Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
After rolling through many years without major crises, my family seems to have gotten our bad luck all at once in the form of some mutated cells. My grandfather and pet both have cancer, my boyfriend’s aunt just died of it, I’m scheduled to get a mysterious breast lump checked out, and my father just had a painful biopsy with less than promising conclusions. As I wait for results of various tests and procedures, I’m shocked to find myself actively fighting the urge to pray. I was raised Christian and was a devout child but have been an atheist for about 7 years (I’m 23). I thought I was comfortable with my decision, but faced with the possibility of losing beloved family members, I catch myself with clasped hands, asking God or the universe to influence fate in a way that I know in my head is impossible. I’m somewhat shaken and ashamed at my behavior. Am I a fair-weather atheist? Am I still religious and just didn’t realize it? I consider myself a rational, logical person, and perhaps I just need to learn how to deal with these huge, life-changing problems without the false comfort of prayer. What do you think I should do the next time I feel this way, and is this a normal struggle for atheists?
Thank you for your help,
I think the first thing you should do is to forgive yourself for being human. The second thing is to move beyond forgiving yourself, since there is nothing wrong with being human.
To be human is to be continually pulled between your reason and your emotions. It is unavoidable that at times you will be inconsistent and conflicted between these two parts of your nature, especially during stressful or worrisome situations.
Faced with the possibility of losing family members as well as a threat to your own health, it is very understandable that you would experience impulses from your younger years. Yes, your struggle is a very common one for atheists, especially for those who were taught comforting religious beliefs as children.
As I have said in a few other posts, the process of letting go of childhood religious beliefs is two-fold: The intellectual part tends to be much quicker than the emotional part. A person’s rational mind can conclude that religious comforts and assurances are false, but years later they might still feel grief for the loss of that comfort and assurance. In very difficult times the desire for it can become very insistent. The child we once were does not cease to exist when we become adults; it just takes a back seat. Under certain conditions, it can temporarily return to the forefront.
You wonder if you are still religious and didn’t realize it. You don’t sound like you are. You sound like you are the same rational, logical person you have been for seven years, and you’re facing several daunting challenges all at once. The child you once were has returned temporarily to the forefront, and so has her training. Clasping your hands and appealing to a god or the universe is the old way that you were taught to comfort your valid emotional needs. At different points in our lives, we all have different ways that we “hug our teddy bears.” Giving ourselves that child’s comfort is not at all shameful; it’s legitimate. It’s human. Allow yourself whatever helps. It doesn’t mean that you will lose your grip on rationality.
You say you are “somewhat shaken and ashamed” by your behavior, and you ask if you are a “fair weather atheist.” This sounds as if you think you are supposed to live up to some kind of standard of atheist rigor. No, you’re not. You only have to answer to yourself about this, and I suggest that you give yourself the same understanding, patience, and compassion that you would give to anyone else who was in your situation.
For your grandfather, your pet, your father, and for you, I offer you my best wishes for recovery, health, and long life. Those wishes come from my human need to express my empathy and compassion, and they are offered for your human need to know that others care about you. Knowing that can help a little to keep your morale up and to fend off despair. This is why you should share what you are going through with a few close friends.
But wishes are basically like prayers, except that the latter also imagines a deity. What will help you much more than wishes or prayers are the rational things that you and your family are already doing. Diagnostic procedures and medical treatments are founded in rational thinking, and they offer all of you the best chance for good outcomes. Give yourself permission to do whatever helps you to maintain your emotional health, so that you will continue to pursue the most rational path for your and your family’s physical health.