The Religious Crutch

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.

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26 Responses to The Religious Crutch

  1. Very, very nice. A goos reminder on why, we atheists, if we are sincere about this life and our beliefs about it, we should focus on love and well being. For all. Including believers.

  2. hitchens67 says:

    I really can’t justify taking this away either. Well written and heard loud and clear!

  3. Steersman says:

    Good post – I can well sympathize with it as I have a few relatives more or less in the same boat.

    However, I think that that policy is generally only applicable to older folks or to those otherwise not doing any overt “harm” by their beliefs. Rather different kettle of fish when it comes to brainwashing kids with specious and odious beliefs of one sort or another. Apropos of which you may have read Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in particular Chapter 9: Childhood, Abuse, and the Escape from Religion. He refers to and quotes from the paper What Shall We Tell the Children by the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey:

    Children, I’ll argue, have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas – no matter who these other people are. Parents, correspondingly, have no god-given licence to enculturate their children in whatever ways they personally choose: no right to limit the horizons of their children’s knowledge, to bring them up in an atmosphere of dogma and superstition, or to insist they follow the straight and narrow paths of their own faith.

    In short, children have a right not to have their minds addled by nonsense. And we as a society have a duty to protect them from it. So we should no more allow parents to teach their children to believe, for example, in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the planets rule their lives, than we should allow parents to knock their children’s teeth out or lock them in a dungeon.

    Although, in passing, while I think there is a lot of merit in that position, I also think that he has, in general, a bit of a tendency to black-and-white thinking that could be a little problematic. For instance, he also says somewhat earlier in the paper:

    This is, surely, the crux of it. It is a cornerstone of every decent moral system, stated explicitly by Immanuel Kant but already implicit in most people’s very idea of morality, that human
    individuals have an absolute right to be treated as ends in themselves – and never as means to achieving other people’s ends.

    Has a nice ring to it, at least superficially. However, the fact of the matter is that we all “use” each other all the time as means to our own ends, whether it is to repair our teeth or cars, or to entertain or inform us, or to put food on our tables or gas in our tanks. The trick is, I think as the title of Norbert Wiener’s book puts it, “The Human Use of Human Beings”; other people – children in particular – are not just a means to achieving our own ends: they also have some autonomy that must be respected.

  4. I can understand why you wouldn’t wish to debate your elderly grandmother. If it brings her some measure of peace, then all the power to her.

    I do find value in conversations about religion, religiosity and the impact it has on society. I don’t share your attitude towards not talking about it. I understand why you’d feel that way though

    Good post!

    • atheistmel says:

      I definitely find value in conversations about religion. I have just come to realize that there is a time and place for them. “With my elderly grandmother” will never be one of those. “With young, silly Christians on Twitter” isn’t one for me anymore, either. Discussion can be valuable if it is mature, and free of mockery.

  5. It’s amazing that the atheist sees a lifetime of wisdom and good living in a religious loved one and the atheist thinks the wisdom and good living happened all by itself.

  6. Tim says:

    I like how you assume you’re a good and decent person. On what grounds do you make this assumption? Is it based on Christian norms?

    Atheists such as yourself often have remarkable knowledge of the Christian religion. It is precisely that which makes your views the most scum-like. You have heard the truth and chosen not only to ignore it, but to preach against it.

    Remember your grandmother when you are her age, and ask yourself objectively if you are half the person she was. I promise you won’t be.

    • eyeontheuniverse says: are a nasty heartless person. This author is doing exactly what she can to make her grandmother happy. she cares enough about the issue to think long and hard about it, and to write ands hare with others. And what do you do but visit for the point of sharing hate? If there is some form of afterlife judgement, I’m pretty sure I can guess who will come out ahead.

    • atheistmel says:

      I certainly don’t assume I’m a good person based on anything Christian. The bible is one of the most hateful, vile, morally reprehensible pieces of literature ever created. I subjectively view myself as ‘good’ based on my actions, and my desire to not do that which would hurt another person.

      I was a Christian for a decade, hence my knowledge of the religion. But what I found in Christianity was not truth, but extreme ignorance; an assumption that everything in the world that was worth knowing could be found in the bible. This is simply untrue.

      As to your last point, I aspire to be as good as my grandmother, but you’re certainly right. I’d count myself lucky to be half the woman she is.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • 'Mash (Thomas Herbert) says:

        Mel, if you have time would you be able to write a blog post outlining some of your conclusions regarding your comments like “The bible is one of the most hateful, vile, morally reprehensible pieces of literature ever created.” and “I was a Christian for a decade, hence my knowledge of the religion.”?

        The reason I ask is that I think it would be useful not only to readers, but also for yourself to outline what you believe and whether or not this is actually what is reasonable, logical and true (real) outside of you own beliefs.

        I do read your articles whenever a new one comes out, but almost every time I go away thinking it’s a bit like you went to a dodgy Italian restaurant for ten years of your life and this is how you see all of Italy.

        Now in a similar sense, would it be useful to read the comment of “Tim” above, assume he is speaking as a Christian, and use it it as the lense for all historical Christian doctrine? No, I think not.

        I am not trying to be an ass about things, but I am passionate about getting people to define specifically and with as much depth as possible their world-views. The reason is that often speaking to people you hear them argue a point, but the point they argue is not even true in it’s definition. It’s 100% worth the effort to know what you are arguing for or against.

        E.g. “Islam is a complete farce no wonder there is so much bigotry, I mean Muhammed is a fictional character like the Wizard of Oz. I mean how stupid can you get, the women believe wearing a head covering atones for their sin. I don’t trust any Muslim men because they are all chauvinists and their book teaches that. This is why algebra shouldn’t be taught in schools.”

        E.g. “The bible is one of the most hateful, vile, morally reprehensible pieces of literature ever created. … I was a Christian for a decade, hence my knowledge of the religion. But what I found in Christianity was not truth, but extreme ignorance; an assumption that everything in the world that was worth knowing could be found in the bible. This is simply untrue.”

        Of course this is your blog, but sometimes I just wonder when something is said to be completely and utterly unreasonable but no reasonable reasons are given on anything specifically.

        It’s just difficult sometimes to read your stuff, I get disheartened, not with you but rather with how your world-view has been formed from your experience. (Of course this is how all world-views are formed outside the progressive formal acquisition knowledge, i.e. in the educational sense). It really is like you had a really awful experience and continue to have a really awful experience and have come to the conclusion that therefore there is zero credibility in any of the history, science (textual criticism, language, etc) and epistemological positions of Christianity (and it’s Jewish foundation).

        For example there is a difference of course between the historicity of FSM (Pastafarianism) and Christianity; obviously because the Jewish man Yeshua ben Yosef actually lived and was crucified, and we very likely have at least some of his direct sayings or teachings. The FSM is a completely fictional invention by Bobby Henderson in 2005.

        It’s a bit like me dismissing all the work of Augustine of Hippo because I hate cucumber sandwiches. British country village church gatherings always serve those damnable things cut into tiny triangles and with soo much butter.

        Anyway I am waffling on, I just wanted to provide some food for thought (but not cucumber sandwiches!). Have a great weekend and hope to hear from you at some point.

    • It is people like you Tim who give religion such a bad name. The arrogance with which you peremptorily dismiss an honest and thoughtful post by Mel and the presumption with which you attack her personally without a shred of intelligent debate is breathtakingly evidence of a closed mind and stone cold heart. If that is where Christianity brings you then either you have misunderstood the message of loving your neighbour as yourself or you just don’t know when to keep quiet. Shame on you.

    • Whatever moral virtue you can extract from the Abrahamic religions existed before those religions and has existed concurrently in other cultures or worldviews. “Christian norms” don’t deserve any credit for moral behavior. As far as “truth”, that can be hard to find, but we can be sure that Noah’s ark, virgin births, resurrections, etc are not examples of it. Christianity is a hilarious, bizarre, absurd mythology that preys upon human fear and insecurity while offering no moral guidance that can’t be easily obtained elsewhere.

  7. eyeontheuniverse says:

    Agreed. I think a lot of young, new atheists who are trying to find their way willfully ignore this reality. Sure it’s a crutch…but humans evolved to use this crutch. I volunteer with people with dementia and they believe all sorts of things thata ren’t true. One woman had a stuffed dog she thought was real. Anyone with half a heart and a few brain cells played along.

    And of course, none of us has a clue what happens when we die. Sure, most of the old myths seem pretty implausible, but by no means does that mean we have the answers to what REALLY is happening. What arrogance that would be.

    I hope your grandmother continues to believe her story. And I hope that maybe some part of it has at least a grain of truth. I think you are doing exactly the right thing. You make her happy, and really, what else can we be sure about?

    • Um, actually we do know exactly what happens when we die. We decompose like all other organisms, and our personhood is preserved in cultural artifacts like text and other organisms’ memory. That’s definite knowledge and it’s no more arrogant than saying plants convert energy by photosynthesis. Knowledge is never absolute, but our knowledge of the human afterlife (decomposition, cultural persistence) is about 99.9999999% plausible, whereas any supernatural myth about human afterlife is about 0.000000000000000001% plausible. That’s a lot worse than “pretty implausible”.

  8. Well said Mel. And true; religion gives much comfort to the ordinary ‘Joe’ (the wo/man on the Clapham omnibus) and as atheists we need to learn to live and let live.

    It is the bellicose few, who would impose their beliefs on others because of their conviction in their own rightness and, god help us, righteousness. These arrogant missionaries, which includes 99% of TV evangelists, need to be debated at every turn. They feed on the gullibility of the ‘many’ and promote untruth at every turn – especially in their opposition to abortion, homosexuality and a ’rounded’ education for the young.

    And that is just Christianity. When one considers the evil perpetrated in the name of Islam the situation gets ineffably worse. Death for apostasy alone should outlaw the ‘religion’. But there is also the fact that blasphemy can be a capital crime that easily earns it the appellation of ‘evil’.

    So I look forward to you selecting your targets for the proper level of opprobrium in your timeline. More power to your elbow.

    Stephen Coulson

  9. Mark says:

    Well said Mel. The comfort people get when they are near death or in misery is a great positive for religion. I took my mother to church almost every day in the weeks leading up to her death (I’m an atheist) and I was glad of the peace it brought her. However, as a child raised picketing abortion clinics, the importance of confronting religious hypocrisy and social injustice is important. Someone confronting me, causing me to examine my views many years ago has had an exponential effect on me and my family.

  10. Lynn says:

    Thanks Mel, you made my day.

  11. It’s a nice story and most of us probably have similar ones, but it seems to have little bearing on the topic of atheism and discourse. Theism is sort of a mental disability and socially adapted people like you and me are sensitive and kind to people with disabilities of all sorts. It doesn’t change all the good reasons to advocate atheism in other contexts, especially when confronting strangers without an inhibitory social context or confronting people who have a curable version of theism. Any young parent should be the target of anti-theistic discourse.

  12. atheistmel says:

    I actually completely disagree with you on the ‘mental disability’ angle. I was a theist for 10 years. I do not, in any way, think I was ‘disabled’ during this time. I was young, naive, and ignorant- but I can’t imagine how that can be classified as a mental disability.

    The point of this post is that the vast majority of theists are decent people who harm no one by being believers, and that I have no interest in removing whatever hope, joy, or comfort they get from that. As I said there are many facets of religion that are inherently harmful that we SHOULD be opposing. But to tell John Doe that he’s wrong about god, when it brings him some measure of happiness and causes him to do no harm, is just not something I intend to waste my time on.

    • I wrote “sort of a mental disability” because I didn’t mean to make a literal claim like that. “sort of” just meant “similar to” here. I know there’s a basic distinction with “real” mental disabilities, even though that’s probably such a wide range of phenomena that it could be an injustice to lump people together like that. I choose my words carefully on this topic because bigotry against mental illness or disability is a common problem in the world. Theism is really just the human brain acting normally (cf. Pascal Boyer, et al), so it’s almost the opposite of a mental disability in a sense. But my point still remains that theism is similar to a mental disability because it’s one brain having less ability than another brain. Theists lack knowledge and/or certain types of reasoning ability or they have some kind of rigid compartmentalization that protects certain topics from the reasoning they use for other topics. All of these disabilities are malleable and can be overcome, as witnessed by the great number of people who change or abandon their supernatural beliefs. The malleability is at least one important distinction between the “real” mental disabilities and cultural artifacts like theism. Such mental asymmetries exist for all sorts other domains of knowledge. Regardless of whether the asymmetry is due to a “real” disability or a cultural artifact, and regardless of what topic it’s about, the asymmetry is the reality we have to address in our social behavior at a given moment in time. When I talk to theists in real life, sometimes I say I’m an atheist and sometimes I say vague stuff like “Me and my wife aren’t religious” and sometimes I don’t express my stance at all. In rare cases I’ll even be pretty honest and confront someone’s views, On the internet with strangers I’m almost always super honest. It always depends on the specific details of social context. Religious beliefs are super sensitive of course, really cutting into a person’s emotional core, but other topics are also like that, and the same grey area of social context and sensitivity applies.

      Your practical approach and conceptualization to all this is probably not much different than mine. Your post was awesome and I only disagree with the extreme end of your generalization towards the end where you argue against anti-theistic discourse in some contexts where I’d claim it’s socially appropriate and valuable. I really think we should attack the views of “average” good theists sometimes, even in real life. I’m just trying to make a different generalization. I remember making a related point on your blog a while back, defending aggressive atheistic behavior online.

  13. Masakhane says:

    Reblogged this on MASAKHANE and commented:
    Loved reading this!! It makes sense to me…

  14. Junaid Noori says:

    “Religion is, at the very least, an indirect cause of a lot of suffering on this earth. I know that.”

    Uh, what?

  15. Professor Twain says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  16. Ansgar Braut says:

    God is very much real, and there are nothing you can do to take faith away from your grandmother. What you call fantasy, we christian believe is the truth. We have experienced a living God, and that Jesus does miracles, heals and are giving people a good life, in perfect freedom:-) I sure hope that you will find Jesus Christ, yourself some day:-) God bless you!

  17. Dave says:

    Has anybody here ever done any research on NDEs? Millions of people have had them regardless of faith or no religion at all. And the days of explaining NDEs with “brain chemistry” etc are long gone. Look into it folks.

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