My wishes are with you — or the atheist’s conundrum

Through Facebook, today, I learned that friends of mine are extremely worried about their child’s health.  I should be more explicit:  through the “real me” Facebook I learned this.  That’s an important point, because this whole post would be different if I’d learned it through my Bookworm Facebook account.

In the Bookworm Facebook account, as I’ve often witnessed when people have put up posts about health concerns, their friends send prayers:  “You’re in my prayers.”  “I’m praying for you.”  And because the people who write these comments are religious, they are genuinely seeking divine intercession on behalf of their friend.  They are doing something.

On the “real me” Facebook site, the people who responded to the post about the worrisomely sick child are, like me, atheists.  This means that, instead of prayers, they send “wishes.”  “I wish you well.”  “I’m sending you my thoughts and good wishes.”

Reading all these “wishes,” I had an incredible sense of foolishness.  We’re all too sophisticated and rational to believe in God, yet we’re perfectly content with magic.  Bibbidy-bobbidy-boo!  I wish you well.

And therein lies the atheist’s conundrum:  What do you say when bad things happen?  You don’t believe in divine intervention, and the vocabulary of sympathy leaves you with nothing more than passive thoughts, unrealistic hopes, or foolish wishes.

All of this may well explain why I always have a dreadful time writing condolence cards or get well cards.  It’s not that I can’t cope with people’s loss or sorrow or fears.  Instead, it’s that I lack the vocabulary and the belief system that allows me to say anything meaningful.  I’m left with empty platitudes that, sometimes, seem almost insulting in their vapidity.

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Comments

  1. says

    Great subject, and I have a lot to say on it…but no time to say it at the moment. So for now I’ll just point to this excellent Penn Says item, Atheism is a Solace, in which he talks about how he dealt with the death of his mother, and how he communicated to a friend who went through the same, and how that friend couldn’t really receive Penn’s message due to their religious differences. It’s a really profound yet short video.

  2. Danny Lemieux says

    A quote wrongly attributed to G.K. Chesterton goes like this

    - When people stop believing in God, it’s not like they believe in nothing, but rather that they will believe in anything.” That “anything” includes wishes, magic, utopia, Gaiia, Earth Mother, auras, universalism…

    Ron Hayden – I like Penn, but….the death of a person’s mother… “there’s nothing worse that can happen”?

    Please…what a colossal failure of imagination. Open the newspapers (or weblogs, for [fill-in the blank's] sake.

    The “Randomness of the Universe”? Where is this randomness of which he speaks? I see a universe that is highly structured and ordered, following Laws of Nature that we are only beginning to understand (beginning with e=mc2 and its connection to “Let there by light”).

    Don’t get me wrong: Penn comes across like a very good man, someone that I would like to have as a friend. His rationalizations may emote well but they defy perspective and make no sense. I also don’t mean to make it a theological argument, but empty words are just…empty words, unless they have context and meaning.

  3. Charles Martel says

    Speaking of context, I’ve always wondered how “bad” things happen in a meaningless and purposeless universe. By what standard or measure?

    Apparently the measure is total subjectivism. The death of my mother is personally “bad” to me, but makes no impression whatsoever on a random universe. Her death simply IS.

    So we become reduced to rival subjectivities, with no real way to know (or prove) that one thing is “better” than another. “Progressives” love to discourse in this manner, reducing everything to a matter of who wields the power to force his subjectivity upon others. (Never mind the hilarious doublethink involved in insisting that there is no Truth while pushing the “truth” that it’s “wrong” for one group to impose its will on another.)

    The “solace” of manfully facing up to the universe’s indifference is more like patting onself on the back for being courageous and a realist. But so what? Why does it make a whit of difference in the whole non-scheme of things?

  4. Gringo says

    Like they say, S$%& happens.

    As an agnostic, it is my opinion that one thing separating believers and agnostics on the one hand, and many atheists on the other, is that believers and agnostics have reached the conclusion that at the core, there is a mystery to life. Believers ascribe mystery to our inherently incomplete understanding the Deity. Agnostics just say, we don’t know. I get the impression that many atheists are of the opinion that all can be easily and rationally explained. At least that was my POV when I was an atheist.

    Atheists who believe that all can be explained have a conceptual difficulty dealing with bad things that occur. How can you explain the drunk driver who just killed my daughter?

  5. says

    Penn was very close to his mother, so that’s his world view and his experience, and I don’t see how it can be seen as invalid just because one can point to other kinds of catastrophic events. As I’m not close to my family, I don’t have the same emotional ties there that he does, but I suspect most people would report that the death of close family means much more to them than catastrophic events happening elsewhere in the world. Many people are devastated by the death of a pet, to a degree I often find off-putting, but I can’t accuse them of a failure of imagination that would be set right if they opened a newspaper.

    Penn is quite familiar with science as well, and reads a lot of the literature and spends a lot of time with scientists and the like, so when he talks about that sort of thing, he is speaking from a base of knowledge and experience, agree with it or not. He is the definition of someone who doesn’t believe in “anything” simply because he’s not religious; in fact, he has perhaps one of the most refined and beautiful belief systems of anyone I’ve encountered.

    It seems odd to attack someone for having an extremely close relationship with a parent and for taking it very hard when that parent dies. Just doesn’t seem to be a point to going after that.

    In any case, on the original subject:

    Like Penn, I eschew downplaying the significance of illness or death or a similar tragedy someone is experiencing. I believe that attempts to pretend “Everything will be okay” or “It’s all for the best” may well worsen the situation for someone rather than improving it.

    I strive to find a way to acknowledge the reality of the situation and perhaps to help give someone a bridge to the next stage of dealing with the situation. As a manager, it’s not uncommon that someone comes to me to report a tragedy in their life, and my response is something along the lines of, “That’s really terrible. I can only imagine what you must be feeling.” What I say next is very dependent on the circumstances, but I try to do nothing to downplay the significance for them or to even indirectly imply they shouldn’t be going through whatever feelings they are currently having.

    I’m greatly influenced here by a conversation in the book Good to Great that the author had with James Stockdale about his time as a Prisoner of War. Stockdale found that the optimists — those who kept saying, “We’re going to get out by Christmas!” and “Only one more month, for sure!” — were the ones who without fail had a miserable time and often ended up dying as a result of their frustration and rage when their predictions didn’t come to pass.

    The survivors, he says, are the ones who did two things:

    - They believed absolutely that, ultimately, they would get through this thing. (Sounds like optimism, but it’s not quite the same — it’s more of a quiet determination.)

    - In the meantime, they refused to deny the “Brutal Facts”. They weren’t going to get out any time soon, they were going to be tortured, and life was generally going to suck. Given that, they took whatever incremental actions they could to keep themselves sane and healthy until the day they would, as they were certain, be released. Knowing they would inevitably be broken by torture, for example, the officers set a policy that you could

    Another take on this, from a book on what kind of people survive disasters and what kind don’t: Those who survive a plane crash in the middle of nowhere who are overly optimistic run around doing random things while waiting for their rescuers to show up, and they end up starving to death or getting eaten, or whatever.

    Those who face the “Brutal Facts” take responsibility for themselves, make a plan, and start executing that plan. They don’t assume anyone is going to rescue them or do the job for them.

    This is a bit of a brain dump, not all of which directly apply’s to Book’s subject, but it’s an area I find really interesting and compelling.

  6. says

    Atheists who believe that all can be explained have a conceptual difficulty dealing with bad things that occur. How can you explain the drunk driver who just killed my daughter?

    Bush’s fault, obviously. Did you forget how the atheist mass murder wannabes on the Left solved that little issue of “who to blame” over the past few years?

  7. says

    Atheists who believe that all can be explained have a conceptual difficulty dealing with bad things that occur.

    Whatever that would be, it’s not atheism (perhaps some kind of Buddhism or something).

    In my experience, having a tough time with bad things happening tends to be more of an issue for religious people. While for many religious people it is helpful to believe it’s all part of God’s plan, or this life thing is just a stop on the way to a spiritual location, over and over I have seen religious people slip to agnosticism or angry atheism because their kid died or some other thing that they cannot square as an event that God would allow.

    Personally that always throws me. Surely they had (to repeat a statement above) read a newspaper once or twice and realized that terrible things happen to good people all the time? Yet when it happens to them it’s unacceptable that God would allow such a thing to occur, so much so that they drop their religious beliefs. Or allegedly do…to my mind, if you are an atheist who is “angry at God”, then you are really a believer who is mad at the creator, not an actual atheist.

    believers and agnostics have reached the conclusion that at the core, there is a mystery to life

    Many many atheists believe this as well. It’s totally possible to find mystery and beauty in the existence and “meaning” of life without having a religion. Many atheists, especially those with a strong scientific background (and especially of those, the ones who are astronomers) are if anything in love with the mystery and beauty of the universe and of humanity’s place in it, and often feel this is more intense because they are not religious.

  8. Mrgus says

    Writing as a theologically conservative Christian, but also as someone who has been the receiver of condolances several times: It matters little what you say but matters a great deal that you say something and matters even more that you are present (either literally or figurtively).

  9. says

    Knowing they would inevitably be broken by torture, for example, the officers set a policy that you could

    Could what?

    Another take on this, from a book on what kind of people survive disasters and what kind don’t: Those who survive a plane crash in the middle of nowhere who are overly optimistic run around doing random things while waiting for their rescuers to show up, and they end up starving to death or getting eaten, or whatever.

    I wouldn’t call that optimistic. I would call that hysteria. Hysteria is one of the ways nature has ensured that human beings will survive to breed.

    Hysteria produces a couple of reactions:

    Do nothing but freeze and hope not to get eaten.

    Do something, anything=running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

    Lead others into organizing a breakout or a fight.

    Run like hell.

    Fight.

  10. says

    Knowing they would inevitably be broken by torture, for example, the officers set a policy that you could

    Could what?

    Oops, the editorial dangers of getting interrupted while in the middle of a brilliant post:

    The officers established rules that said after X minutes of torture, you were allowed to reveal Y amount of information.

    This was a brilliant little bit of leadership, as it accepted the inevitable (you will be broken by torture), it protected their people (if you aren’t broken, it’s because you died before giving up info), and it let people know they did their best to resist while also giving them an out. They could ultimately reveal some bit of info but not feel like a traitor for it. The information was usually useless at that point anyway (how much can you reveal of importance after being imprisoned for several years?)

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