Should “Thanks to God” Be a Hill for Humanists to Die On?

Should “Thanks to God” Be a Hill for Humanists to Die On? April 2, 2019

Grant Whitty,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. This one comes from a religious family member, but I am going to scrape most every specific detail from it out of respect for their different religious beliefs. What matters more is the feeling involved, and the relationship.

This family member recently lost a dear pet, and was understandably grieving the loss.

Their religious beliefs are so strictly adherent to the original Hebrew in Old-Testament text that I suspected the idea of a “pet heaven” didn’t exist in their conception of a god. Certainly, nothing in their correspondence gives me to think otherwise.

So how does one respectfully convey condolences? How would want people to convey the same to me, if I were grieving such a loss?

Oddly enough, being an atheist made this easier, I think, than being a Christian who entertains things like doggie heaven. I simply said what I always say when people lose cared-for fellow-beings. I honoured the time they’d shared and the memories they’d built, and the good fortune that this other being had, to have known my family member for as long as it did. I also expressed a hope that my family member had community, and strength in community, to weather the difficult time ahead.

And a few days later, the family member wrote again, with an update on how their community had responded. All the people who had called and taken the time to express condolences. How the church community had rallied, in particular, to help with associated bills. And all of this news was so perfectly secular in its site of action (i.e. fellow human beings), except for the final words:

“God is so faithful.”

Which struck me at once–because I remembered, when reading it, how common it is for atheists to latch onto phrases like this and get angry.

How you can invoke a god, so many of us ask, when it’s clearly just your fellow human beings being decent friends and neighbours in a time of need?

And we have, I think, coherent historical reasons for such ire. But the humanists among us need to reflect on what that ire actually achieves–and whether it’s really the hill we should be dying on, as we confront the greatest problems in our hurting world.

In Defense of Secular Anger for Spiritual Thanks

The most common scenario in which we atheists tend to get frustrated by people thanking their gods is when supposed “miracles” occur in the medical realm. Humans can strive over centuries to develop enough anatomical know-how, surgical prowess, technological enhancement, and sterilization procedures to achieve staggering medical wins–may I remind you that we have mind-controlled exoskeletons; nanobots to more directly target cancer cells with painstakingly refined drug therapies; gene editing to cure devastating diseases like sickle-cell–and still there is a wide contingent, globally, that says things like

“Praise be to God for saving my son.”

“The Lord is so good! Look how He has cured my loved one!”

And while some religious folks talk about how their god “works through” doctors and science to achieve such ends, others like to fixate on human imperfection in order to make a case for miraculous intervention. If a doctor says that there’s only a 10% survival rate for a person with X condition, and they survive it–suddenly that’s divinity “showing up” modern science? Or if a patient goes into remission when a doctor’s past history with a given condition has never yielded another such case, suddenly that’s “proof that science doesn’t have all the answers!” … As if scientists ever said that they do?

(I mean, can you imagine the grant application that would go with such a claim: Dear Government Body–So, uh, we have all the answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything… but can you give us a lil’ top-up just to keep the labs humming anyway?)

So, why are atheists often angered by people attributing to prayer and miracle what a myriad of human beings have struggled so much and for so long to make possible?

Because that “proof that science doesn’t have all the answers” rhetoric is dangerous. Because it leads many frightened and desperate people to turn from our best-guess modern medicine into treatments with far lower success rates and far more complications. It leads to parents denying their children basic and life-saving care because of faith that their god will provide. And it imperils medical and technological research critical to the ongoing refinement of our best-guess modern practices.

In short, we get angry, as atheists, because this is one realm where certain practices of religion do kill and otherwise diminish our one-and-only lives. So when that “Thanks to God” rhetoric gets in the way of our ability to advance life-saving medicine, you bet your bippy we’re going to confront it–as firmly as is necessary, because lives are on the line.

And Yet… And Yet…

Granted, though, I think some of us don’t do a good enough job articulating the difference between “science has all the answers!” and “if there are answers for everything to be found, we will find them through science, not prayer”. The latter, I 100% believe–but I also know that we won’t arrive at that fantastic end result in my lifetime, or my nephews’ lifetimes, or their childrens’ lifetimes either. And wow, is that ever devastating to many people: the idea of not ever having all the answers. The idea of living in a universe where no one does, not even some great, cosmic being far beyond our individual selves.

And so, as I mentioned in a recent essay on prayer and secular bargaining, it’s important to remember that we’re not dealing so much with rational response as with a desperate longing to be able a) to will different outcomes in this, our indifferent cosmos, or b) to will ourselves to react differently to the outcomes we do receive.

How much more comforting, I suspect, our personal ignorance would be if we could just trust that someone, somewhere, has all the answers that we lack!

In the case of my family member, for instance, the sprawling weight of grief exists outside individual conversations with community members. Grief is… an intricate and ongoing process, and we never quite know how it’s going to affect us in the long run. And how frustrating, and how frightening, it is to have so little control over its course.

The invocation of spirituality at such times–or after the helplessness of waiting for a  medical treatment to succeed or fail–puts a name to that terrible place outside the bounds of personal agency, but still within the limits of our love and concern.

As secular humanists, then, we have a responsibility not just to be judicious in our response to such invocations, but also to listen to what our fellow human beings, in their most brutal moments of personhood, are telling us about their needs.

Because, quite frankly? Even some religious folk find it hollow to hear from fellow religious folk, always and insistently–put your faith in the Lord, the Lord is good, the Lord will provide!–when they’re sitting by a child’s or parent’s hospital bedside.

How much more good we can do, we who recognize that ours must be a humanism of anti-desperation, by donating $10 to their GoFundMe page for related medical and living costs; or offering to water their plants and feed their animals while they’re caring for their sick loved ones; or being present just to listen… and in the process of listening, letting them thank whoever the hell they need to, if it gives the people we care for any sense of stability amid the terribly human wastefulness of it all.

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  • “But the humanists among us need to reflect on what that ire actually achieves–and whether it’s really the hill we should be dying on.”

    I doubt we’ll be “dying” on that hill. It’s not as if atheism is going to decline simply because some atheists choose a more “in your face” brand of argument. After all, being nice and non-confrontational isn’t always the best way – some people need to be shocked out of their delusions. This idea that the only constructive way forward is to play nice basically ignores history. Martin Luther King might have been a pacifist, but he didn’t just stay silent in the face of racism – he got in the racists’ faces and let them know they were the bad guys. It’s exactly the same with superstition, because although these religious folks seem nice and harmless when it comes to their dead dogs, when it comes to things like homosexuality, the right of women to control their own bodies, and the religious response to atheism, it’s a different story. Let’s not forget that the Bible says, in at least three different places, that atheists and nonconformists should be stoned to death. If the Christians have no problem with those verses remaining in their modern Bible, yet they get triggered when we express our frustration at their childish beliefs, well, that’s too bad. If they want all of us to be nice, maybe they shouldn’t support a holy book that advocates murder.

    There’s room for all methods of dealing with stupidity and ignorance. We don’t all have to be kinder gentler atheists.

  • Hi BeeryUSA. Thanks for commenting. Humanism and atheism are distinct concepts–and I wholly agree that many atheists do not act humanistically in their articulation of atheism–nor is there a mandate that says every atheist needs to be a humanist, too!

    Also, as I noted in the essay, whenever this particular rhetoric of thanking a god for human intervention gets in the way of science’s development of better medical treatments, we are damned well going to be more forceful. Never said we had to be one or the other.

    However, when someone is grieving or suffering from direct or proximate illness… that’s a different matter. And one that says a lot about whether we are baseline atheist, simply reacting to what we don’t believe in, or something more.


  • I never get angry at religious (or semi-religious) people who praise their god. Why should I? Sure, it’s a demonstration of an unfortunate and harmful belief system, but that belief system is only marginally the “fault” of the person who holds it. Religion is a symptom of the disease called “faith”, a faulty epistemological system. The cure (or at least, treatment) is to never stop emphasizing reason, to teach critical thinking skills, to challenge believers- not so much their beliefs, but how they arrive at their beliefs. Anger is irrational and pointless. Indeed, respond with anger to a person who thanks God and you drive them away, you reduce the possibility you’ll ever change the way they think.

    If there’s a hill to die on, it’s every case of the government acting nonsecular. “In God We Trust” as a national motto. Ten Commandments displays in public schools or courthouses. “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Roman Cross monuments in parks. Not individuals parroting the memes that were programmed into them before they could think at all.

  • guerillasurgeon

    When you know what people go through having been through it yourself, you have a better idea of how to help. When the guy next door to me’s wife had a stroke, I knew that nobody was going to feel like cooking or have much time for cooking for a while, at least until whanau turned up. So I took them some cooked food in a container. It’s not rocket surgery. On the other hand, when we lost our son the hospital gave us a nun who they claimed was very good with grieving parents. Her sole contribution seemed to be sitting there saying “it’s hard, it’s hard.” Which TBH we already knew. The worst thing was when some religious eejit said “Everything happens for a reason.” When my wife burst into tears and I had to really restrain myself from punching them in the face.
    On a lighter note, here’s a comment about how science doesn’t know everything.

  • Discomfort with the concept of stuff that has no answers is a rampant malady. I suspect it gets enculturated by parents who feel the need to act as though there are answers to all the questions their kids have, even when they don’t personally have them and passing the buck to their favourite deity is a convenient habit. I’ve been trying to make it clear to our almost 3 YO kid that some questions have no known answers so she grows up used to that idea.

  • Positivist

    …a desperate longing to be able a) to will different outcomes in this, our indifferent cosmos, or b) to will ourselves to react differently to the outcomes we do receive….

    So true. We are so desperate a species!

    And I agree that instead of placating (even religious) people with trite, vacuous sayings, it is better (although simultaneously more difficult and resource-intensive) to contribute to the real and felt needs of one who suffers…and not always get snagged on the person’s misguided attribution of good outcomes to a god.

    Maybe, if I feel the need to point them in the right direction–given the huge sacrifices we all make for one another–I might say “And I bet you’re thankful too that god gave you such great friends/competent medical team to help you out.”

  • I’ve sometimes commented that God had learned a lot about healing in the last 50 years!

    Really, the thanks to the god isn’t so bad except when people don’t bother to thank the people who provided actual help and support first. But now that I think about it, when I’ve seen that it could very well be because that’s the only sound bite the local news editor chose to air.

    The ones I feel the most sorry for are the ones whose suffering isn’t going to get better but who end their conversations with “God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.” I don’t even know where that’s coming from.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Guerillasurgeon, thank you so much for sharing even that little sliver of the pain you and your wife endured. The hardships of life are Herculean enough without also needing to manage other people’s imposed platitudes about one and the same.

    I hope you were also surrounded, at that most impossible of times, by strength and community of your own choosing.

    Thanks for the link, too. Your presence here is deeply appreciated.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oof, that mantra is painful. I suspect it’s just a way of filling the void and struggling to reframe a difficult situation.

    The ones I feel sorriest for are elderly believers just waiting to be taken and articulating to their visitors (me, and friends of mine), “Why hasn’t He taken me yet? I’m so tired and so ready to go.”

    What could one possibly say to assuage that existential pain? I have simply sat by held the hands of some of these folk instead.

    Thanks so much for sharing, Lerk! (I think your first comment will suit well for my latest essay, too!)

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Being able to sit with discomfort and uncertainty is hard enough for many adults, so I’m not surprised so few know how to pass on the same skill to the next generation. And yet, I suspect your sprogs are in good hands. 🙂

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Oh, wholeheartedly, C Peterson! Institutionalizing these memes becomes especially reprehensible the more we learn about human behaviour.

    We’re a slow species to change, though–and small-c conservative when it comes to cultural disruption, by and large.

    Thanks for writing, though, and in so doing reminding me that many of us are committed to directing their energy at more effective targets for change!

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    Yes indeed! I like to use the joke about the man trapped in a flood who refuses two boats and a helicopter, insisting all the while that “God will save me”, and who then dies and goes to heaven, where “God” upbraids him: “What more do you want? I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

    More to the point, though–glad to see the cause of compassionate humanism being promoted by so many thoughtful folk the world over. Thanks so much for sharing, Postivist!

  • Judgeforyourself37

    I have a friend whom I have not seen in many years. She used to be semi religious, as she sang in a choir and did, of course, attend church. She moved south. OMG, she became a born-again right wing Christian. Her husband is very ill, but she is not dismayed, as “their real home is heaven.” To each their own belief system, but who knows if heaven even exists. We must make the most of the days that we have here on Earth. Be good to others and respect others and be good to yourself and have respect for yourself.

  • Judgeforyourself37

    It took me a while to understand that I can never “understand” what another person is enduring. Sometimes saying, “I cannot imagine what you are going through. I am here to listen to you if you ever want to talk.” Maybe that would be the best thing to say to them.

  • My wife — only 64 — keeps wondering why God won’t just take her. She prays for it. She told me so (again) last night. A life of clinical depression, compounded by fibromyalgia and now rheumatoid arthritis… . I don’t know what to say. Sometimes I reassure her of how much I would miss her, or how devastated our 5-year-old granddaughter would be. Other times I just tell her how sorry I am that she has such struggles. But none of the responses seem adequate.

    God’s invention of the stent has been particularly useful.

  • Margaret Leanne Clark

    That’s a painful thing to hear from a loved one, Lerk. I’m thankful you felt you could share. I do hope, though, that there are also people closer to you whom you can share this with, too… because that’s a heavy load to bear alone. I hope you /aren’t/ bearing it alone, and that you find joy yourself in your granddaughter and life with the extended family on whole.

    Some of my older friends, also in that transitional period where full mobility gives way to finding accommodation for all significant activity, set more readily attainable aspirational goals–like a major trip in a few months, or bimonthly country drives to rural landmarks and fairs, or the completion of a specific craft or home renovation project. Whatever suits your lifestyle and inclinations, whatever dreams you’ve both tucked aside during so many years of raising family and shouldering community… I hope there’s still time to rekindle in her mind the idea that you might now be in a different phase of a striking journey… but a privilege of a journey, it remains.

    All best wishes to you both.

  • Dhammarato

    It has been proven many times that often the best waker-upper is ridicule. When Christians are laughed at, ridiculed, scoffed. belittled and such treatment comes from all corners not church will surely empty pews fasted than kindness and put-up-with-ness. So become dedicated to teasing those Christians (who can call one of them friend) acquaintances about just how quaint and backwards their silly god is. And really ridicule them for their voting. and do so harshly with deep contempt (even if it is fained). Point out that their new JC is a criminal and a liar and they by voting are in the same boat to hell as their politicians. Really rub it in, Rip off scabs and let the mental blood flow, only then will they wake up. And all the while have a big grin and a wink, make is seem funny because it is a big joke, so every one can laugh

  • Dhammarato

    The grieving Christian does not need consolation, his red-neck white trash fellow pew dwellers will do far too much of that. Rather the Human way would be to cheer them up. If you say that dead one will go to a good place, that at best will cause confusion because who knows? Better to say that being dead is the highest piece. Tell them the truth and cheer them up with facts and a joyful attitude, not sick Christian platitudes that will cause the grief to linger.

  • Mustafa Curtess

    Regardless of the situation, at the first mention of “god” – I just leave. Anybpdy I care enough about to visit or grieve with – knows that I’m Atheist. If their imaginary god is more comforting than my physical presence and consideration – clearly I’m neither needed nor appreciated. There’s better ways to spend my time. My time is coming – and I don’t want such people anywhere near me when it does.