An Atheist in a Crisis February 24, 2009

An Atheist in a Crisis

I’ve mentioned before stories of atheists who had to deal with a crisis — or at least people who didn’t turn to a god when they were dealing with terrifying situations.

The fact that Stephen Alter is an atheist is only a minor point in this essay he wrote for Outlook India.

But after paragraph upon paragraph recalling a brutal attack he and his wife suffered at the hands of assailants (who have still not been caught), it’s a sobering reminder that no God(s) can help us in the worst of times. We have to take action on our own:

Knowing that I was going to be stabbed, I rolled on to my left shoulder, still under the weight of my assailant. Desperately, I kicked at the masked man. Convinced that I was about to die, I didn’t want to give up without some sort of resistance. The masked intruder stabbed me six times on the legs, though the only wound I remember receiving is the last. Avoiding my thrashing feet, I saw him brace himself before lunging forward and bringing the knife down on my right thigh, cutting into my flesh and ripping open a deep wound, 12 inches long.

Retelling a story can be a form of healing too, as each rendition attempts to make sense of disturbing events. Many messages we received, expressing sympathy and support, reminded us of the need for spiritual recovery. Being a devout atheist, I never once felt a compulsion to ask for help from god while I was being attacked. Afterwards, however, there were many who came and prayed over us. Even if I don’t believe in divine intercession, I am grateful for the prayers on our behalf. Whatever wounds and scars remain inside still fester with fear and anger, but just as my tendons, muscles and nerves have begun to heal themselves, my psychological sinews are also undergoing a process of self-repair.

There are indeed atheists in foxholes and there are atheists who see the end of their life right in front of them. Just because you’re undergoing trauma doesn’t mean you automatically turn to the supernatural.

(Thanks to Deirdre for the link!)


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  • “Afterwards, however, there were many who came and prayed over us”

    To once more flog that dead horse: If there was a god who cared, the attack would not have happened in the first place; what are after-the-fact prayers supposed to do?

  • What’s the point of being devoted to emptiness, the lack of supernatural beings. I am in no way devoted to atheism and would chuck it tomorrow if compelling, rigorously testable evidence was offered in support of the supernatural. In a knife fight, I’m going to pray to Jebus and give him a good opportunity to prove that he exists, I just ain’t going to count on it.

  • RNB

    A personal comment, I went to the same school as Deirdre and the Alters in Mussoorie. None of us know how we’d react in that situation, but Stephen’s courage, honesty, humanity, humility and good nature are unquestionable, he is a pillar of the community and a friend to all around there – yet I was genuinely surprised to read that he is openly atheist – I thought he came from a family of christian missionaries, if that is true then his revelations are even more noteworthy.
    On a more generic note, this is what I wrote about a similar situation: http://tinyurl.com/dhxg86

  • I don’t know this for certain, but I’m pretty sure even the most devout theists probably wouldn’t be praying while being attacked as this man was. Contrary to the popular notion, I believe our natural reaction to life threatening situations is to rely on ourselves, regardless of our religious beliefs. In fact, I think we could turn the whole “atheist in foxholes” argument around and point out that in the worst of situations, even theists rely on themselves instead of hoping that their god will come through and save them. Perhaps there are really no theists in foxholes…

  • Thanks for sharing this.

  • matt

    As you die you see your life flash before your eyes. It’s called Life.