The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

An atheist’s conundrum

What do we do when a friend is in need? We comfort them, give them kind words and a shoulder to cry on.  It’s human nature.

So what do you do if you know what your friend needs to hear to feel better, but it conflicts with your own views?

I’m particularly intrigued by this subject because I’m rather drawn to helping people in their time of crisis. I want to work as a therapist someday; while my area of interest is in severe psychological disorders, I’m sure there will be plenty of patients who will need to grieve sooner or later. I’ll probably constantly be deciding how to comfort people without feeling that I’m lying to them or doing them an injustice.

I know many, or perhaps most, people make it through struggles by the thought that they will see loved ones again in Heaven, or that some god has a plan and, therefore, everything will work out. Part of me wants to say “well, your belief isn’t hurting anybody and right now it’s the only rock you have in this chaos – let’s just go with that route.” And I’m tempted to tell them the things they want to hear.

But I know it’s not genuine. I can’t bring myself to lie to a friend, or even a stranger, by assuring them of something that completely opposes my worldview. And worse than that, I don’t want to encourage in them what I see as a negative or harmful trait. Every time a person turns to religion for comfort and their burden lessens, that behavior is reinforced even if other factors (like time passing or friends’ support) ultimately were more helpful.

Maybe in a situation you can’t change, like a relative’s death, this isn’t so bad. It’s just comfort, right? But when you use the God-will-fix-it mentality for everything, you start to lose the ability or will to help yourself.  Maybe someone else was hired instead of you; to me, this would mean you might need to find things about yourself to improve. But if it’s part of “God’s plan” and you just know it’s all going to work out, why bother?

So you might say that’s still not too terrible, because you’re only really hurting yourself there (unless you’ve got others to support). I would still prefer to avoid encouraging someone to behave or think like this, but at least it’s on a small scale.

What about when it comes to others? The person who believes in the almighty Plan might justify ignoring  the suffering of others because God either put them there for a reason or will be saving them if they’re worthy. The person who turns to faith for easy answers instead of using logic or reason or even focusing on the real world for a damn minute is much more likely to see a stranger’s distress and dismiss it because “they must have deserved it.” The women at Planned Parenthood can’t be allowed to have abortions, they’re ruining God’s plan, and why did they go whoring around anyway?

I am by no means saying that comforting a friend by telling them “I’m sure your mom is still watching over you” will automatically turn them into a heartless jerk who doesn’t care about starving Africans or single moms. But it is indicative of our culturally encouraged tendency to be religious. And we’ve all seen what religious attitudes can produce, and the harm that can be caused by religion.

So I will not contribute to it. I can give comfort all day, but I refuse to lie or send my friend to find solace in a myth. I believe in the power of people, what we can do when we come together and help each other. So I’ll stay right here in reality when it comes time to console someone, and give more substantive support than God ever could.


About khuddlestonsmith

I'm a Mizzou student majoring in Biology and Psychology, minoring in Anthropology, and earning an Honors College degree.

4 comments on “An atheist’s conundrum

  1. rocketkirchner
    August 7, 2013

    Kate , compassion is many times unspoken , but it is the only game in town . i think that just to listen to someone and say nothing is the best route to go . I have a few of my close friends that are going thru meltdowns now , and i find that when i just listen to them it helps them , and me .

    as far as myths go , well believing in mortals can be a myth too . And defining Reality is an impossible task intellectually , but can lived out by love .

    • rocketkirchner
      August 7, 2013

      Kate, here is a Christian conundrum : i have 2 freinds this summer that are going thru seriuos meltdowns . One is a Christian , and the other is not. What do i do ? since as a Christian i believe in the power of love and that God IS love , i dont believe in myths or people, but rather the power of that love that burns within me to just hold their hand and LISTEN .

      Active listening without giving advice is the solace that is needed . so , in a way , the Atheist conundrum and the Christian conundrum are the same in regards to the solution . Where Atheists and Christians miss it , is that they try and give some kind of fix it . Now , we Christians and Atheists can dialogue , discuss , and debate each other all day long , and i think that that is good , and keeps the mind sharp , and can be alot of fun , mostly in person over a few beers. but when someone has hit rock bottom , better for us all to just shut up and emanate silent warmth to the grieved . what do you think ?

      • khuddlestonsmith
        August 10, 2013

        Active listening is a fantastic tool. However, it is not the only tool, and as a budding psychologist/therapist, I have to say that I don’t agree when you say people shouldn’t suggest ways to help. I am not talking about preaching to people when they’re down. I’m talking about comforting somebody through a hard time.
        I know that religious friends may want to hear something about God’s plan.
        You probably know that atheists do not want to hear that at all.
        However, we probably both want to comfort our friends, and have to balance our own beliefs with theirs when doing so.

  2. rocketkirchner
    August 12, 2013

    Kate , i was a music therapist before becoming a professional musician. i have worked as a volunteer in counseling centers and in prisons , and homeless shelters , et.c and the thing that i have learned is is that ( and this has come hard for me ) is to not only listen , but make the grieving person feel like they are being listened too .
    i have often wondered why if God came to Earth in Jesus , why there is not so much we have on what he said . I hashed this out alot in my head until a freind of mine said ”that is becuase Jesus probably spent most of his time just listening to people ”. Something struck a chord in me when i heard that.

    i feel that telling other christians about ”God’s plan ” is actually a crime . What do i know about God’s plan for them ? its crazy talk . to me it is just spoon feeding their stepford christian neurosis. if i say anything , it is to stop going to church and sit in silence. as far as my Atheist freinds , well like i said we have good bantering . but if they are hurting bad , the last thing i am going to do is say anything about God or no God . becuase it becomes non academic at this point .

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This entry was posted on August 5, 2013 by in Author: Katie Huddlestonsmith, Skepticism and tagged , , , .
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