[Content note: mentions of grief, loss, illness]
I follow The Best of Tumblr on Facebook for the cat photos and pop culture jokes, but recently I saw this:
[Text version here.]
I’ll admit that I used to subscribe to this way of thinking, even as an atheist. But a few things changed my mind: 1) understanding more about what it means to comfort someone, 2) learning about the dynamics of Christian privilege, and 3) listening to the experiences of those who found religion abusive.
First of all, the point of comforting someone who’s going through some shit is to help them. To help them, not yourself. While that doesn’t make intent totally irrelevant–I’ll get to that in a bit–it does mean that you need to at least try to help them in the way that they would want to be helped, not in the way that you would want to be helped. The Golden Rule is a nice thing to teach children but eventually we need more nuanced and empathic ways of looking at things.
That’s why, as I discussed in my previous post, “How can I support you?” and variants thereof is a great approach. But many Christians don’t even pause to consider that the person they’re speaking to might not be religious, and that–as I’ll also get to in a bit–is an example of Christian privilege. Much of the time, they’re not going out of their way to alienate and irritate atheists; they just conveniently forget that atheists even exist. The idea that someone might not pray, or care about your prayer, is simply invisible.
Where does intent fit in? Well, it can make a difference, but not a huge one. As I’ve written previously:
Not intending to hurt someone is different from intending not to hurt them. If someone accidentally breaks my nice vase, I might be glad in the back of my mind that they didn’t do it on purpose, but I might still be annoyed that they weren’t being careful around my nice vase, especially if they are often clumsy and break people’s things by accident. The analogy holds up for saying/doing bigoted things, too. People who say/do them rarely do so just once.
I’m not going to respect you just for not meaning to say hurtful things. That’s one of those bare-minimum-of-being-a-decent-human-being things. Actively seeking information on how not to be hurtful, on the other hand, is a rarer and more important habit to have.
The intent of phrases like “You’re in my prayers” can be especially difficult to parse. For many atheists, intentionally manipulative deployment of such phrases by Christians is a really common microaggression. They say it to us not because they don’t realize we don’t believe, but because they know we don’t. It’s a power move: “I know this means nothing to you [or even hurts you], but I’m going to say it anyway.”
That doesn’t mean that all (or even most) Christians say it for that reason, obviously. It does mean that almost all atheists have had it said to them for that reason, though. It shouldn’t be surprising that many atheists really don’t want to hear it anymore.
At this point, someone usually puts forth that, yes, sometimes referencing religion in these situations can be self-serving or even passive-aggressive and manipulative, and sure, it’s not ideal, but can’t we just assume good intent and force out a smile and a “thank you”?
Well, assuming good intent and being polite are definitely things I generally encourage because they make social interaction smoother and less stressful, but it’s a heavy burden to place on someone who just lost a loved one or got diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’m glad we seem to have all this empathy for socially awkward Christians who just want to comfort you the best way they know how, but how about some empathy for the person going through the fucking trauma? Maybe they’re not at their best when they’re burying their mother or lying in a hospital bed. Maybe that’s okay.
Further, being able to assume good intent is a privilege. It’s a function of your position in society and the experiences you’ve had as a result. That doesn’t mean it’s bad! It’s great! But not everyone can do it and it’s unreasonable and small-minded to demand that they do.
(This applies along all axes of oppression. When you see a police officer approaching, do you worry that you might die? If not, you’re probably not Black.)
Why might an atheist be unable to assume good intent from a Christian? Religious folks and more-fortunate atheists often erase or disregard the fact that many atheists have had coercive and abusive experiences with religion. Some consider their time in religious spaces to have been traumatizing.
And when you’ve experienced a trauma, little reminders of it can be overwhelming.
Before you rush in with #NotAllReligiousSpaces, remember that it doesn’t matter. Not all religious spaces, but theirs was. It would be good to see more religious folks and more atheists acknowledge this reality. Many are still dismissive or openly contemptuous of the idea that religion can be traumatizing.
Viewed through this angle, a certain amount of snappiness or impoliteness from an atheist being told that “At least your mother is smiling down on you from heaven” makes much more sense. But there’s another way in which Christian privilege plays out in this situation, and that’s in our (yes, atheists’ too) perceptions of tone and “politeness.”
Look at that post again. “Some egotistical shit about being an atheist” often, in my experience, refers to comments like “Actually, I’m an atheist.” Not “fuck you I’m an atheist,” not “take your religion and shove it up your ass,” but “Actually, I’m an atheist.” This is what’s so often perceived as “some egotistical shit” and people who say it are apparently viewed by some as “emotionally inept morons.” (Sorry, the ableist wording was not my choice.)
And while it’s apparently “egotistical” to reference one’s atheism in response to an explicitly religious comment, it’s somehow not “egotistical” to reference one’s religion in response to someone else’s trauma. It’s somehow not “egotistical” to offer unsolicited help that’s not what the person needs, without bothering to ask what they need, and then getting offended when that help is rejected as irrelevant.
This sort of double standard pervades all oppressive dynamics, and religion/atheism is no exception.
When a person with a marked/stigmatized identity does something someone doesn’t like, that identity often gets dragged in to explain it. That’s why an atheist getting snappy about a religious comment following a tragic loss is obviously snappy because they’re an atheist, not because they just lost a loved one and don’t have a lot of emotional energy left to micromanage their responses and perform politeness.
And, look, getting snapped at is an occupational hazard of interacting with someone who’s going through a ton of pain, whether it’s physical, mental, or some combination. If you want to support someone in pain, you need to set a bit of yourself aside and be prepared for some rudeness. That doesn’t mean you have to put up with it indefinitely, and it certainly doesn’t justify anything abusive, but you also don’t get to demand that they be impeccably polite and patient with you while they’re in pain, especially if you’re (unintentionally or otherwise) making that pain worse.
Just as people often try to help others in order to satisfy their own needs, people often reference religion to those going through bad things for the sake of their own coping. Watching someone go through a terrible illness or a painful loss is difficult, and praying or thinking about God’s Ultimate Plan can be comforting for those who believe in such things. So naturally they’d verbalize what they’re thinking. It’s not necessarily the grand selfless act this Tumblr post makes it out to be. Neither is it necessarily a cruel and manipulative act (though it can be); it’s very human to assume that others’ minds work the way ours do.
That it’s human doesn’t make it empirically accurate. It also doesn’t make it kind, let alone the kindest sentiment someone could possibly express. It doesn’t obligate someone who’s suffering a trauma or tragedy to put on a good face to spare that person’s feelings.
The kindest thing you could do for someone in pain is to set aside your own opinions on how they ought to be helped and help them the way they want to be helped.