Unsurprisingly given its content, a specific Postsecret entry has been addressed by several of my atheist colleagues over at Patheos.
Hemant started the conversation, saying that he felt for the postcard’s creator and saw no way by which he could gain from refusing to pray. Matthew agreed, adding that he sees prayer as a supportive act. Galen contributed some very nuanced thoughts. The people with whom I find myself agreeing not only most but actually entirely wholeheartedly are Kaveh and Cassidy, although I might amend Kaveh’s answer from “Fuck no and fuck you” to “Fuck no and fuck this question” for reasons that are not dissimilar to those of Cassidy.
It is downright cruel for an out atheist to pray with a theist relative on their deathbed: Cruel to the relative, cruel to the atheist, cruel to anyone even marginally involved, and cruel to the non-religious in general.
A Blatant Insult to the Theist’s Faith
By the 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. Are lying and hypocrisy not condemned by most, if not all, religions? What a mockery of believers it would be for atheists to pretend to supplicate to a being in which they do 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 (or who didn’t practice Islam very much). I prayed that their good deeds and upstanding character would be enough to save them from the eternal hell-fire that seemed promised to them in the Quran for their lack of belief and/or 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 on people who made the choices in life that they did. 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 faith, if it isn’t Islam). I suspect that even the theists who stay silent on the matter — the way that I did when I was a believer — feel the same way. If you are a compassionate person who sincerely believes in a religion while still fraternizing with people who do not adhere to it, feeling pain over your non-believing and/or non-adherent loved ones is a sad yet mundane part of life.
While alleviating that pain on someone’s deathbed might be seen as a good thing, is it really? By praying after being out as non-religious, the atheist is signaling “I’ve reverted”, which is a lie, however comforting it might be. Just because someone is dying doesn’t mean that it has suddenly become okay to deceive them. If the atheist hasn’t spent those non-deathbed hours together convincing the relative that they’re still a believer, shifting gears in the name of comfort is rather patronizing.
If the atheist isn’t 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. But suddenly lying? Not so much. Flipping the situation makes its ethics rather clear: Should one suddenly reveal one’s atheism to a theist relative on their deathbed after deceiving them 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 for why they both left their religion and are 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 person engage in a religious act with them, they could be using the emotionally-charged situation to strong-arm the person into pretending at being religious again. While this 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 all too common. “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 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 hell-fire,” “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 on the timeline of a human life.
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 Non-Religious
Even more disturbing a message than was sent in some of the Patheos posts were the ones signaled by the comments. The idea that atheists have to be far “nicer” to theists than they ever would be to us is abhorrent. I was personally mocked and berated in the comments for my stance by someone whose situation didn’t even match the one that was posited both in the original post and in my comments. It appears that even atheist-oriented blogs aren’t a safer space 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. What if you are an African-American atheist, however? An ex-Muslim in Saudi Arabia? A skeptic in India? That the more privileged American atheists who aren’t from scary fundamentalist backgrounds are happy to give in to the demands of theists is hardly a heartening message. If the most privileged non-religious group refuses 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 One of the Atheists 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 are selfish, legitimate, or some combination of the above. Others will be open about their atheism but will cave into the demands of theists when pressed. My fight is not with the choices made by either group, but with the sanctimonious self-justification of said choices. Stripped of extreme circumstances, deception is not the virtuous, morally superior, or kind choice. It would take quite a lot more than the blithe “What’s the harm in being ‘nice’?”-type arguments I’ve found to convince me otherwise in this case.