PostSecret is “an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a postcard.” The website posts many of the postcards it receives.
In 2015, PostSecret published a submission that contained the following message typed over an image of an empty hospital bed:
I don’t believe in god
when i was 19
my mom was on her death bed and asked me to pray for her
I told her I couldn’t because I would by [sic] lying
now she’s gone forever, and I feel like I failed her as a daughter
By design, notes sent to PostSecret are brief and unsigned, so we don’t have any additional information about this woman’s specific situation. However, it’s safe to say she’s not the first or last nonbeliever with a dying parent or family member who will be faced with such a dilemma.
What is a secular humanist to do under these circumstances? To pray or not to pray? We put the question to two writers on opposite sides of this conundrum.
Why This Atheist Would
In the first Hunger Games movie, Katniss sang to her friend Rue as Rue lay dying from an injury. Katniss wasn’t a singer and probably would rather not have gone around singing on an active battlefield, but she knew this would comfort her dying friend during Rue’s last few moments alive. As an atheist, I see praying with a dying loved one as very similar to what Katniss did. It’s simply an act of compassion.
My atheism merely states my lack of belief in god. What I do believe is much more important, and many of my beliefs derive from secular-humanist principles. One of these principles is reducing suffering whenever and wherever I can. So if I can comfort someone during the final few moments of his or her life, I’m all for it. I may not be supercomfortable pretending to pray, but at that moment the focus shouldn’t be on me. We all cope in different ways, and even though I don’t think there is a god, I can use what someone else believes to reduce his or her suffering.
Like everything else, my position becomes more complicated when considered more carefully. Again, I’m a humanist, so I adhere to several core humanist principles. One of those principles is to reduce suffering when I’m able, but another is to be honest and try to understand reality as best I can. So if I were to pretend to pray, that would be dishonest and not truly reflect on what I think is reality. My own beliefs now face some conflict—but so what?
Sometimes not everything is about oneself. In this situation, I would be slightly uncomfortable for a few moments—at most—in order to make the dying person’s last minutes on Earth more peaceful. To me that is a more than fair trade-off, and I’m happy to do it. Some may argue that pretending to pray with a dying religious person could mute an atheist’s identity, but I disagree with that as well.
Yes, atheists are forced to “shut up” all the time in religious societies because of the fear of being ostracized or even physically harmed. Yes, atheist identities are muted quite often around the world. But there are many other opportunities to fight against atheist discrimination. What do we really achieve by upsetting a dying person by saying that there is no god right before he or she dies? Even if you argue that atheists are being muted and that they should always be honest, the dying person will be gone soon anyway! What significant impact could you have, even from the standpoint of atheist activism?
Despite my position on pretending to pray if someone is dying, I think that atheists shouldn’t pretend to pray in more everyday scenarios. For example, if a child who doesn’t want to is forced to pray during school, he or she should absolutely speak up! If a religious person is going through a rough time and wants an atheist friend to pray with him or her, the atheist friend is totally in the right to say no! Theists should understand that many atheists have been harmed by religion, so asking them to pray in more everyday scenarios can be hurtful, in addition to going against what they believe and muting their identity. Ultimately, it’s all about picking our battles.
So while I agree that atheists definitely need to speak out about their atheism and the harm done by religion, I do not think a believer’s last minutes of life is the time or place to do so. The world is a messy and difficult place, and we often need to make decisions that do not have perfect outcomes. But ultimately if we care about making the world a better place, sometimes that means going through minor discomfort to express compassion.
Why This Atheist Would Not
It can be downright cruel for an out atheist to pray with a theist relative on his or her deathbed: it’s cruel to the relative, cruel to the atheist, cruel to anyone even marginally involved, and cruel to the nonreligious in general. There are many reasons.
Blatantly Insulting to the Theist’s Faith
By the internal logic of most versions of theism, it would be insulting, not comforting, for an eternally damned apostate atheist to pretend to pray for and with a theist. Aren’t lying and hypocrisy condemned by most, if not all, religions? What a mockery of any believer it would be for an atheist to pretend to supplicate to a being in which he or she does not believe.
Giving False Hope
Back when I was a Muslim, I shed endless tears and whispered infinite, fervent prayers for the people in my life who weren’t Muslims, as well as for those Muslims who did not adhere overmuch to Islam. I prayed that their good deeds and upstanding character would be enough to save them from the eternal hellfire that seemed promised to them in the Qur’an for their lack of belief and unrepentant sinfulness. I was hardly unaware of my own sinfulness, which is why I never personally judged them or condemned them, but I knew where my beliefs stood in regard to people who made the choices in life that they had. I supplicated for their forgiveness, which I knew was possible through Allah’s mercy.
Now that I am an atheist, many of the theists who truly care about me have, at some point, hoped aloud that I will someday revert to Islam (or convert to their own faith, if it isn’t Islam). I suspect that even the theists who stay silent on the matter—as I did when I was a believer—feel the same way. If you are a compassionate person who sincerely believes in a religion and you fraternize with people who do not adhere to it, feeling pain regarding the ultimate fate of your nonbelieving or non-adherent loved ones is a sad part of everyday life.
While alleviating that pain on someone’s deathbed might seem a good thing at first glance, it may prove to be less positive. By praying after having come out as nonreligious, the atheist is signaling “I’ve reverted,” which—however comforting another might find it—is a lie. Just because someone is dying doesn’t make it suddenly okay to deceive them! Shifting gears at the very end in the name of comfort is rather patronizing.
But if the atheist hasn’t yet come out, then by all means it makes sense to continue the farce. Maintaining a certain level of deception regarding one’s beliefs is one’s right. Suddenly taking up lying is hardly as ethical. Flipping the situation makes the truth rather clear: Should one suddenly reveal one’s atheism to a theist relative on his or her deathbed, after having been consistently deceptive about it prior to that moment? I think I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would answer “yes” to that.
Legitimizing Emotional Blackmail
Many apostates have been condemned and harmed by their former religion and its adherents. Some have emotional and psychological damage that could be triggered or otherwise worsened by pretending to believe again. There are often good, strong reasons both for why they both left their religions and came out to their family about it. That a family member is dying doesn’t delegitimize those reasons in the slightest.
If a dying family member knows this and still asks that the atheist engage in a religious act for his or her sake, this might be an effort to use the emotionally charged situation to strong-arm the atheist into pretending to be religious again. While this scenario may sound far-fetched to some, it is the cold reality for others. For many apostates, dealing with emotional blackmail on the part of family members is an all-too-common occurrence. “I’m on my last breath . . . please, I beg you, pray for me” isn’t that different from “You’re killing your father with your stubbornness”; “If you loved us, you’d listen to us”; “I carried you for nine months, I know better than you what is good for you”; “Just as I used to stop you from touching the stove as a baby out of love, I now force you into religion to save you from hellfire”; “Can’t you pretend for the sake of your family? Don’t you love us?”; and “I cry all the time and can’t sleep because I worry about your soul.” A deathbed guilt-trip is no less unethical than any of the other ones preceding it in the course of a relationship.
In that context, the request for prayer is a last-ditch effort to manipulate and control. Why legitimize that tactic for the benefit of someone who is going to be dead soon anyway? That benefit would die shortly with the relative, while the harm done will echo on for years to come in the living atheist.
The harms associated with legitimizing emotional blackmail extend far beyond what is done to the individual in question. It sets a frightening precedent for those around them, especially within extended family structures. Some people are simply less able to lie and pretend than others. Those people are the ones who are punished most harshly when others more skilled in deceit give in to pressure. “Why can’t you at least fake it like Deceptive Person did?” is one of the many weapons used to punish people who live honestly and consistently.
Furthering the Oppression of the Nonreligious
When this question was discussed in the Patheos online community (sparked by the PostSecret image discussed previously in which an atheist regrets not having prayed with her dying mother), a rather disturbing message surfaced in the comments. The idea that atheists need to be far “nicer” to theists than most theists would ever be to us is abhorrent. I was personally mocked and berated for my stance by some commenters. It appears that even atheist-oriented blogs aren’t safe spaces for people who will not (or cannot) live deceptively to appease the feelings of the theist majority.
Sure, being an atheist on its own is not much of a claim of oppression in the United States. But what if you are an African-American atheist? An ex-Muslim in Saudi Arabia? A skeptic in India? To learn by example that the more-privileged American atheists who don’t hail from scary fundamentalist backgrounds are happy to give in to the demands of theists is hardly heartening. If members of the most-privileged nonreligious group refuse to stand up and affirm that their feelings are just as valid as those of believers, what hope do the more marginalized have?
What If I Am an Atheist Who Would Pray?
Ultimately, people will do what they will regardless of any number of arguments. Closeted atheists will stay closeted for as long as they feel it is appropriate, for reasons that may be selfish, legitimate, or some combination of both. Others will be open about their atheism but will cave in to the demands of theists when pressed. My fight is not about the choices made by either group but with those who shroud either choice in sanctimonious self-justification. Stripped of extreme circumstances, deception is not the virtuous, morally superior, or kind choice. It would take an argument far more convincing than the blithe “What’s the harm in being ‘nice’?”–type sophistries I’ve encountered to convince me otherwise.
Unless I hear a better argument for deception on a relative’s deathbed, if I am ever the recipient of such a request, I will say “You pray. I’m here with you,” while holding my loved one’s hand.