My grandmother will turn 85 this November. She is a sweet, kind, loving woman, who always has fresh baked cookies in her apartment just like you’d expect a grandmother to. She is funny, intelligent, and still remarkably ‘with it’ despite her advancing years. She raised 4 children, and has 10 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. She also happens to be a devout Christian.
My grandmother goes to church without fail every Sunday. She sings in the church choir, even though she has trouble reading the words sometimes and happily admits to ‘faking it’. She confessed to me once, years ago, that she had always believed in god, but had only really begun to appreciate her need for religion as she began to grow old and wonder about her mortality.
My grandmother was married to my grandfather for 59 years. I don’t believe in soul mates, but if there was such a thing, I think my grandparents would have qualified. They were the couple you’d see walking together in the park on a Saturday afternoon, holding hands like lovestruck teenagers. She still laughed at his jokes and stories, despite having heard them all dozens of times. He still kissed her hand and told her he loved her. When the dementia began to steal him away from her, she visited him in the hospital every day, no longer able to properly care for him at the home they shared. If he woke up in the hospital and she wasn’t there, he’d whistle. The nurses never knew why, until my dad explained it to them with a sad smile. Whenever they got separated in the grocery store, my grandfather would whistle so my grandmother would know where to find him.
My grandfather died in the fall of 2010. Though grandma has managed to go on in her own way without him, speaking with her, it’s clear that a piece of her died with him.
If you know me, you should be well aware that I don’t believe in god. I don’t believe my grandfather is in some everlasting paradise, watching over the rest of us here on earth. I don’t believe I’ll ever see him again. I’ve made peace with that. But my grandmother does believe it. She lives every day with hope, knowing in her heart that grandpa is still with her, watching over her, and waiting to welcome her back into his arms when she dies and joins him in heaven. It makes me cry as I write this, because I wish so badly that it were true. I wish they would see each other again one day. But my belief that this is a fairytale doesn’t make it any less real for her. I can only imagine how much comfort this thought brings to her when she misses him, or when she starts to wonder what death is like. I imagine it’s not nearly as frightening when she thinks my grandfather is already there, probably back on the first farm they shared together in rural Saskatchewan, waiting to welcome her home.
When I think about this, I don’t care that it’s a fantasy. I don’t care that it’s not real, or that my grandmother is ignorant, or blind, or brainwashed. I don’t care. I want it to be as real to her as it can be. I want her to get as much comfort from that belief as she can. People say religion is a ‘crutch’, and maybe it is- but this is not one crutch I would ever want to take away from her. She’s 85 years old. She needs it, and I’m just not that cruel.
Religion is, at the very least, an indirect cause of a lot of suffering on this earth. I know that. But my grandmother being comforted by the idea of heaven and seeing my grandfather again does not in any way contribute to this suffering. She doesn’t oppose abortion. She doesn’t hate homosexuals. She doesn’t think women should be subservient. She’s just as horrified as the rest of us when religiously fuelled fighting occurs and innocent lives are lost. She is a good person, and her belief in god and heaven and an afterlife spent with her ‘soul mate’ of 59 years doesn’t change that.
Why have I told you this? Because I think it’s a pretty good model of your ‘average’ religious person. Your ‘average’ religious person doesn’t hate based on what an ancient book says. They don’t protest abortion clinics or gay rights rallies. They are just good, decent people like you and I, but they happen to believe in god and an afterlife, and find comfort in that belief. Who am I to try and take that away from any of them?
I’m all for fighting against hatred, discrimination, inequality, and any of the other negative effects religion may have on our society. But outside of this, I just have no interest in ‘converting’ anyone to atheism. I have no interest in knocking out the religious crutch of the average decent Christian, just so I can say “AHA! I’m right!”. People have asked me repeatedly over the last several months why I don’t debate theists anymore, and it is just for this reason. I don’t need to show everyone how smart I am. I don’t need to try and convert perfectly happy, good people to atheism just for the hell of it. I don’t have the time, or interest, to invest in hashing and re-hashing the same arguments with people who probably aren’t open to hearing them. 15 year olds who believe in god and think atheism requires faith don’t need to be mocked and ridiculed. Just who are they really hurting, anyway? No one, I’d wager. I know some will claim they’ve helped several dozen theists ‘see the light’. Well, more power to you. But to me, my time can be much better spent doing things that don’t include bothering perfectly happy, harmless people. It affects me not in the slightest. I have no interest in potentially negatively impacting their lives either by exposing them to mockery, or by shattering a belief system that does nothing but bring them hope and happiness. And besides- if a single conversation with me on Twitter is enough to convert them to atheism, I suspect they’d have gotten there eventually, one way or another.
I don’t believe in god, heaven, hell, or that I’ll be reunited with departed loved ones some day. But you’d better believe that when I visit my grandmother and she tells me how she just can’t wait to see my grandfather again, all I’m ever going to do is squeeze her hand, smile, and tell her that I can’t wait, either.