Three years ago, Anna Whiston-Donaldson, a mother and writer in Virginia, experienced the almost unimaginable pain of losing a child. Her son Jack drowned in a creek just up the street from the family’s home. He was only 12. Donaldson just published a memoir of her grief.
Here’s one quote:
“I play with the idea that our son’s death is not a random accident, not just the result of free will and bad judgment and freak weather, but somehow part of a larger plan. And a loving God, who holds all the pieces in his hands, can see the plan that we cannot.”
I can’t follow her there. A deity who sweeps away an innocent child, pushes him under the surface, fills his lungs with water to the point of bursting, all the while sending the worst possible searing panic through his mind and body until both expire — that‘s a “loving God”? Not to mention the possibly life-long guilt and mental torture heaped upon the parents, and the sorrow inflicted on all who knew and adored Jack… Loving?
Donaldson “plays with the idea” that Jack’s death is part of a cosmic plan, a phrase that doesn’t exactly convey certainty.
In coming to terms with the death of a child, would certainty of the divine, however false, be a good thing? Or would doubt, perhaps of the growing kind, ultimately help bereaved parents in a more meaningful, the-truth-shall-set-you-free sort of way?
I don’t have the answer.
To many, faith is a lifeline; and while God is surely imaginary, the solace that God-belief provides to billions is anything but. If it gets people through their day, their lives — and it does — do we still try to make them see that it’s based on nothing but wishful thinking?
And if (hypothetically) faith did nothing worse than provide peace to people whose hearts hurt beyond measure, would you still fight it?
P.S. I see from the comments that I flubbed the question.
Yes, religion will always have a large share of believers who, far from quietly practicing their faith, seek to discriminate against non-believers, do violence to them, push faith-privileged laws, proselytize to them like madmen, and so on.
But what about the many who don’t? Who derive comfort from their faith while doing none of the above? They keep to themselves and believe as they believe. I have more than a few Christian friends who fall in this category. Also, I’m married to one.
So let me amend what I asked. Do we still tell those people, whose beliefs get them through their day and their life, that they’re only imagining things? Why, or why not?
P.P.S. I thought I’d highlight this beautiful comment from MargueriteF here, lest it gets buried and overlooked in the readers’ discussion below.
When my husband died, I tried really, really hard to hang onto this belief. I even wrote a memoir — which I never published because when I wrote it, I was religious, and now that I’m an atheist it would be hypocritical to publish it the way I originally wrote it. I wanted very much to believe that my husband’s early death was part of God’s plan, and that he would be waiting for me in Heaven. But eventually I had to admit that none of my beliefs made any sense, and I finally accepted that my husband was dead and gone, and I’d never see him again.
Religion did offer me solace while my husband was dying, and for a while thereafter. But I am not sure atheism would have been any less comforting. I can now accept that his too-few years on the planet were all he had, but in a way that makes his life more worthwhile, not less. I will never see him again, but I had him for fifteen years — and those fifteen years matter more to me when I realize there is no eternal afterlife which I can share with him.
If religion helps people get through times like these, I don’t see a lot of harm in it. But I think we as atheists need to be careful about accepting the common cultural belief that religion is more comforting than atheism. As an atheist, I find myself more inclined to embrace this life, because it’s the only life we’ll ever get. I find myself more inclined to forgive and forget, knowing that I will never be able to make amends in heaven. I’m not spending my life thinking about seeing my lost loved ones again, but rather spending my life with the loved ones I still have. I think this is more comforting than most religious people imagine.