likely to overestimate the number of situations where this is the case. One reason for this is that changing the beliefs by which you live your life can be highly uncomfortable, and it would be easy to mistake the discomfort of change for an indication that your beliefs are making you happy, even if they aren’t really.

    There are also obvious situations where religion doesn’t provide comfort, such as when fundamentalist parents genuinely despair for the eternal fate of their non-believing children, despite the fact that they’ve got no real reason to believe their children are in any danger.

  • Peter

    It seems to me that the value of the study for this discussion presupposes a correlation between care received and care demanded by the patient. Hospital policy (as Nathaniel suggests) and also the attitude of family members may make a difference, no?

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    Could it be due to the possibility that the religious are more afraid of death than the non-religious? Thus explaining both their religious belief and their “fight to the end” attitude towards illness. Does anyone have numbers on that?

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    I think some of the comfort comes from a sense of close community. For a person who believes in the efficacy of prayer, knowing that others are actively thinking of you and petitioning for your recovery may bring comfort. Certainly, during recovery when folks are bringing dinners over and visiting, that is welcome in a community setting. It is common to create this kind of community around religion. It is uncommon for such a community to exist around areligion.

    The closer to end of life, the less the patient participates in making decisions except by virtue of living wills, etc. In this case, the absence of a living will and the concept that life is sacred, the expectation rightly or wrongly of miracles can cause others to take heroic measures, as Chris said, above.

    There is a tendency to credit God with successes and ignore failures, to focus on comforts and ignore the strife or credit Satan with the strife.

    Even the most logical of humans may have an emotional black hole. There are things we do to cope with or avoid emotion that are illogical.

  • Duke York

    Alternatively, you might see this because the religious have never dealt with their own morality. They’ve mouthed the platitudes and had the fairy tales cooed (or screamed) at the, but this isn’t the same as confronting the fact that they’re going to die in real life (and not live forever in the Chrisitian fantasy).

    Atheists, on the other hand must deal with their own mortality as soon as they abandon religion (or whatever reincarnation clap-trap is popular with the new age crowd right now.) At least that’s how it was for me.

    Duke

  • bbk

    Ebon, your hypothesis was poorly stated. Your title was spot on and I expected a strong statement along those lines. I would have stated it this way. Could it be that religious belief, no matter how strongly held or deeply felt, does not actually provide the type of comfort that apologists claim it does?

    I have never seen any convincing evidence that religious belief brings anyone comfort. The frantic, obsessive prayer is not a sign of a calm person. The need to have experts interpret and explain everything for them. The phrase “god works in mysterious ways” is an answer to the constant consternation of believers who fail to make any sense of their belief system. My personal observation is that religious people tend to be flighty, unreliable, and that they easily freak out. This includes my combat experience, my participation in competitive sports, and everyday life. Also includes the type of stories we hear about airline pilots who freak out and start praying over a plane’s PA system instead of following through with emergency measures they were trained to perform.

    I would suggest an experiment along the lines of what Robert Sapolsky does. Take blood samples of religious and secular individuals and physically measure their levels of stress. They can make all the claims about how religion comforts them and how transformative it is to their lives, but I bet that in reality they are still severely stressed.

  • bbk

    kurmujjin, here’s the thing. Why is it a foregone conclusion that there’s any comfort to speak of? Says who? The priests? The apologists who attack atheists for being evil, for imposing their rationality and common sense on those poor little believers who are losing all of their wonderful little benefits and comforts because a big mean atheist told them it wasn’t true?

    You’re right that many coping mechanisms are irrational. It takes an incredibly rational, strong individual to successfully cope with emotion. How does irrationality combined with emotion make anything better?

  • L.Long

    There is nothing in xtian belief that prevents a gentle and natural death. In fact there are many occasions that they claim …’do not mess with g0d’s realm.’ And doing extreme things to prevent death is actually ‘interfering with g0d’s plan.’ And as mentioned previously it is amazing how the xtains try so hard to live longer and stay away from the love of their imaginary sky-fairy. But then maybe the word ‘imaginary’ is the reason, as when it comes to survival their delusions have no impact on the reptilian hind-brain that controls the will to survive. And deep into the subconscious there is an egg of doubt seating there. And frightened little children are afraid of the dark and will do anything to keep the light on.

  • JT

    I’m a first-time commenter here and am very interested in the whole topic of hope/despair as it relates to atheism and theism. I think the answer to your question is yes – it is certainly possible that believers aren’t as confident as they tend to claim. For the sake of disclosure, I’m a Christian, but I have no problem recognizing the limits of my faith and my corresponding doubts. My opinion is that theists often make a category error by trying to match the rational knowledge of an atheist with faith. While I think faith is/can be derived from reason, it is still a different category. When the end of life comes, if a theist is depending on faith to give concrete hope for an afterlife, they tend to be disappointed. Hope I’m on topic – I’m eager to engage and have my ideas critiqued.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Adam, your penultimate sentence sums up the dread I felt as my faith was dying. Thankfully, because I felt that dread at 13, I need not face whenever I happen to check out.

    Also, I should say that my deeply devout grandmother at 73 was very comforted by her religion when she fought and beat metastatic lymphoma — but she didn’t rely on prayer alone, and the chemotherapy give rise to her occasional expression of a desire for her Lord to “take her home.” I was already an atheist at the time, and her serenity in the face of death was both interesting and inspiring.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com/ themann1086

    I’m mostly just commenting to update my web address; apparently the redirect from the old url got turned off months ago. I hadn’t been updating my site, so I didn’t notice. Carry on!

  • Ergo Ratio

    I can’t speak for other theists, but neither of my pious grandparents were afraid of death. My grandmother was in the hospital several times before she died, and each time she just pulled through, but if she hadn’t, she didn’t want any life-saving measures. My grandfather didn’t even bother with the hospital as his cancer took over. He just lied in bed, barely ate or drank, and in the last two days when he (incredibly) felt pain for the first time, had a morphine drip, some wonderful dreams, and that was that. Both were 100% confident that they were about to experience eternal bliss. There were tears at the funerals, sure, but everybody else was absolutely certain of this as well. (Except me, of course, but I find no tragedy in the death of two great people who lived so long.)

    In other words, I don’t understand this on the part of other theists, either. Everything I ever hear or read about all these surveys and studies about the behavior or theists versus atheists is utterly contrary to my experience with my immediate and large extended family. Perhaps they are good despite their theism. :P

  • Charles

    Then how do you explain the correlation between atheism and cryonics? I would think cryonics qualifies as rather extreme “end-of-life” care.

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    Charles,

    And just what is the relationship between atheism and cryonics?

    Even if everyone who chose to be flash-frozen at death in the hope of being reanimated in the future were atheists, the proportion of atheists who choose this vs. atheists who do not would be vanishingly small. Crackpottery isn’t the exclusive domain of the religious, you know.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    kurmujjin, here’s the thing. Why is it a foregone conclusion that there’s any comfort to speak of?

    bbk,

    I don’t think that it is a forgone conclusion. I have seen people take comfort from community and visitation. I don’t have reason to believe that they are lying.

    That doesn’t mean that taking comfort is logical. It could be emotional defense or denial. But I think the comfort I witnessed was real.

    A really close friend of mine died of brain cancer a couple years ago. He was a christian with strongly held beliefs. He, until the very end, looked forward to “going home”. He knew when to give up trying to save his life. He routinely expressed gratitude for visitations and help put forth by his church.

    When a person makes a big deal about believing anything, I tend to doubt the strength of their belief. I think they are working hard to convince themselves. But there are plenty of quietly confident people out there who face what they believe to be true with courage.

    I think that it is important to know who was seeking the extraordinary measures; the patient, an advocate or heath care provider?

  • Christoph

    Personally I am not sure exactly how much comfort can be counted on coming from the religious community or how comforting it is to know that someone may be praying for you. When I did attend church, we had several people who every time someone had a crisis, instead of volunteering any actual help, would immediately jump in and say “I will pray for you!” I heard one of them boasting one day that they did this merely to prevent people from expecting anything further from them that was going to inconvenience them and that, besides making the person feel better, the person never knew whether you did it or not. Since that time, I have often watched these people that jump in with the “We’ll pray for you” routine and noticed a trend. When my mother had cancer surgery several years ago, she noted that several of the women in her office immediately jumped in to say they would pray for her. I told her to watch and be assured of the following: Those women in question would not call her to see how she was doing, would not stop by to see if she was dead or alive, and probably would not even send a get well card, much less offer any form of help that would really be needed. Not even so much as a nice visit. And guess what? I was right. She got a lot of visits, calls and assistance from others, but those that were most ostentatious with their religious thoughts were no where to be found. I have seen this happen again and again and again. I have vowed that if I find myself in the same boat and someone offers to “pray for me”, my response will be “How nice, but completely unnecessary. If you really want to be a help, I would really appreciate it much more if you would do the following…”

  • Scotlyn

    Is it possible that faith unsupported by evidence isn’t as helpful or as reassuring as its advocates claim – even, dare I say it, that some of these people doubt the very things they profess to believe? And if that’s true, might it also be true that these believers aren’t as immune to rational argument as we often think?

    Yes, I think it is very possible. It is never safe to assume a person’s immunity to rational argument.*

    *As I write I am reading bits of your post to my friendly local Jehovah’s Witness who sneaks up to see us even though he knows we will not discuss God or the Bible, but because we do take him seriously as a person, feed him coffee and cakes, commiserate with him on his current state of “disfellowshipment”, and discuss wine recipes. He just said something very interesting – I said, “it says here that atheists aren’t as afraid of dying as religious people.” He says, “that’s because atheists are more intelligent and philosophical. Most religious people are idiots” (An interesting comment, even though he qualified the last by saying, “except Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But still….)

  • A Counter-cultural Canadian Brother

    Perhaps the choices you propose are not mutually exclusive?

    Those who express faith might also believe that God is the provider of knowledge to the scientific/medical community.

  • bbk

    kurmujjin, my response to the question of community support is perfectly stated by Christoph. I believe that the community support is only exists symbolically.

    Christoph, what you have brought up seems to fit perfectly with a pet theory I have about religion as a symbolic substitute for real achievement and real identity. There’s a theory called Symbolic Self Completion that I think fits this case perfectly.
    http://interruptions.net/literature/Wicklund-BASP81.pdf (via http://sivers.org/zipit)

    The idea is that when we create a goal for ourselves, interrupting the pursuit of that goal and accomplishing a second, similar-enough goal may actually satisfy our original goal in such a way that we will no longer wish to pursue it to the end. The secondary achievement does not even have to be real; it only has to be some gesture or statement that the person can make to obtain positive feedback from their social circle.

    Offering prayer for others is a perfect example. Once they make the offer to pray, the recipient of the offer usually thanks them kindly and even feels hopeful, as if assistance is on the way. This satisfies the theist who made the offer to the extent where they don’t feel the need to provide any additional assistance. It doesn’t even cross their mind that they did absolutely nothing to help.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    bbk, just so we understand each other…

    You may be right in the sense that the number of persons who actually DO the comforting is likely small. That would fit with the rest of human nature, 5% achievers and 95% wannabees. The wannabees can hide behind the offer.

    I do, though, have first hand experience witnessing and to a very small degree participating in that support. So I know that some of it is real. And I have witnessed persons within a community thanking people for their physical support after recovery.

    It also is not more than any committed compassionate person would do regardless of their beliefs.

  • Grimalkin

    The religious mind can’t cope with reality. They feel uncomfortable with it, they don’t know what to do with it. They need a sense of purpose and a “plan.” So when they are faced with something unavoidable like death, they do so after a life time of using religion to avoid confronting life’s realities and have developed no ability to cope on their own.

    So they freak out and try to avoid this final reality as well.

    The atheist, on the other hand, faces life’s harshness every day. Death sucks and we don’t want it, but we know that it’s unavoidable. We’re not going to put ourselves and our families through unnecessary pain and hardship just because we’re afraid. So we draw comfort where we can and face our end.

    Makes perfect sense to me.

  • Karen

    In my experience, religion provides “comfort” something like sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing, “La, la, la” so as not to hear the bad news.

    There’s no real dealing with death, suffering or ultimate mortality because religious people (evangelicals, at least) think they’ve got a “get out of jail free” card in the form of the resurrection.

    So they are in total denial, which is comforting at least until the reality of pain and death set in. I think that’s why there’s panic and a lot of life-preserving measures at the end. Belief only takes you so far and then the fingers-crossed bravado breaks down for many.

  • Hendy

    As a quite recent former believer, I will say that I often did not find the “comfort” things were supposed to provide. I’d pray a Rosary on planes during takeoff and was quite fearful of dying because I just had no way of knowing whether I’d got o hell or not! It was scary!

    I would like to add that from a Catholic perspective, there is nothing prohibiting the refusal of “extraordinary means” whatsoever. From the Cathechism:

    2278. Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.

    You can absolutely “let someone die” if that’s the direction they are headed; one is never obligated to preserve them at all costs. I just wanted to add this to remove the stool leg where it might be tempting to say that it’s because the religious are more “anti-euthanasia.” I’m not positive we’re talking about euthanasia here.

  • lpetrich

    That always makes me think. Does anyone ever make their last words “See you in Heaven”?

    Does anyone ever calmly say, “I won’t be in this old body for much longer”?

    Seriously.

    Why do so many people who supposedly believe that they’ll wake up in a realm of everlasting happiness act as if dying will make them go kaput? It almost seems like “Oh, no! I don’t want to go to Heaven!!!”

    Why aren’t funerals celebrations of the dear departed’s arrival in Heaven? Why is everybody supposed to mope around as if the dear departed went kaput?

  • MS Quixote

    Is it possible that religious believers, or even just a subset thereof, aren’t as absolutely confident in their beliefs as they so often claim they are?

    The rule, rather than the exception, in my experience…

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    My experience, too. I’ve never known for sure but have always felt that the loudest persons extolling faith or virtue are the ones who are trying to convince themselves. Seems that the more quiet ones have the deeper beliefs.

    I’ve never been to one, but always heard that an Irish wake could be quite the celebration.

  • enoonsti

    Peter N,

    I support cryonics, and as readers of this blog should be well aware, crackpottery isn’t the exclusive domain of the minority… ;)

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2157944955525659858#

  • Alex Weaver

    Then how do you explain the correlation between atheism and cryonics? I would think cryonics qualifies as rather extreme “end-of-life” care.

    [Citation needed]

  • Scotlyn

    kurmujjin

    I’ve never been to one, but always heard that an Irish wake could be quite the celebration.

    You are right – as an immigrant to Ireland, I have come to marvel at the custom of “waking.” We hosted a wake in my own home two years ago when my husband’s uncle, who had lived with us for the last 10 years of his life, died in his bed a few days after his 95th birthday.

    Basically, the Donegal version of a wake, is a two-day long open house, with the dead person’s remains laid out in an open coffin in a bedroom, and plenty of chairs gathered from the neighbours scattered all about the house. (I had never before known that there were such things as mobile embalmers who could come to your house and do the job in situ). My nearest neighbours came and took over the kitchen, turning it into a ham-sandwich and tea-making production line from about 9 am til midnight for the two days. The door never closed, and a steady stream of people came, spent anywhere from half an hour to two hours, and left. The routine was, shake hands with all the bereaved and mumble “sorry for your loss,” call to the bedroom and say a prayer for the deceased, come back to the bereaved and say something like – “doesn’t he look peaceful,” and then sit down with some other wake attenders and chat for a while, telling stories and whoppers about the dead person – the taller the tale the better. The priest called at 10pm each night for a rosary, and then the crowds petered away, leaving one or two willing to actually “wake” through the night. As my husband and I are known atheists, but had decided we would hold a Catholic wake in accordance with the expressed wishes of his Catholic uncle, (who never got taken to Mass often enough for his purposes while he lived with us) the neighbours cheerily pitched in with the decades of the rosary which we declined to say.

    Irish wakes have a lot of components, some of them pagan, folky and threatening enough that the Church often tried (quite unsuccessfully) stamping them out. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve been to, apart from one, which was of a young person who had committed suicide. My neighbours concur. A wake for an old person who has “lived their life” can be very celebratory event, and a great chance to gather and swap gossip and stories. A wake for a young person who hasn’t “lived their life,” is a totally different, much more shocked and sombre affair.

    From the community point of view, though, it means that after the wake and funeral are done, during which everyone has shaken your hand and expressed condolences, it is possible for people to meet you again in a shop or in the course of daily business with no awkwardness, no “wondering what to say”.

    I do think, from the point of view of introducing children to the reality of death, wake customs are excellent. My kids did have a look into Paddy’s bedroom to say a quick goodbye, and then disappeared upstairs to hide from all the strangeness. But kids around here often attend wakes, and few haven’t seen a dead person at least once in their life.

  • Scotlyn

    PS – I also once attended a non-religious wake – there was no coffin, no church service, no graveyard, no prayers (the gentleman concerned had obtained planning permission several years before that to allow him to be buried in his garden with a tree for a headstone). It was particularly wonderful to see him, surrounded by his many grandchildren happily playing games on the floor, and him laid out on a daybed with a colourful quilt tucked under his arms. Every now and then, one of the kids would stop play and go and gaze at him for a while and then go back to playing. The adults gathered in the next room and drank tea and swapped stories, and likewise, would wander into have a look at Jerry from time to time. It was a peaceful, death-accepting, life-celebrating occasion.

  • Scotlyn

    PPS (Sorry) I just want to add one more thing – that at none of the wakes I’ve been to of older people who had “lived their lives,” did I hear much talk of heaven or the hereafter. Although my neighbours often profess such beliefs, their actual words and actions demonstrate an acceptance that a human life has a certain natural shape, with a natural start and a natural end. Of course when a human life is prematurely shortened, and a young person is buried, the hope of heaven, when mentioned, has an air of clutching at straws, and does not obviate the injustice and anger people clearly feel, that this human life did not take the course it should have.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Religion provides Ray Comfort, aka the Banana Man, and that is more Comfort than necessary.

  • Ritchie

    Lol

  • M.

    Something to consider: believers grieve for dead children.

    Now, the details depend on denomination, but most consider children (or at least, baptized children) to be automatically “saved.” Most also believe that life is fraught with obstacles that can make the person lose their faith (or fall into an “incorrect faith”), such that the majority of humankind is destined for damnation.

    One would think that a child’s death would be an occasion for great celebration. The child automatically goes to heaven, and will eventually be able to spend eternity there with its parents. More importantly, it avoids the overwhelming probability of ending in hell,

    But no, it’s a great and grievous tragedy for believers (as it is, in reality). At the basic level, none of the dogma really counts…

  • Thumpalumpacus

    When I raised the question of sad funerals as a Baptist boy, I was told that the tears were for missing the decedent, not pity at his fate.

    Also, Lpetrich, many Christian wakes are celebratory.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    Scotlyn,

    Thanks for your wake desciptions (and the PS and the PPS ;-)). I enjoyed reading that.

    M. I was referring to grown children of believing parents and close friends of believers. I’ve heard much angst expressed in this regard over the years, and not much in the way of comfort.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    It would seem our efforts are not wasted. The Cristians are human after all. Is theirs a cup that is full, waiting, desparately clinging to the glass with only surface tension? Do they fear Eternity? Do they wonder if they were not worthy, to be cast into the Inferno, judged on the brink of the lake of fire and divine wrath? Do they wonder whether they chose the true religion? Or are they a bottomless well, never to be tested, never to be fulfilled? We may never know what a true Christian really believes at the brink of time immemorial. You can disillusion yourself, but you can never lie to yourself about the true nature of who is staring back at you from the looking glass. It is time that we wake these people from the tortuous nightmare that they reside in. It is time that religion fades into history…

  • KShep

    Reginald @34 wins the internet for his comment.

  • http://www.kurmujjin.com kurmujjin

    It is time that religion fades into history…

    How would this happen? I don’t see it. I see plenty of interest in spirituality out there. Maybe certain denominations are waning, but not all and not everywhere. A good many are just morphing into less structured formats.

    I would love to see superstition, bigotry, mysoginy, pedophilia, murder fade into history. But I don’t see that fading from the population at large all that quick. For all our talk of evolution, we’re not evolving at a very great clip. It’s a process that takes multiple MILLIONS of years. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see another major world conflict before long.

    I can’t see religion fading into history without being disallowed. And that would be doing the very bigotted thing that some religionists do.

    Maybe the focus should just be on the common good.

  • http://Daylightatheism.org J. James

    Millions? Please. In the last FEW YEARS, since the 90′s, we have practically doubled in the USA. Not to mention the state of Atheism in Europe! Also, it has only been recently that the position of religion has become untenable (thank you, Ebon) if you are earnestly looking.

  • Nathanael

    Leaving her religion made my fiancee a LOT more comforted.

    Actually, there can be a lot of comfort to be found in reality. I love the bit in William Goldman’s _The Princess Bride_ when the kid is told by the psychiatrist “Life isn’t fair”, and his response is “Hooray! Life isn’t fair!”

  • Robster

    Those infected by religious belief probably do get comfort of some empty sort through their knowlege that god is their special friend and is waiting at the pearly gates just for them with a team of angels and a unicorn. It is an attractive proposition if you’re age 6, but really, to actually believe it is nothing more than wishful thinking, an escape mechanism. A nice little fantasy in the indoctrinated knowlege that unlike every living thing that isn’t human, life will go on eternally in a place with a nice beach and palm trees. Probably date palms.

  • Florian Blaschke

    These findings seem to turn the cliché of atheists in foxholes (or deathbeds, in this case; it’s facing death here and there) on its head.

    That said, the examples given in the comments do suggest that “silent believers” and self-righteous “Pharisees” (yep, those very guys Christians are given as a bad example in their very own scripture by their very own saviour, which makes me think of the old quip about Jesus himself being fine, only his fanclub a pain in the arse) need to be distinguished, the “silent believers” really being humble instead of displaying their religiousness as if it were a virtue to be proud of, when it is rather a vice, at least the ostentiously displayed sort. Faith actually needs to be shown through actions, not words: I can actually respect the form of faith which stays true to its pretence of humility. It seems the “Pharisees” essentially pride themselves on (supposedly) being humble, a ridiculous mindset if there ever was one: boasting one’s humility.

    So religious people (especially the loudmouths) are actually more immoral, but without being aware of it, simply by way of carelessness and laziness. Goes to show again that the true dividing line is not so much theists vs. atheists, but superficial, unreliable vs. straightforward, solid people, or even behaviour if you admit that some people may sometimes be great fellows to be around and sometimes total jerks.

    Oh, and don’t forget the New Orleans type of funeral, interestingly also quite possibly inspired by pagan (African, perhaps among others) customs, and there are conceivably many more such customs around the world. Clearly, grief is a quite natural and understandable reaction, but ultimately it would seem un-Christian to care more for one’s own feelings than the fate of the deceased: atheists and most theists, even those who tend to believe in hell and damnation in principle (but as pointed out, religious dogma counts remarkably little in practice), in practice typically agree that the deceased person, especially if they had suffered recently, is probably better off and does not suffer anymore.

  • fishwish

    “comfort” can be a dangerous thing. My cousin had a serious medical event that left her in a bad way in hospital. She is a Christian, and one of the best-hearted and most credulous people I know. She was faced with being in a wheelchair, and months of rehab just to cope with that. When I visited her, she was saying that she wanted to go and ‘be with Jesus’ because that sounded like a better alternative than the hard yards of at least giving the rehab a shot. Now, I’m all for people being able to decide when to check out, if they have some gruesome illness or whatever. But she was just in a fantasy about how lovely it was going to be with Jesus. So I told her that I didn’t think Heaven existed, or that God existed, or that Jesus was waiting for her. I said I might be wrong, but then so might she, and was she really going to give up and die, throw away her life, on the basis of something so flimsy? It was a rugged conversation, and interestingly one that some people seriously disapproved of, saying that I shouldn’t have questioned her faith or undermined her “comfort” in those ideas. But she did hang in there, and she came through it – in a wheelchair, but alive and with some good quality of life. No doubt she still believes in Jesus, but perhaps not enough now to bet her life on it. Insidious, the way a sincere belief in a happy afterlife can actually entice vulnerable people to die.


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