Advice to an Atheist

Before now, I've written two previous posts offering, and soliciting, advice for atheist readers who've found themselves in difficult situations. With today's post, I'm thinking I ought to make it a regular series.

I was contacted by a reader with the following dilemma:

As part of my job, I am often expected to attend and participate in public meetings that are put on either by my employer or by community councils that are affiliated with it. My Canadian employer is considered to be a public organization and the council members are voted in by their respective communities. None are government bodies and none have any religious affiliation or mandate. However, most of these meetings begin and end with a Christian prayer for which all in attendance are asked to stand. Most participants also close their eyes and bow their heads during the prayer which is typically given by an elder in attendance at the meeting and which often asks for guidance from God for the various decisions and discussions undertaken at the meeting.

I am an atheist and although this may be a small matter to many people, being asked to participate in prayer is not something I feel at all comfortable or happy about and am thankful that my regular duties and staff meetings do not include them. I don't believe that supernatural guidance is necessary or is imparted in order to carry out our responsibilities at these meetings and I resent feeling coerced into an implicit agreement with this belief by participating in these prayers.

Certainly, no one is forcing me to stand or to be present for these prayers but by declining to participate at all, I must choose to centre myself out (and my nonparticipation in the prayer) either by remaining seated or by leaving the room. Although to date, I have participated by only standing and not bowing my head, I feel that even this is a compromise of my own principles. I am annoyed by the procedure, although I know that the prayers are benign and no one intends to give offence.

This isn't a daily event and it isn't a huge imposition but it has bothered me enough that I have written this. I am not sure that making a fuss is worth it, particularly given that I live in a small community and the ramifications of any overt action may be farther reaching than I would like. However, I also think that those responsible for leading these meetings need to consider that not all in attendance may wish to pray to the Christian god or indeed, pray at all and that conducting prayers in this way is coercive. What makes this situation also unique is that my organization and these councils were created specifically for the benefit of an aboriginal First Nation and hence many who attend these meetings would be sensitive to any criticism that would be seen to impose upon their cultural practises, particularly given the history of religious indoctrination imposed upon Canadian aboriginals in the past by government education policies.

I'd be grateful for any thoughtful advice you or your readers could give me.

And in a followup e-mail:

...As another example of how religious my home community is and how prevalent the prayer-before-a-meeting procedure is, a few nights ago our community began a debate with our local candidates for a federal election (!) with a Christian prayer, for which all were asked to rise. A woman beside me muttered to me before the prayer that this was something she never gets used to and is continually surprised by. Nonetheless, we both rose and stood silently along with everyone else in the room during the prayer which in usual style, asked for God's guidance, assistance and oversight for all during the proceedings.

As always, context is everything when giving advice in situations like this. Much depends on how the prayer is viewed by the council members. Is this prayer just a formality that they carry on for the sake of tradition, or is it something they genuinely believe in and consider meaningful? (Granted, different council members may take different views about this.)

If it's the former, you may have a chance at stopping it without causing a public scene. You described the situation by saying that no one there intends to give offense and that they may not realize that all attendees are Christian. Would it be possible for you to convey that to them? I'd advise starting with one particular council member - whichever one you think is most likely to be sympathetic to your views. You could approach them in private, state the fact that you're not Christian and that you don't feel comfortable being asked to take part in a prayer session for a religion in which you don't believe. This approach could be adjusted depending on how you expect it to be received. If you're concerned about a hostile response, your contact could be in the form of an anonymous letter. On the other side of the equation, you might make more of an impression if you could come, not just representing yourself, but with a signed petition from other attendees who are also opposed to the prayer. (It sounds though you're not the only one.)

If you make your case and the council isn't sympathetic, or if you elect not to take that route, the situation becomes tougher. I fully understand why you wouldn't want to take part, or even give the impression that you're taking part, in a religious ceremony. I feel the same way. To me, it would feel as if I'm going against my own principles to stand for prayer. Politeness is one thing, but being polite does not require that you give the appearance of assent.

On the occasions when politeness compels me to attend church, such as a wedding or a funeral, I follow a basic principle: I'll sit quietly and politely, but that's all. I don't stand when the congregation stands, nor kneel if they kneel. I feel this strikes a good balance between attending the ceremony, not making a scene, but making it clear that I come as an outsider, not a member of the faith. I won't interfere with people's religious rituals, but neither will I participate. Perhaps this is a plan you could consider adopting, assuming the council isn't willing to make things easier for you.

What do you say, readers? Can you improve on my advice?

October 17, 2008, 7:43 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink31 comments
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Extinguishing the Fear of Hell

The other week, I received an excellent suggestion from a Daylight Atheism commenter via e-mail. He suggested I write a post on the following topic: How can a former believer overcome the vestigial fear of Hell?

I suspect this is a common problem. Many religions go to great effort to inculcate in their followers an instinctive terror of breaking the rules, and this irrational fear can often linger and continue to traumatize a person even after they have consciously and rationally decided that those religious beliefs are false. No blame attaches for this; it's just an intrinsic part of human psychology. Cold fear, unfortunately, is often a more powerful force than dispassionate reasoning.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins quotes one victim of this psychological abuse who wrote to him seeking help:

I went to a Catholic school from the age of five, and was indoctrinated by nuns who wielded straps, sticks and canes. During my teens I read Darwin, and what he said about evolution made such a lot of sense to the logical part of my mind. However, I've gone through life suffering much conflict and a deep down fear of hell fire which gets triggered quite frequently. I've had some psychotherapy which has enabled me to work through some of my earlier problems but can't seem to overcome this deep fear.

Dr. Dawkins suggested a therapist, Jill Mytton, who herself escaped a cult called the Exclusive Brethren and now counsels people in similar situations. Yet even she still bears the traces of her former indoctrination:

"If I think back to my childhood, it's one dominated by fear. And it was the fear of disapproval while in the present, but also of eternal damnation. And for a child, images of hell-fire and gnashing of teeth are actually very real. They are not metaphorical at all." I then asked her to spell out what she had actually been told about hell, as a child, and her eventual reply was as moving as her expressive face during the long hesitation before she answered: "It's strange, isn't it? After all this time it still has the power to... affect me... when you... when you ask me that question. Hell is a fearful place. It's complete rejection by God. It's complete judgement, there is real fire, there is real torment, real torture, and it goes on for ever so there is no respite from it."

Reading about the horrible suffering that so many believers experience, anyone with a conscience would want to help. I'm well aware that there's no quick fix for a psychological trauma like this, and not having had a cult upbringing to break away from, I don't claim to be an expert on this. But I do have two suggestions, so I'll give them out in the hopes that they may do some good. Anyone who has more experience than me and can improve on them is invited to do so.

First: Most religious groups, for understandable reasons, try to instill into their followers the belief that their particular teachings are the only ones that are real or worth caring about. To counteract this, I suggest it may help to put those teachings into their proper context in the pantheon of world mythology. What I'd recommend for a struggling ex-believer is to read about all the afterlives that have been proposed - Greek, Egyptian, Buddhist, Hindu, and everything else that's out there. Once you can compare them side by side and are used to seeing them just as stories, it will be easier to do the same with the religion you were brought up in.

Second: The best way to conquer the phobia of Hell, as with any other phobia, is to induce extinction. Expose yourself to whatever idea or image triggers the fear - in small doses at first - and prove to yourself that no harmful consequences follow. Repeat this often enough, and the mental link between the stimulus and the fear is eventually broken. Of course, rationally speaking, this wouldn't disprove a punishment that's claimed to only arrive after death - but because we're dealing with an irrational fear and not a reasoned belief, I think it may be effective.

So, readers, what do you say? Can anyone improve on these suggestions?

October 1, 2008, 9:25 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink156 comments
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Advice to an Atheist

I recently received an e-mail from an atheist who's grappling with what I imagine is a common dilemma. I offered some advice, but I wouldn't presume to think that my suggestions are definitive. I'm curious to see what Daylight Atheism commenters have to say:

I realize that you don't run an advice column, or anything like it, but I'm sure you have had experience dealing with people who are close to you who happen to be theists. I can't really find any resources for atheists to deal with such a situation; just for theists in the reverse situation. I would really appreciate if you could refer me to anything like that, and maybe give your own perspective on the situation.

I've never really known the religious affiliation of my best friend; she seems like an atheist in many ways, frankly, as she is quite irreverent toward religious concepts and rarely mentions religion in any capacity. However, recently it has become abundantly clear that she considers herself to be a Christian, and we've talked about religion. She has a very sparse understanding of Christianity, as she is a highly infrequent churchgoer; she went to church more often as a child. Anyway, as a result, she's been left with no rational arguments for Christianity, just dogma. The rationally-based essays on your website just bounce off of her Sunday School shield. I really get the feeling that she has no deep belief in Christianity, but I have no idea how to even discuss the subject of religion when I keep running into a dogmatic shield of "I don't question the Bible."

I'm not trying to force her into atheism or anything of the sort; I want to respect her freedom of belief. At the same time, I'm deeply bothered by the fact that such a highly intelligent person has absolutely no interest in even examining her own beliefs and deciding on something beyond blind conviction. I don't plan to make this issue into something that ruins our friendship, but I am closer to her than to any other person, and the presence of such a wide topic which I can't even hope to discuss with her is painful.

If you have spare time, I would appreciate any advice you might be able to give me.

This was my thought:

This is a tough situation, no doubt about it. Probably, most people would advise you just to not bring up the topic of religion with your friend any more. But I understand the frustration of feeling that an entire area of discussion, particularly one that's important to you, is off-limits. It's good to have another person to bounce thoughts off of, and a true friendship shouldn't have to tiptoe around issues like that, in my opinion. And I know it's particularly frustrating dealing with someone who hasn't even thought their own beliefs through.

I have a suggestion: Might it be possible for you to come at the topic from another angle? Instead of discussing or debating a faith your friend obviously has no intention of questioning right now, you could talk to her about other belief systems which she has no vested interest in defending - something you can both agree on. It could be Islam or some other belief system that's common in the world today, or even another sect of Christianity whose political beliefs are far different from her own, something she feels less kinship with. She may be less reluctant to talk and learn about it when it's not her own beliefs at stake. And by subtly bringing up topics or beliefs that have parallels to her own faith, it may be possible to plant a seed of doubt that may make her more open to future discussions.

August 24, 2008, 1:22 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments
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Advice to an Atheist

A few days ago, I had an e-mail query from an atheist looking for advice. I answered him as best as I was able, but his was a question that I think could benefit from some additional perspectives. With my correspondent's permission, I'm reprinting his query below. If you were in his situation, what would you do?

My wife is a Christian and I am an Atheist. We have two small children. She knows how I feel about religion and doesn't like it, but we have basically agreed to disagree. I do not try to convince her that her beliefs are false because I do not think she wants to hear it. Her family is Catholic and they do not know that I am an Atheist. Otherwise, we have a wonderful relationship and I love her dearly. However, recently, as I have been learning more and more about religion, it has become more and more difficult to keep my Atheism "in the closet" and hidden from her family. When we are at my in-laws' home and religious issues are being discussed, it is very hard for me to keep my thoughts to myself. I really want to let the world know that I am an Atheist and that Atheism is the answer. However, I also know how much my wife wants her parents and siblings to continue liking me and this would pretty much keep that from ever happening. I also know that my wife is an intelligent lady, but she knows very little about Atheism or even her own religion. She has simply clung to Christianity because that is what her family believes and that is what she finds comfortable. I do not want to cause her little world to come crashing down, but at the same time, I hate pretending to believe in something that I know is false. Don't get me wrong, I do not want to start fights with her family or argue about whose right and whose wrong, I just want to disassociate myself with Christianity.

What do you suggest?

First of all, I think my correspondent is wise to fear a prejudiced reaction. Atheists are more visible than we once were, but no matter how many millions of books Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris sell, there will be millions more believers who have never read them, never heard atheists speak in our own words, and know us only as objects of calumny from their sermons.

On the other hand, the only way we'll ever combat those stereotypes is by stepping out and becoming visible, showing others that we exist and are not the misanthropes we have been demonized as. For this reason, I encourage all atheists whose situations permit it to come out of the closet and declare themselves, and I applaud my correspondent for wanting to do so. At the same time, I sympathize with his desire not to provoke fights. Our purpose in coming out should be to make friends, not enemies. And while many religious people perceive the mere existence of atheists as an insult, I think this hostile reaction can be defused if done with sufficient candor and tact.

I've reprinted below the answer that I gave. If you want to expand on it or offer an alternative, feel free either way.

You said you didn't want to start a fight with your in-laws, and I don't think you have to. The next time you're there and religious issues come up, especially if someone makes a comment that thoughtlessly assumes you're a Christian, I'd just say something like, "Thank you for your concern, but actually I'm an atheist, and here's what I think..." Then give your opinion - not hostile or combative, but a simple statement of what you feel and why. If someone attacks you, defend yourself, but don't get angry or confrontational and don't try to convert them; just emphasize that you're still a good, moral person, like most atheists. If people get agitated, I'd tell them politely that I won't discuss this any more right now, and give them a chance to cool down. If you do this and stick to it, over time they may come to accept you.

Or, another thought: it might be even better for you to arrange for your wife to mention your atheism. Having her break this news to her parents, rather than you, may soften the blow for them.

November 9, 2007, 9:29 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments
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