I’ve been interviewed many times, but not like yesterday. The Chaplains at Childrens Medical Center of Dallas reached out to Metroplex Atheists asking for someone to advise them. The Chaplains know how to soothe the faithful, but they wanted to be able to comfort unbelievers too. I commend them for that.
This hospital has one of the best cancer wards for children in the country, but they sometimes still have to deliver very bad news. I know because my granddaughter lived there for most of her life, before they gave us really bad news. Later someone tried to console us saying, “she’s an angel now looking down on you”. I don’t know how bullshit lies like that can make anyone feel better. So I responded, “No she’s not an angel now; she was an angel then”.
So now I found myself in an office surrounded by seven interested and well-meaning Chaplains, a diverse blend of gender and ethnicity, inquiring what they can do to help the heathens. Because they’ve figured out that the usual lines don’t work. Once they say “I’m here to support you emotionally and spiritually”, upon hearing that last word the response from the atheists is “we don’t need you and don’t have time for you, especially not now”. The Chaplains noticed that some of the things that believers most want to hear will only push buttons in infidels that they don’t want to push. So they’re asking me, “what can we say?”.
They repeated this question a number of ways, and it was frustrating that I don’t have the kind of answer they’re looking for. They want to know what gives our life meaning. But there’s no meaning to life beyond what we choose to assign to it. I said the only meaning our lives will ever have is whatever we meant to someone else. So if you want your life to have meaning, try making someone else’s life meaningful. They wanted to know what works in our belief system. But we don’t have one. It’s not that I have a different coping mechanism than they do; I simply lack theirs. I told them that I don’t envy their jobs, because there is very little they can say. Often the only thing they should say is, “I’m so very sorry this is happening to you”. That’s the only comfort you can give in that situation that is truly honest, and that matters if you’re really there to comfort someone.
Regarding religion, it’s best not to bring it up. I said that it doesn’t matter what might be possible. If you can’t show that it’s true, then it’s not. And we won’t waste a minute on such nonsense when we have serious realities to deal with. I said this not to be rude, but because they want to know our perspective, and that’s how we feel about that, at least at that moment under those circumstances.
I told them what not to say of course, and I gave some examples of things that we heard, my daughter and I. Someone told her that this was all because of her sins. Good thing I wasn’t in the room for that one. Because I reacted very harshly when someone on facebook tried to assure us that this was all part of God’s plan. “God’s plan?” I said. “She got Accute Myeloid Leukemia at only four months old, then suffered two relapses, and endured so many successive rounds of chemo that it prompted a horrific side-effect called Steven Johnson Syndrome. She learned to walk while connected to an IV tree, and she lived two years learning how to operate the valves on the medication pump that was installed in her chest. This was God’s plan? To torture an innocent brilliant and beautiful baby her ENTIRE life for no reason at all and then to end it all in a tragically cruel futility that no parent should ever endure and that can’t be justified? That’s God’s plan?!” I could go on, and I did. It was not the conversation that person wanted to start. This is precisely the situation the Chaplains wanted to avoid.
I remember when little Sydney had her first relapse. Her chances of survival were said to be only 20%. A minister I knew put his hand on my shoulder and said so sincerely that he would pray for me. But I said, “don’t bother, because I’ve noticed the first time around that the prayers don’t work until the chemo starts flowing”. In her second relapse in the third year of my granddaughter’s life, I was much less patient. That same minister told me the same thing again. Only now we knew it was even more serious, and his prayers obviously didn’t work the first time. I know this guy is a well-meaning, good-hearted and an admirably loving sort of person. But that doesn’t change the fact that he believes in stupid horse shit that can’t be of any real help to anyone.
So I told him to imagine that he has to find a solution to a very troubling issue that has he has to resolve immediately somehow or face terrible pending consequences. Now imagine that a four year-old child tells you that she’ll write to Santa to help you out. Even if you know that she really believes that, would that or could that be of any comfort in that situation? If not, then imagine how much worse it would be when that four year-old child is a forty year-old man saying essentially the same thing. If you say you’ll pray for me, you might as well say that you’ll write a letter to fucking Santa for all the good that would do. And that is how I will react.
I said all this to the chaplains, and I told them about John Christy, the Christian pastor who made the movie, My Week in Atheism. Some time after he interviewed me for his film, I looked up his church online and found a sermon he gave talking about my granddaughter. In that, he said that at least believers can say that she’s in a better place now. But what can the atheists say? Nothing! As if the fact that we would not lie to ourselves about something like this is somehow evidence against our position or an argument for his.
He said that if we don’t live forever, that if what we do today doesn’t matter five billion years from now, then it doesn’t matter now either. He actually said that if we all just die and that’s it, if there is no eternal afterlife, then there is no reason to prolong life or ease suffering. I explained all that at a Humanist conference and posted a video about it. The best thing Christy said in that whole sermon was when he admitted that he is delusional. He said he didn’t care about what the truth is; just let him believe what he wants to believe. The Chaplains at Children’s agreed that his was the most internally poisoned position we’ve ever heard. They did not want to be represented by Christians like him.
Likewise I apologized that there were Humanist Chaplains who wanted to be there with me, and would have done much better than I could at connecting with people of a different perspective. I said that I’m more of a bulldog, and I suspect that my Humanist associates are probably worried about the fact that I’m the only one who could make this appointment. I’m sure they don’t want an antitheist activist representing them at this moment.
I did my best not to be antagonistic. I said that regardless whether we imagine another world after this one or not, a child with cancer is a real world situation requiring real world solutions. One of the Chaplains asked what I meant by “real”, meaning how do I know that what they offer is not real. I said that, “Believers say you can’t see atoms. So how do you know they’re real? Flip a light switch. There’s your proof. They say you can’t see air either, but I can blow things over. And they say you can’t even prove that love is real -except that there are a number of chemical signatures for various types of love. So yes you can prove that all these things are real. But with God, you’ve got nuthin’: just man’s imagination proving that it’s only man’s imagination.” He stared away wishing he could rebut me, and I remembered, this is not why I’m here. So I apologized, saying that if left unrestrained, I will put my foot right into my mouth. The group was surprisingly understanding.
I mentioned that there are secular resources like Grief Beyond Belief and Humanist celebrants who are well trained to work with the non-religious. Also, there is the Secular Therapist Project with therapists trained to deal with secular grief. and the Recovering from Religion hotline where we can connect people with resources we can appreciate. Ultimately I said that in this situation, it doesn’t matter whether someone has religious beliefs of not. Anyone facing the imminent death of their child is going to need attention from someone sincerely showing genuine human compassion. I don’t know what else works for someone else, but I think this much is true for everyone.