Ask Richard: Supplement: Dealing With Religious People Who are Actually Fragile

In a comment on my post, “Dealing With Evangelizers Who Seem Fragile,” Nomad asked a very good question:

“Remember, the vulnerability is an illusion.”

I don’t think that’s true. Many religious people are very vulnerable. Your suggestions are primarily for dealing with those who are not. So you really haven’t addressed how to deal with that proportion, however small, who are vulnerable. And the most vulnerable are often those closest to you. Or at least those are the ones you care about. It’s is a real problem. Do you have an answer?

The original post, as the title says, is about dealing with those who seem fragile. These are the people about whom Mike asked, people who, unbidden, approach you with their sad story as a proselytizing tool. The majority of the time they are shined on, turned down or shooed away. They are already used to it, and have not been crushed.

But this is a good idea; to expand my suggestions to how to handle religious people who are actually vulnerable.

If they are actually vulnerable then they are still in the midst of their troubles, their addiction, their codependency, their emotional turmoil, whatever it is. They are vulnerable because they don’t yet have the successful outcome to add at the end of their sad story. They will not be approaching strangers with this stuff. They will be avoiding any and all challenges. You won’t meet them on the street.

So the only likely way you would know such people is that they are, as you say, close to you in some way, such as a family member or a close friend. That means that you are close enough to be a possible resource for help, advice or encouragement.

If they are using religion as an emotional support, let them. Ridding them of religion is not what is important in this situation. If their sanity, health or life are at risk, whatever stops the hemorrhaging is fine for the time being. For this scenario I repeat my suggestions on the other post of listening politely and patiently in a neutral stance. You don’t have to debate them and you don’t have to pretend that you agree. You don’t have to go with them to their church or whatever they ask. All you have to do is to be courteous and tactful. You can still politely decline whatever you wish to decline.

However, because of your closeness, you can still be of more tangible help to them. Suggest that in between their religious efforts, they go to see a counselor or go to an appropriate support group, or take classes or training for better employment or whatever might help, just as an augmentation to their religious efforts. Never mind that that’s where the real improvement will come from. The important thing is that they have a chance to get better, that they survive.

If misdirecting the credit for their recovery to a deity puts a limit on how well they otherwise could become, oh well. Most people rise to a level of functioning and emotional development where they just get by. Very few reach their full potential. We can love and encourage those who limp along because limping is far better than falling down and dying. Maybe some day the limping will fade and they will be able to discard whatever is their crutch, But that will only happen if they are alive.

Meanwhile, we can all work on our own lameness. None of us are so self-actualized that we don’t need improvement.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • mikespeir

    I personally think the whole of religion is a stab at compensating for vulnerabilities. Pascal’s chasm isn’t God-shaped, it’s security-shaped.

  • nomad

    Yes, I do see the distinction. However if, as per example “someone says that if they hadn’t found Jesus, they’d be on drugs, raising ten welfare babies, or dying in a gutter with no reason to carry on.” I would be inclined to believe they were actually fragile.

  • Lee Shaver

    You mention people discarding their “crutch.” I’m a Christian, and have been reading this blog for several days now, and have found your perspective on many issues to be refreshing and insightful, even as I disagree.

    As to the crutch, I certainly do not see my faith this way, but I agree that there are many Christians for whom their faith is nothing more than a crutch.

    My question to you is this. As an atheist, do you know (or have you known) other atheists who you believe used their atheism as a crutch?

  • Laura Lou

    Lee Shaver-

    I know you weren’t directing that question at me, but I think it’s interesting and I’d like to respond if you’re willing to read.

    A crutch is an accessory that you are dependent on to get by. So it’s hard for me to think of how -not- believing in something can act as a crutch. Atheism offers no surface on which one can lean — it is the ABSENCE of a theistic belief.

    Atheism is different from Secular Humanism or Antitheism in this way; those two philosophies have substance. Still though, it’s not the same “crutch” that many religions offer and advertise. I’ve never personally heard someone say that Secular Humanism is what keeps them from relapsing into their alcohol addiction. I suppose it’s possible for someone to claim that, but that doesn’t seem like any of the Secular Humanists I know.

    I guess none of that directly answers your question, so I’ll end with the short answer of ‘No’ but concede that maybe I didn’t understand exactly what you were getting at.

  • Richard Wade

    Lee Shaver,
    Thank you for asking your question, and thank you for not reacting to the word “crutch” with indignity, because it was meant to be descriptive rather than evaluative.

    As you say, some people use their religion as a crutch and others do not. I suppose that would probably correspond to those who are emotionally wounded or crippled by life’s circumstances, and those who are not. Some need what they think is their outside support permanently, some grow to no longer need it, and some find a new role for it, perhaps more integrated internally, perhaps the way you experience your faith, I’m not sure.

    Even though I’m not able to believe any of religion’s claims, I still do not begrudge those who decide that they need something to cling to while they are hurting, vulnerable and overwhelmed. When later they have recovered, I hope that they can see that it was actually their own strength, determination, willingness to work with others, and the acts of kindness of others that really got them through. The other-ness of what they thought was helping them was an illusion, and it was always just them and their friends helping themselves and each other. With that realization, they could then be much more effective in helping other suffering people to find their own strength, determination, willingness and kindness, and the illusory outside source of help would not be necessary.

    But I think that realization has to come from within them, and it is not my place to challenge their views, unilaterally deciding when I think I should try to kick their needless crutches away. That would be arrogant and presumptuous. They must make that decision for themselves, if ever.

    As for atheism being a crutch, that is one of the more interesting questions I’ve been asked. So far, I’d say that I haven’t met anyone for whom it could be so described. As Laura Lou has nicely described, it’s a lack of something, an absence of other-ness which one might try to grasp. Actually, many atheists who de-converted from the religion of their childhood describe an early phase of feeling exposed, unsupported or not steadied by the thing they used to think was their support. That very uncomfortable phase seems to eventually fade, and they find with a new confidence that they have always been standing on their own two feet, whether they knew it or not.

    You may think this an oddball metaphor, but I’m reminded of the scene in the cartoon “Dumbo” where he has been learning to fly with his enormous ears, but only because he has been convinced that his magic feather gives him this ability. In the climactic scene, as he plunges from the high tower toward his certain death, the feather slips from his grasp. At first he is terrified, but at the last moment he spreads his wonderful ears and pulls out of the dive, realizing in a flash of insight that he has always had the ability. The so-called magic feather was just a talisman to give him confidence, an illusion to focus on to get past his disbelief in himself; it was in a sense, a crutch. In a strange elephantine way, I always saw that movie as a celebration of humanism.

    Lee, I have spent many years encountering the enormous breadth and depth of human suffering, and it makes the issues over which people like you and I might disagree seem so petty and insignificant. I hope that we can focus on the multitude of people in need, and work together for their benefit, regardless of the different constructs we use to organize information. Although we see things from different angles, we are both looking at the same thing, and if we cooperate, we can make it better.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    The only way I can see atheism as a crutch would be if the atheism were accompanied with a support group. Take the example of of “alcoholics anonymous”. They have weekly meetings where recovering alcoholics get together for coffee and donuts. For some, this group of friends and camaraderie probably acts like a crutch to not slip back into alcoholism. I know one person who has not had a drink in over 15 years who would never miss a meeting. I could imagine there might be some people who have recently de-converted from religion who might view the Friendly Atheist blog as a kind of crutch not to slip back into religious belief. I can also see weekly church attendance as a crutch to perpetuate religious belief. The one thing they all have in common is human interactions with other people. The “feather” for Christian churches is the so-called magical power of being “one with Christ”. The atheists stand (or learn to stand) without this “feather”. For the alcoholic, the “feather” is the altered state of being drunk. The recovering alcoholic stands (or learns to stand) without the drink.

  • Karen

    If they are actually vulnerable then they are still in the midst of their troubles, their addiction, their codependency, their emotional turmoil, whatever it is. They are vulnerable because they don’t yet have the successful outcome to add at the end of their sad story. They will not be approaching strangers with this stuff. They will be avoiding any and all challenges. You won’t meet them on the street.

    Hmmm – not necessarily.

    People who have dramatic and “shocking” religious conversion stories are often paraded in public very quickly because they are so valuable.

    I can remember addicts, ex-cons and people getting over the worst kinds of betrayal being asked to get up and give testimonies at revival meetings and in church. Often it was only weeks or a few months after they had “turned their lives over to Jesus.”

    These folks really are vulnerable, not least because they are in the most enthusiastic phase of conversion and still starry-eyed like little kids over Santa. Challenging them harshly would be potentially unkind, I think, because if religion is helping them overcome that’s a good thing.

    Don’t mean to knock you Richard. I think you’re doing a terrific job here and I love your writing. Good work!

  • Baconsbud

    Karen I do agree that the churches do this but it isn’t really a dangerous thing for those still vulnerable. I think they are asked to give their story to help to instill the belief in others there and since none there are likely to question or confront them it isn’t that big a deal. I can see it also helping to make the belief that some other being is helping them though the problem.

  • Richard Wade

    Karen, your point is well taken, and thank you for challenging me with it. I hadn’t considered those troubled people who would be exploited to lend credibility to a religion. I guess it’s so unthinkable to me that I didn’t think of it. While Baconsbud has a point that most of that would probably be done in a “friendly” forum, if they are shoved out in front of challenging people prematurely, that is reprehensible.

    As I’ve expressed here and elsewhere, challenging anyone is something that should never be done capriciously, and harshness is never necessary, no matter how strong or frail someone might be. We should always be mindful in these interactions, paying attention to the person’s emotional cues rather than just thinking up our next rebuttal, so that we’re attending to the possible hurtful effect it will have on them rather than just “scoring points” in a self-centered way. We should talk with our eyes and ears, not just with our mouths.

    I never get into these useless and potentially destructive disputes over the existence of gods. I only contend with people’s beliefs about atheists or about social, educational, or constitutional issues. When debating with someone who is clearly strong and healthy, I won’t hold back my best argument; I’ll blow him out of the water if I can. But I am never interested in destroying their “spirit” for want of a better word, only their incorrect argument about those issues.

  • Karen

    Karen, your point is well taken, and thank you for challenging me with it. I hadn’t considered those troubled people who would be exploited to lend credibility to a religion. I guess it’s so unthinkable to me that I didn’t think of it. While Baconsbud has a point that most of that would probably be done in a “friendly” forum, if they are shoved out in front of challenging people prematurely, that is reprehensible.

    Well, you never know who’s in a church audience from week to week. Often people bring/drag skeptical family members or neighbors, etc. They probably aren’t likely to challenge someone who’s brimming over and has just given a testimony, but it’s possible.

    In some cases, the most gung-ho new converts are taken out to do street witnessing, particularly if they’re newly off the streets and can relate to the people they meet who are homeless, addicted or whatever.

    It sounds reprehensible to us, but I assure you it’s considered of the highest morality in religious circles, where the top priority is spreading the word.

    As I’ve expressed here and elsewhere, challenging anyone is something that should never be done capriciously, and harshness is never necessary, no matter how strong or frail someone might be. We should always be mindful in these interactions, paying attention to the person’s emotional cues rather than just thinking up our next rebuttal, so that we’re attending to the possible hurtful effect it will have on them rather than just “scoring points” in a self-centered way. We should talk with our eyes and ears, not just with our mouths.

    Exactly. Excellent advice, which is why you’re so good at this! :-)

  • K

    Laura Lou said, “I suppose it’s possible for someone to claim that, but that doesn’t seem like any of the Secular Humanists I know.”

    Personally, my humanism and atheism is often what keeps me from sinking back into that hopeless morass I came from called depression. When I was religious, I truly and honestly believed that God existed only to torture me. I have been through a lot in my life, and at that time, I saw everything bad that had ever happened to me as the vengeful result of a God who was pissed off at me for all the sinning I’ve ever done since first I drew breath (or even before that!)

    So I’d joke that atheism is a “crutch” for me, but it’s actually more of a bolster to keep me out of those awful thoughts and victim mentality. Instead of everything seeming to be a result of a (ho-hum) supernatural force, I think of the many forces that are not supernatural that have shaped the world around us. What power there is in this. And to know that the universe isn’t in fact a malevolent force out to manipulate and harm everything, and that I sink or swim by the ideas I choose to have about the world, is much more empowering.

    As for that crutch, I know of some people who insist that they don’t need any kind of self-improvement and who won’t go off drugs or alcohol because they believe that Jesus is coming in a few years anyway and he’ll put to rights everything that “made” that person turn to their poison of choice. Christ will send the ol’ ex to Hell and they will simply be Raptured up to Heaven and it won’t matter anyway. All the debts will disappear and every day will be the best day ever. What a waste, then, the only life they have in mind-numbing drugs, booze or whatever. If they’re only biding their time here so they can reap rewards later, then life isn’t much of anything but a useless blip in the big scheme of things.

    We only get one chance at life. Yes, some of us get dealt really crummy cards for this game. But the trick is how you play your hand. And I’m choosing to play the best I can before I cash in the chips.

  • Justin N.

    I feel that the “religious freaks” everyone talks about, are actually people who have had a seemingly impossible miracle happen to them that changes their life and they only want to spread around their experience and believe the cause is God or some other holy figure. I find the way to deal with “over-religious” people is to first research their religion, and when they talk to you about the religion, just go along and DO NOT mention you are an atheist. Some will take the term “atheist” as a refusal/rejection of their religion, and you will soon have a fired up argument.


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