It’s Cruel for an Atheist to Pray with Their Dying Mother

Unsurprisingly given its content, a specific Postsecret entry has been addressed by several of my atheist colleagues over at Patheos.

PostSecret card of a hospital bed reading: "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"

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.

Main image via.

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It’s Cruel for an Atheist to Pray with Their Dying Mother
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49 thoughts on “It’s Cruel for an Atheist to Pray with Their Dying Mother

  1. 1

    I can’t decide for others.

    …but if my mother was fatally injured in a car crash that was her fault, and my father and my sisters had all died in the wreck, and she asked me if everyone was OK with her dying breath, I’d say, “Everyone’s fine, and you’re going to be fine as well.”

    Using someone’s final moments to torture them seems to me personally as unconscionable, and I don’t see how truth is a defense here.

    That being the case, I don’t see any particular reason not to tell her I’ll see her in heaven, and that Odin is smiling on her, that the South has risen again, or whatever else will send her to her grave with a smile.

    If the family then said, “So we’ll see you in church, then?” I’d cheerfully tell them to fuck themselves sideways. If any bystanders were offended at hearing that the South had risen again, I’d happily explain that my mother was a racist shitstain. So she died happy, and the bystanders can feel relief that the number of racist shitstains in the world is reduced by 1.

    To be very clear, though, none of this is normative on others. It’s just how I’d handle the situation. I’ve had plenty of time to come to terms with the irreconcilable differences between myself and my family, and for whatever reason that includes having made peace with their efforts to manipulate and put the screws to me. So I’m more or less immune to their bullshit. That puts me in a privileged place, because I can do what I described above without feeling that I’ve been untrue to myself. Lots of atheists, women, queer/transgender, or otherwise nonconforming people aren’t so lucky. They may also disagree with me for other reasons as well.

  2. 2

    My mother was a christian but the quiet type. I never heard her expressing any faith position , I was never baptised/christened as she believed that I would come to god myself if that was my path. She was intelligent but not educated and was politically progressive.

    While we were having a conversation about fuck knows what I happened to mention evolution, her reaction was so extreme as to completely gobsmack me, it wasn’t a rant or anything but an explosive “no” and a chopping down hand to cut me off there and then.

    Normally, being a bloviating arsehole full of my own self importance, convinced that mine is the path to enlightenment, I would normally have puffed out my chest and challenged the point, but something in her made me stop and just let it pass.

    A month later she was dead from the aggressive cancer she had kept from everyone and I understood why she didn’t want anything to challenge her faith at that moment.

    Five years on , one of the things that I can be proud of in life even if it happened almost accidentally; and yes I still think of that conversation when I think of my mother, is that even though I was desperate to show how right I was, I shut the fuck up and allowed my mother her comforting delusion. After all, atheists aren’t all monsters.

    1. 2.1

      I agree with you that a tough time in someone’s life is no time to challenge their faith. That isn’t the situation I’m addressing, to be clear. I’m not talking about a situation where a theist is expressing their faith on their deathbed, but a situation where a theist is pressuring a known atheist to participate in their faith on their deathbed.

  3. 3

    I have, and will likely again, attended religious services for those close to me who have died, and who were devout. That’s never bothered me personally, I prefer to grieve in private, and will give that support to the survivors. (It’s also relevant that I’ve never been specifically asked to do anything other than attend, and once, read a paragraph.) I am lucky in that I have never been asked to pray, or do the motions of prayer, for someone in that situation, for a number of reasons. In addition to the emotional blackmail part, it seems intensely cruel to me to force someone who is suffering a loss to perform something that is not only useless and pointless, but likely actually abhorrent to them while they are feeling that loss. We deserve to grieve without being emotionally amanipulated or outright abused.

  4. 4

    I worked at a hospice for a few years. So to us, death was more visible in number and awareness. I think it was a good experience for me.

    We all worked with people of different faiths, ethnicities, income level (a homeless man who wanted to die in his ‘home’ under the bridge.), sexual orientation and probably more divisions.

    So, we learned ways to handle just this event. We were NOT allowed to preach or insist on any of our own faiths, or lack thereof. But, if a religious patient asked a non-theist to pray with them, you can say, “While I am not a believer, I can still participate if you would like.”. You may not like it, but it might be the best thing to do at the time.

    And you know, they might not also enjoy the handful of pain drugs that you will give them afterwards that will make them forget their own kids name, but they will do it because it might be the best thing to do at the time.

    1. 4.1

      How does one “participate” in a prayer as a non-believer? Call me dense, but I really don’t understand. Do you mean “stand by quietly”? That’s not participation, in my view. That’s simply standing by and letting it happen.

  5. 5

    Absolutely not, disagree on all points. To be blunt, when i saw the post title, I assumed you were mocking a post written by another blogger somewhere and were about to castigate them.

    A Blatant Insult to the Theist’s Faith

    You seem to be forgetting that in the case of this Postsecret thing at least, the person was requested by the dying mum. No one is being disrespected here, though I’d be inclined to agree with you if the person had barged in to pray against the dying person’s wishes. Note however that this particular behavior is typical of the religious rather than the non-.

    Giving False Hope

    Again, the scenario given has it that the person requested the atheist daughter to pray with her, which to me is a blatant indicator that the mother was already hopeful – falsely – that her daughter would someday convert. And your description begeinning ‘Back when I was a Muslim…’ bears this out: you, and probably a majority people belonging to a religion with a heaven and hell or similar, will continually hold hope that cherished ones will convert, combined with fear that they won’t.

    By granting such a deathbed request, the atheist is not creating a false hope that already exists, but is allaying that fear so as to provide comfort. The fact that the fear is being banished falsely does not unmake that comfort.

    Legitimizing Emotional Blackmail

    Yes, those much more awful situations exist, but it is not evident that the above scenario was one of those. If it was, it is fairly likely that the person would not be experiencing remorse at failing to grant the request.

    Those in the nasty situation you describe are much more likely to reject the request, and indeed I would encourage them to do so alongside you, though emotional manipulation of that sort is likely to be highly distressing whatever the choice. This I think is the source of most of our disagreement: you are responding to this Postsecret thing with the much more negative version of the scenario in mind, and you are using that to say that praying with the dying to be bad in all scenarios.

    Furthering the Oppression of the Non-Religious
    …That the more privileged American atheists who aren’t from scary fundamentalist backgrounds are happy to give in to the demands of theists…

    What is with this ‘demand’ shit? Again, the deathbed prayer was requested. It was then freely declined. The person is now remorseful.

    Again, I can come round to your way of seeing things in scenarios different to the one to which you are replying.

    What If I Am One of the Atheists Who Would Pray?
    …Others will be open about their atheism but will cave into the demands of theists when pressed.

    Argh!
    Anyway, I sure as hell am One of the Atheists Who Would Pray (not that my mum is religious), and it boils down to this: a person that I care about has made a request, and in doing so has provided me with a way to provide some comfort to her. I would accept in a heartbeat and thereby provide comfort not just for her, but for myself as well thanks to the knowledge that I have helped. It’s hard to get any more reasonable than that.

    1. 5.1

      I don’t think “demand” is an unreasonable choice of words. A deathbed request like this is almost unavoidably accompanied by pressure and emotional manipulation (even if that manipulation is not malicious in nature). Heina’s not saying that the loved one is holding a gun to their head; demands can also be freely declined.

    2. 5.2

      I disagree with you that comforting someone who is going to be dead soon with a lie is an unequivocal moral good, especially when the lie could harm someone who is going to remain living for years and years beyond the dead person.

      I consider a deathbed request to be as close to a demand as you can get without saying the words “I demand that you do xyz”. It’s an emotionally-charged and fraught situation. The dying person knows the power that they have.

      This I think is the source of most of our disagreement: you are responding to this Postsecret thing with the much more negative version of the scenario in mind, and you are using that to say that praying with the dying to be bad in all scenarios.

      And I would say that you and Hemant and Matthew and other commenters are all responding with a much more positive version of the scenario in mind. The negativity you see in what I’ve said is a reflection of my reality, and I wanted to provide an alternative perspective to the sunshine-and-rainbows be-nice-to-theists-no-matter-what arguments. It’s not so happy-go-lucky and cut-and-dry for everyone. I’m sick and tired of atheists with little-to-no negative experiences with religion trying to tell me that caring for theist feelings over my own is the morally-superior thing to do. It isn’t always.

      1. I specifically noted in my reply that there are much more abusive versions of the situation outlined in the card, but continued my response with a plain reading of said card in mind. Your response on the other hand appears to be much more prescriptive, in which the of the more negative versions are used to justify never granting the wish for a deathbed prayer.

        And what secret knowledge do you have about my religion / atheism experiences?

        1. I wasn’t referring to you there, but to others who are positing that being nice to a theist is better than being true to oneself as an atheist.

          Like I said in my post, fakers gonna fake. Not my problem. What is my problem is people pretending as if it’s meanest, pettiest thing in the world to refuse to pray.

  6. 6

    I’m firmly in the “fuck that” camp. A dying relative asking me to pray strikes me as abusive, not unlike a dying relative asking me to (falsely) promise to settle down in a heterosexual family–which is an eventuality I actually fear from certain relatives. I don’t even know how I would respond, but the act of making the request in the first place would turn it into a rather sour goodbye.

  7. 8

    Is using your own final moments to blackmail or torture someone defensible?

    I’ve got some of the vilest relatives known to man–or so I thought–and they did not, in their final moments, decide to seize one last opportunity to fuck with me by demanding that I get married, or change religion, or by spilling damaging secrets about me to others standing by. I say “or so I thought” because it seems as if you do find this a plausible behavior in someone’s dying moments, and if that’s the case then there are people out there much viler than my relatives.

    If I felt that someone were trying to screw me over one last time, then all bets are off I guess. As I read your OP, I did imagine that scenario, and I felt the milk of human kindness drying up within me.

    I’m simply unqualified to say how realistic your hypothetical is. Like I say, I’ve watched some pretty evil people die, and they were too consumed wondering “OMFG it’s all over what the fuck is about to happen to me?” to engage in the kind of petty spitefulness that characterized much of the rest of their lives. So within my own experience, your hypothetical doesn’t feel that realistic.

    What does feel very realistic is that I might read that into their final words, based on my own baggage. If they’ve been harassing me for years for becoming apostate, and now they want me to pray with them, I can imagine reacting like, “What the actual FUCK, mom! NOW, of all times, you want to have this out again? Shall we review my choice of spouse and career, to, in your dying breaths? Huh? Wanna do that too?”

    But I suspect that asking me to pray with her would be driven mostly by terror at the prospect of nonexistence, the hope of continuing past this event horizon, and the fervent hope that if this ISN’T the ultimate end, that whatever comes next will be something good rather than something terrifying. All of which she could accomplish by praying to herself, of course–except that alongside it is the terror of being alone at that particular moment. So she needs to be closely connected with another human, in a way that speaks to the horror of dissolution and of whatever may or may not lie beyond it.

    Hoping that we’ll meet again on the other side is in there somewhere too, I expect. But I’m pretty sure that just giving me one last hard time is the furthest thing from her mind.

      1. This. Yes. Good, caring, not dismissive of either the dying person or the atheist. Thank you, I’m going to remember this because one of these days I may need it.

        On the other hand, people who want to pray at me are met with a firm “no thank you, I’m an atheist”.

  8. 9

    I consider a deathbed request to be as close to a demand as you can get without saying the words “I demand that you do xyz”. It’s an emotionally-charged and fraught situation.

    Absolutely.

    The dying person knows the power that they have.

    Of this I’m not so sure. You’d have to be a pretty cold fish to know that you’re in your last ten seconds of life and think, “Ha! This is my chance–nobody can refuse me now!”

  9. 10

    I wonder if those who advise lying in this scenario would also advise making other lies or false promises?

    What if the person on their deathbed is asking you to promise her that you will:
    — get married
    — have children
    — “stop being gay”
    — forgive your abusive father/uncle/sibling

    A Masked Avenger @8:

    You’d have to be a pretty cold fish to know that you’re in your last ten seconds of life and think, “Ha! This is my chance–nobody can refuse me now!”

    People who practice emotional blackmail and manipulation don’t stop just because they’re on their deathbed. They continue to be who they are, and use the tools they always do to achieve whatever it is they want.

    Is it really so strange to think that a dying person would scheme over details like this? I don’t think so. I think it’s like that line from The Lion in Winter, where one character asks “What difference does it make how a man falls?” and gets the answer “When the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”

    1. 10.1

      I wonder if those who advise lying in this scenario would also advise making other lies or false promises?

      What if the person on their deathbed is asking you to promise her that you will:
      — get married
      — have children
      — “stop being gay”
      — forgive your abusive father/uncle/sibling

      I think for many people, myself included, it would come down to the question of do I want to comfort this person or not, which in turn is going to be heavily based on has this person been an abusive / manipulative shit. Hence, people in a healthy relationship with the dying person are likely to answer in favour of lying to provide comfort, while people that have been treated awfully are not going to bother as the abuse has elminated any sympathy or concern.

      Ultimately then, this comes down to the health of the relationship.

  10. 11

    “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.”

    Oh HELL YES. The frickin’ second I saw that meme I was like, My Mom is totally going do this to me. And it will be on purpose.

      1. I like some people over there too, but I can’t stand the interface and the comments have been saddening for a while. Plus there was that feud between Hemant and PZ a while back where Hemant was absolutely in the wrong.

  11. 13

    So… I have yet to be at the bedside of someone dying. But I have an ambivalence about those who I know I will be.

    Basically everyone in my family who knows I’m an atheist has “accepted” it. They are all largely “progressive” (for US values of the term, anyways), at least in social/religious ways. But my atheism does not go unchallenged. I have a close relationship with my mom’s dad, for instance, who is clergy. When I first came out, he would send me cards and letters, which were always quite lovely and beautiful but expressed wishes that I would return to faith. Now this has stopped… in fact, his words to me when I got my Bachelor’s degree were so secular as to throw me off guard. I expected him to be religious about it, so when he wasn’t, and in fact finished with “your path is yours to walk, and I feel it will lead you to success”, I was surprised. My own dad, who is also clergy, also challenged me at first, but has decided to start listening to me to try and understand why I have no faith.

    There’s also the fact that most of my family do in fact think that works are more important than faith, so that an atheist (or someone who does not share my family’s faith) who is someone who has dedicated their lives to helping people and such, can indeed get in to Heaven, while a person who share’s my family’s faith but is also, say, a serial killer, has no chance no matter how much they pray, even if it’s for forgiveness.

    The thing is… when I talk to my mom’s dad or my dad, there’s still a hint of them trying to convince me that I’m wrong, that God exists, and that they are afraid they will not see me in Heaven. I would not put it past either of them to try one last plea with me on their death beds, and I have no clue how I’d react to that, other than to say that it would absolutely sour the goodbye, and I’d have no interest in lying to them at all.

    In terms of emotional blackmail… I have to agree with you Heina, except to say that it’s perhaps possible that the dying person doesn’t realize that. It’s possible that, in their last moments, they have a sudden fear of not wanting their son or daughter to go to hell, and so, in their minds, it’s an honest plea, and not an attempt to be cruel. But that does not change your point, which I think I agree with, having no direct experience yet with this.

  12. 14

    I’m a former fundamentalist Christian, and my family is nearly all Christian of some sort or another (mostly conservative Baptist).

    For me it would very much depend on how it was asked. I’m out to my parents, so if it seemed like an attempt to get me to sincerely pray I would be very hurt. I don’t know if I’d do it. If they wanted me to help them pray (if they couldn’t speak, for example), or if they wanted me to choose a verse for their funeral, or any activity that seemed like it was using my knowledge of their religion without requesting belief on my part, I would do it without feeling coerced. I certainly wouldn’t want my still-believing sister organizing that sort of thing, I was always better with Bible knowledge and theological trivia.

  13. 15

    People who practice emotional blackmail and manipulation don’t stop just because they’re on their deathbed. They continue to be who they are, and use the tools they always do to achieve whatever it is they want.

    Could be. I’ve stipulated this plenty of times already.

    However “what you want” is going to change pretty dramatically in light of the knowledge that you have 5 minutes left to live. “A new car” or “a trip to Disneyland,” for example, just fell off your list completely.

    Your wants are likely to become pretty simple in your last moments. Top of the list, per actual empirical study (disclaimer: that I’ve read many years ago), is not dying alone. Second is generally not dying in pain. After that comes wishing you weren’t dying, and maybe hoping your death isn’t really the end. After that is anxiety that at least your posterity will persist, and maybe that you’ll get to see them again. That sort of stuff.

    I’ve known pretty evil people, but this is the sort of stuff they fixated on at the end. A woman (not my mother) who tortured me as an infant, who destroyed marriages for fun with her gossip, who set up all manner of conflict just so she could enjoy herself watching the ensuing shitstorm, strangely did not choose to unleash one final shitstorm. She apparently did not find her final comfort in the knowledge that a final bit of drama would outlive her as her legacy. Instead she wanted not to die alone, to feel some sort of connection that she never cared much about before, to be forgiven for shit she was never previously sorry for.

    As far as I was concerned she was a piece of human waste, who made the world a worse place just by existing in it. But to cause her final thoughts to be ones of anguish would have been an irrevocable cruelty that would have harmed my own soul. I couldn’t do that to me.

    (Note, though, that I would not have gone out of my way to visit her deathbed. I’m not responsible for her comfort; I’m only responsible for what I choose to inflict, or not, by my actions. It was chance that put me there in the first place. I did not attend the funeral.)

  14. 16

    @Masked Avenger

    I don’t get why it particularly matters whether the person has evil intentions or not. If anything, the supposed good intentions of relatives means I should be louder about how uncomfortable and awkward I would feel if they asked me to pray. If they have good intentions, that means they would respect my feelings, and all that remains is for me to express my feelings instead of expecting them to read my mind.

  15. 17

    <>

    Because they’re about to cease existing. Letting them die happy has no down side. Making their last moments ones of terror and misery, however, will have a lasting effect on yourself.

    <>

    Suppose instead that you were the one dying, and asking your parents for one last moment to accept you as you are, and instead they crossed their arms and quoted a condemnatory Bible verse. It’s abundantly clear, I trust, why that would make them particularly worthless assholes? That they couldn’t set aside their bigotry for a moment and give you ease in your last living moments?

    I anticipate the reply that that’s totally different, because their belief is wrong and your lack of belief is right. But I would suggest that what makes them utter shitstains is not the fact that their belief is wrong. It’s that they placed it above not only love of their child, but so far above it that they decided to let your final thoughts be ones of rejection and loneliness.

    <>

    This is just a suggestion, but perhaps the final minutes of someone else’s life are not about you?

  16. 19

    I don’t get why it particularly matters whether the person has evil intentions or not.

    Because they’re about to cease existing. Letting them die happy has no down side. Making their last moments ones of terror and misery, however, will have a lasting effect on yourself.

    If anything, the supposed good intentions of relatives means I should be louder about how uncomfortable and awkward I would feel if they asked me to pray.

    Suppose instead that you were the one dying, and asking your parents for one last moment to accept you as you are, and instead they crossed their arms and quoted a condemnatory Bible verse. It’s abundantly clear, I trust, why that would make them particularly worthless assholes? That they couldn’t set aside their bigotry for a moment and give you ease in your last living moments?
    I anticipate the reply that that’s totally different, because their belief is wrong and your lack of belief is right. But I would suggest that what makes them utter shitstains is not the fact that their belief is wrong. It’s that they placed it above not only love of their child, but so far above it that they decided to let your final thoughts be ones of rejection and loneliness.

    If they have good intentions, that means they would respect my feelings…

    This is just a suggestion, but perhaps the final minutes of someone else’s life are not about you?

    1. 19.1

      If I were the one dying and I knew my parents had major disagreements with some of my life choices, I would endeavor to not bring it up, rather than forcing them to reiterate their disagreement.

      You’re taking it for granted that we’re already in the situation where a dying person is making an unwanted request. It’s a really fucked up situation and I don’t know what I would do. But I do know that it would be best not to get into that situation in the first place, and exhort to others to do the same.

    2. 19.2

      Because they’re about to cease existing. Letting them die happy has no down side.

      I don’t see how this follows. The “down side” that some of us are talking about is about our own integrity and self-worth and honesty, not about whether the dying person will remember this. If you’re just going to handwave those things aside and assume they don’t exist, then what is the “down side” to praying with your perfectly healthy mother every time she demands it? What’s the down side to telling her, “oh don’t worry Mom, I’m not an atheist any more, in fact I pray all the time”? As long as you stick to lies that are unfalsifiable so she’ll never be confronted with the truth?

      If anything, the fact that this will only provide a few moments of happiness for the dying person strikes me as an argument against lying.

      Making their last moments ones of terror and misery, however, will have a lasting effect on yourself.

      Again, you’re assuming your conclusion. If someone is going to experience “terror and misery” because I won’t bow to their will — which I highly doubt is the case — then they’re a horrible selfish person, and I for one won’t feel any “lasting effect” other than disappointment that someone I knew chose to be such a jerk in their dying moments.

      And again, how does the imminent death make this situation different? If it’s a terrible thing that should haunt your conscience forever to tell Dying Mom, “sorry, I’m still an atheist” and have her experience “terror and misery” for an hour, why isn’t it even more terrible to tell Healthy Mom the same thing, knowing that she will presumably experience years of such “terror and misery”?

      Suppose instead that you were the one dying, and asking your parents for one last moment to accept you as you are, and instead they crossed their arms and quoted a condemnatory Bible verse. It’s abundantly clear, I trust, why that would make them particularly worthless assholes? That they couldn’t set aside their bigotry for a moment and give you ease in your last living moments?

      I agree with Siggy; I wouldn’t bring it up. The parents in this hypothetical are already there by your bedside and providing support and sympathy, what more do you want? To demand that they change their sincerely-held views (however odious those views may be)? That is every bit as unreasonable as in the original scenario.

  17. 20

    I anticipate the reply that that’s totally different, because their belief is wrong and your lack of belief is right.

    Let’s also bear in mind that just as we believe sincerely that our view is correct, so too do they. If the justification of ‘but we’re in the right’ is taken as sufficient reasoning to spurn someone’s request for solace in their last moments, or worse yet to berate them one last time, then the same reasoning suffices for the reverse. And yet, as you point out, it is the height of arseholery to do so when we consider the rejection aimed at ourselves.

    Thus while I can understand the idea that no one is required cater to the comfort of a dying abuser, and could easily be excused for feeling relief at the death of someone that was cruel to you, the idea that “it is cruel for an atheist to pray with their dying mother” as a generalisation fills me with disgust.

  18. 21

    A Masked Avenger @#18:

    I anticipate the reply that that’s totally different, because their belief is wrong and your lack of belief is right.

    Actually, that’s not why it’s totally different, but it indeed totally different, based strictly on your wording:

    Suppose instead that you were the one dying, and asking your parents for one last moment to accept you as you are, and instead they crossed their arms and quoted a condemnatory Bible verse.

    You’re not asking them to lie. You’re asking them to accept and love you. And yes, we agree, they would be fucking disgusting if they refused. But then I imagine that if they had rejected you that much while you were alive, they’re probably not at your deathbed while you’re dying, and I doubt you’d want them there. I wouldn’t.

    A better analogy would have been if you, as an atheist, are on your deathbed, and you ask that your grieving theistic family to tell you that they don’t believe in God anymore.

    And frankly, in that case, I’m not 100% sure I’d agree with the believer lying to you. It doesn’t harm you at all if they choose to pray for you while you’re dying, whether you believe in it or not, because that’s true to them. And while I’m on my deathbed, I’d rather my family deal with it in ways that are true to them than suffer their own conscience to make me feel better.

  19. 22

    You’re not asking them to lie. You’re asking them to accept and love you.

    No, you are asking them to lie. Because if you have to beg them on your deathbed to accept you, they don’t accept you. If they say otherwise, they’re lying. An honest change of heart is vanishingly unlikely, and after they’ve buried you they’re going to be back in church shouting “Amen!” at sermons that condemn you and people like you.

    And yes, we agree, they would be fucking disgusting if they refused.

    You mean if they suddenly decided that God wasn’t going to roast you in hell for being atheist, or gay, or whatever it is you are that they won’t accept? You really think that your deathbed plea is going to convince them that God is a fairytale, hell is a myth, and it’s OK to be gay? You DO believe in miracles!

    A better analogy would have been if you, as an atheist, are on your deathbed, and you ask that your grieving theistic family to tell you that they don’t believe in God anymore.

    Perhaps, but it’s hard for me to see how their failure to comply would cause you anguish. Whereas conversely, your god-bothering relative is in torment and anguish hoping their sky-fairy won’t roast them on a spit, and you alongside them. It’s pretty hard, by definition, for an atheist to be terrified of anything other than the mere fact of death itself, and no abjuration on your relatives part is going to mitigate that for you.

    But if you ask them to briefly pretend that you aren’t Satan’s minion, doomed to an eternity of torture for your filthy heathen ways, so for just a moment you can pretend that your god-bothering asshole parents actually love you more than their delusions, I’d call it monstrous of them to refuse. Even though they’re lying, and you’re asking them to lie.

    And frankly, in that case, I’m not 100% sure I’d agree with the believer lying to you.

    You’d prefer, “Nate, sweetie–for the sake of your eternal soul, pray the sinners prayer before you go. We love you enough to demand this of you, because we don’t want to be in heaven without you. Even now God can forgive you for the obscenity that you’ve become.” Because if they’re 100% honest with you, that’s what they’ll say.

  20. 23

    I’d say no. I would happily find a priest to pray with a relative, give Last Rites (my fam’s Catholic), but supporting a dying relative’s religious choices isn’t the same as pretending because they think you owe them religious conformity. No one owes their relatives that.
    Religious people don’t really get what emotional blackmail this is. Even if I was to point out that they’d never pray with someone of a religion their own religion despises. For instance, what if a Muslim asks a Christian to pray towards Mecca with her? Or if a Christian asked a Muslim to pray to Jesus? It’s a similar situation, and we are all entitled to bow out of practicing anyone else’s religion.

  21. 24

    I think what some of the more vehement “No, I won’t pray” people are forgetting is that for many theists, this is a matter of terrible importance. I hate that they suffer through belief that their loved ones are going to hell. If I believed that I would never stop trying to convert my loved ones. It is easy so say “They should have figured out that it is all bullshit”, but in those last moments, is it really worth the fight? Yet, I understand the vehemence, based on a feeling of a lack of respect from the dying one.

    I won’t be in that situation. Most of my family is atheist/agnostic, with a few outliers. My Dad was an atheist pretty much all his life, though he believed us kids should decide for ourselves and I didn’t know he was an atheist until I was in my 20s. My mother was a sort of generic Christian who told me when I as quite young that the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son was a horrible story and if a god ever demanded such of her she would tell them to go climb a tree. She is an atheist now.

    But, imagining the situation, I don’t know how I would react. I think it would depend on the specific circumstances. I have an old friend who is deeply religious. I asked her once how she felt about the fact that if her idea of how the universe worked is correct, I will be going to hell. She said, “You will not go to hell. You are a good person. God will find a way to save you.” She had great faith in that. If I was at her deathbed, I would tell her I was praying with her, if she asked (though I don’t think she would). She twisted the hell out of her religion in my favor, to “save” me in her own mind. The least I could do is ease her last moments.

    And I think that is it. Respect. If there is a lack of respect involved instead of a somewhat incoherent fear for you, then yeah. No prayer.

  22. 25

    If a dying theist asked me as a known atheist to pray, my top concern would be my level of respect for them. If I truly respect them, then I will stay honest with them, and not pray a lie.
    On the other hand, if I consider their life to be so meaningless that them being close to death makes an honest relationship unimportant enough that I can disregard that, then I could lie to them, if I planned to never remember them as an honorable person. It would be like saying that their last minutes of life were more important than how they were remembered afterwards.
    To me this would be the equivalent of if I grabbed their morphine drip control and immediately administered a fatal overdose. They would be dying happy, and I would be showing them no less disrespect by killing them than by lying to them about our relationship. So, in short, I would not do this. If someone asks me to end their misery by killing them early, it’s not always my job to do the deed. How would I know for sure that that is what they wanted?
    Can one ask the dying relative, “mom, do you want me to start lying to you right now to comfort you?” I think that would be offensively disrespectful, yet that is what the dying person is requesting even if they don’t understand that. So I’m not going to start with the premise that my relative deserves such disrespect.
    Circumstances as to conditions of who was there why could affect it.

  23. 26

    I disagree with this post. We should absolutely be out as Atheists if we can. We should always speak in terms of reality and speak against magical thinking when possible an/or needed. Not everyone thinks, or understands or perceives the world like atheists do. We all seem to have this rule in our heads which is what is true matters.

    Why does what is true matter? Because we are more likely to make the correct decisions in life in every regard when our beliefs comport with reality. This is why we fight for being, reasonable, rational, logical critical thinkers. This is why what you believe matters.

    Because people have a life AHEAD OF THEM and thinking critically will lead to better decisions.

    Someone on their deathbed does not have a life AHEAD of Them. If they believe in magic, or fairies, or gods, Jesus, whatever. Who cares, it doesn’t matter anymore.

    You tell them you are here because you love them and to comfort them anyway they want. There is no more battle with this person. Believing in magic is fine in your final moments because it won’t hurt.

    You say, you know how I feel about this already. You know I love you, let’s pray.

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