Due to the virtually simultaneous deaths of brothers-in-law last week, I’ve just spent three days with fifty or so extended family, not one of whom is an atheist or, at least, an “out” one. Largely, my family’s denominational identity is the fundamentalist Church of Christ. They have great and sincere commitment to their families and their god, as did my late brothers-in-law, two men who were invested in and lived their faith. Their consistency of belief and action is, even for this atheist, something admirable.
You could be forgiven for assuming that such a religion-saturated situation would be uncomfortable for an active, outspoken, even vociferous atheist like me. It was not; not in the least.
The atmosphere was love and acceptance. I could not have felt more part of the family if I’d been evangelical myself. In a previous post (“An atheist with religious loved ones,” Jan. 28) I spoke appreciatively of my extended family’s demonstration of affection unhampered by our great philosophical divide. Frankly, that’s the way we’d all want the world to be—loving despite disagreement. The Bible’s reference to lion and lamb lying down together may not transfer to Christians and Muslims, but it does describe my family and me.
That said, an atheist in my circumstance must still deal with what to do when others pray, sing hymns, or comfort each other with scriptural references. I must honor my own integrity as well as be tolerant toward those who believe differently. But policy comes down to behavior, so for me there are some simple rules:
1. I neither bow my head nor close my eyes during prayer. To do seems false. I look at the person saying the prayer as I would if he or she were giving a lecture or simply expressing wishes. I typically do not look all about, scanning the assembly of closed eyes, since that seems intrusive to me.
2. During the singing of hymns I just keep quiet, for voicing the lyrics seems false as well.
3. Honesty requires me not to participate, but also not to be disruptive. After all, in the church setting, it is their playing field, not mine, and that makes me a guest with guest obligations.
4. In general, common courtesy is called for and remembering that persons of another persuasion are individual human beings who mean to do good; they are not carriers of an enemy banner.
One of my behaviors, however, may seem discrepant. The Alzheimer’s progression of the younger of my sisters still spares some of her facilities, leaving her unprotected from life’s tragedies. She was distraught, for she’s cognizant enough to bear the brunt of her spouse’s death, yet unable to understand all the ramifications and even, I assume, optimally to absorb the comfort being offered by friends and family. Alzheimer’s or not, he was her life.
Before her husband’s death, their son and daughter, grandchildren, church friends, and other relatives had given him and my sister far more support and personal presence than had I. Still, she and I had a unique relationship of shared childhood and teen years. So though I figured less in her adult life than they, the sibling link is special. Yet, who was I to offer comfort to a deeply religious sister since, in so many ways, I was truly the least able of those around her. I found, however, that my repeatedly whispered comments to her seemed to have a consoling effect. Those comments, heard by no one else, were ones that fit her beliefs, not mine. This is “just the in-between,” I told her repeatedly, having made sure she understood that I meant between earthly life and the afterlife she believes in. To me, death is death; to her, death for the faithful is but a passage. Reminding her seemed to be the best salve I had to give.
One can make the case that I was being two-faced; perhaps I was, at least on a technical scale. But I’d say that in a contest between compassion and accuracy, compassion holds the winning hand. The point was not to challenge theology, but to comfort her in confusion and pain. One of my wonderful relatives—one not an atheist, but struggling with inquiry—afterward told me about feeling uneasy, maybe even a bit apologetic, about choosing to comfort my sister with religiously loaded words, simply because they “seemed right to say.”
But why not? Philosophical accuracy, as critical as I believe it to be, is in my calculus less important than the humanity involved with a loved one in pain. Such times are not for verbal combat, but for comfort. Yes, the need for opposition is real, but it is not a repudiation of that need to confirm something even more important. We are in this world together and have wildly differing ideas about our state. If the “together” doesn’t outrank the “differing,” we are in a sad state, indeed.
Clearly, to me religion is intellectually vapid, philosophically sophomoric, and morally corrupt. That doesn’t mean all religious people are naïve, unethical, or less intelligent. Religion’s flawed mode of thinking degrades intelligent, caring people in ways that don’t characterize other, more reasonable parts of their lives. Christianity pays homage to a spiteful, cruel god, frighteningly described in the canon; he is by no means a god of love. My family worships that god, unaware that their caring, their affection, their warmth, and their love are far greater than the phantasm they serve.
[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]