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