As if to prove my point in Part 1 (yesterday), the N.Y. Times ran an opinion piece on how religion is portrayed on TV and other “smaller media” (“Where Is God on the Small Screen?” by Margaret Lyons and James Poniewozikaug, 8-24-2016). The article didn’t prove my point, but the comments sure did! Atheists and theists lobbing bombs back and forth, bright flashes of light, tremendous bursts of bombast … any real communication? Naw.
The crux so far of the dialogue between atheists and theists (pun intended, sorry) is the sense that “both sides cannot be right.” This, however, is not a path forward as it leads to a discussion of who is right and who is wrong and, well, history has shown that does not get us anywhere. Instead, let us consider the possibility that both sides are right, not in the details but with regard to things that are really important. This is not a caving in on my part, it is just a rhetorical device to get past a rather large road block.
Sharing Facts Does Not Work
Let us get this out of the way from the get-go: sharing facts does not, will not, and can not work. Each group has its own facts and is relatively ignorant of the other group’s facts. There is a sizable majority of folks who possess very few of any pertinent facts, but they still have opinions. What those opinions are based upon is important as I hope to show.
So, my favorite topic: pointing out the flaws in others’ thinking (I enjoy it so much that I enjoy it when others point out my flaws in thinking) is counterproductive. The situation is both sides have an array of weapons at their disposal. When one is fired, but has no effect, we reach down and select another weapon and try that one. We don’t stop to reflect on why a direct hit by the opposition has no effect on us. We shrug and assume it is probably the case that their weapons are ineffective. Well, they are ineffective, in both directions, because we slough off any effect they might have if we were to consider what was actually said. Like two children arguing over a point of honor, we stand toe to toe and shout “Is!” followed by “Isn’t!” followed by many repetitions of the same.
I might add to this that euphemisms and clarifications will also not help. Various theists describe god as “Nature” or “the All” or “the Ground of All Being,” whatever. Some sociologists describe god as a metaphor for society as a whole, in that it is all powerful and can crush us like a bug, but if we follow its rules, we have hope.
Naw, doesn’t help.
“Let us consider the possibility that both sides are right,
not in the details but with regard to things that are really important.”
Let’s Peel the Onion One Layer at a Time
Let’s take one claim for the benefit of religion espoused by theists and examine it: the solace a religion provides when a loved one dies. Most of us atheists want to jump to point that fantasies may be reassuring but they aren’t real, but try for a moment to see what is actually going on.
A neighbor of ours has lost her mother and her brother in just the last month. Along with all of the sorrow and loss being felt there are funeral arrangements, settling the affairs of the deceased, informing friends and family, and myriad of other tasks to attend to. Anybody having lived any length of time can relate to this situation.
If one is the member of a healthy church community, a whole cadre of folks are activated when a member dies. Even before your loved one dies, prayers are offered for their recovery and visits to the sick bed are common. Now, you and I know that praying doesn’t work, but it addresses a number of the fears that people have about dying. Few of us want to die alone. We aren’t children; we don’t need somebody to hold our hand as when we learn to cross a street, but physical human contact helps. It is reassuring. Also, we don’t want to be forgotten. We live on in the memories of people who knew us when we were alive. But human memories are plastic and fail when the person owning them dies, so people often try to leave a more permanent legacy, in the form of a building, a book, or something that will point to our existence after we are gone. This is a need we all have. Praying and prayer circles don’t work in an actual physical sense but are examples of an often large number of people holding you in their thoughts, which means you will be remembered, at least for a time.
A solid church community has processes in place to assist members suffering from a bereavement. Church ladies show up at your door with a casserole so your kids can eat, knowing that you won’t feel up to cooking. If your minister is any good, they will call (physically, not via email or phone) and outline all of the support systems being offered. They will check in with you. Some churches have grief counselors available.
The church proper is available for a funeral service or memorial service with folks available who can help with the arrangements. If you want to have a reception after the service in the church’s meeting hall, often all of the arrangements are made by other members.
Who would not want this for a loved one who has to cope with your death? This is solace with a capital S.
And, as atheists, what do we offer as a substitute? Some kind of intellectual purity and a feeling of being all grown up because we no longer believe in fairly tales?
The Big Bugaboo: Death
Many of the benefits of religion seem to surround the Big Unknown: Death. But in my experience, the vast majority of people I have known have spent almost no time thinking about death. We entertain ourselves, ad nauseum, with the potential of dying in myriad movies and books, but actual death … not so much.
Woody Allen said “It’s not death I am afraid of, it’s dying.” and I think he hit the nail on its head. We have all experienced pain, discomfort, fear and other negative emotions and our imaginations allow us to extrapolate those feelings to the transition from being alive to being dead. Being dead has no negatives about it because there are no more emotions, no feeling, no nothing, but we think about leaving loved ones in the lurch, with unresolved financial issues and more. Clearly, dying seems to be rated as “most unpleasant” by most if not all people for good reasons. In addition, evolution has provided us with survival reflexes. If we step off of a street curb and a bus is coming right at us, we step back. We don’t even need to think about it. Any species that did not routinely avoid death would not be around very long. So, we are primed to avoid dying in many, many ways, often subconsciously.
It is “normal” that religions would sprout up to apply salves to the emotional wounds of those left behind which also acts as training for those who will be dying themselves in short order.
And what do we atheists offer instead?
Okay, take a deep breath, I know you want to say that deluding ourselves with fairy tales is not a good way to support healthy lives. You know I agree, but that attitude does not solve the problem. It itself does not solve the problem.
We need to change the way we see things. I remember being appalled when the presiding minister at my uncle’s memorial service stated that he “knew” that my uncle, an avid golfer, was up in Heaven playing golf! (The clergy, like other traditional professions has suffered a brain drain.) When I took the time to think about it, I don’t believe any present actually thought there were 18-hole championship golf courses in Heaven. I suspect that a number of them might have pictured my uncle in the “other place” playing golf with Beelzebub. What most thought was probably something along the lines of “… that’s what I would expect from good old Bob!” It would have been perceived as a joke by those who knew my uncle and not as being blasphemous.
The main message was “your loved one is in Heaven” which, of course, no one could know even within the parameters of religious doctrine. (Imagine the length of the waiting line and the amount you could charge if you could prove whether or not a deceased person was actually in Heaven. For everyone not wanting to know there would be two people who would gleefully want to know whether someone was in the “other place.”) Though Christian scripture indicates in many, many ways that while many are called, few are chosen for admittance through the Pearly Gates, yet according to every Christian Church memorial service, every member who dies is going to Heaven. This is another form of solace for those remaining behind.
We need to learn to translate “what we hear” into “what they hear” if we expect to be able to communicate with them.
I know this is a bit rambling, and I expect to ramble some more but I am heading to a place where we can actually address the real issue: how to meet the social and psychological needs of people who are now using religion to meet them. Because if we do not, then it is no contest, because they are right, their religion does offer solace when a loved one dies and they are right about a great deal more.