Supporting spiritual people in crisis as an atheist has its challenges. Here are three ways, and a few surrounding thoughts, on how to rise to the challenge as better humanists.

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There’s a common idea in dogmatic religious circles, that “there are no atheists in foxholes”: that the moment an atheist is in serious peril, they’ll call out for divinity. That hasn’t been true to my experiences as an adult: even when robbed at gunpoint, or unfortunately when violently assaulted, I’ve never magically flipped a switch and sent up a prayer to a god for aid or deliverance.

But I have had difficulty when sitting with spiritual friends who are suffering.

And I have sat with many in such hard times.

These past few weeks, I’ve been helping a family whose youngest is struggling to survive an aggressive form of pneumonia that already required two surgeries and a battery of stem cell therapies to combat the antibiotic resistant strains ravaging his four-year-old body. None of this needed to happen. The combination of a cruel landlady kicking his family to the street in December, and a hospital system dragging its feet on emergency care until paid upfront, made his illness possible and so much harder to overcome than it needed to be.

Every time I’m able to provide assistance, the single dad gives me the usual blessings of his Colombian Catholic culture: “Dios te pague, Dios te bendiga” (May God repay you, May God bless you). This is the only currency he has to exchange for financial aid. That’s fine.

But sometimes he also asks me to pray for his son. He’s desperate. He’s exhausted. He’s terrified of losing his boy. And in those moments, he’s asking for the comfort of community he knows best. The kind of community that prays together when things go wrong.

I’ve never done it. Whenever frightened family members have asked me to pray for their loved ones, I’ve always found workarounds: avoiding confrontation, yet still being present, without involving what for me would be a false act.

But also, I wonder sometimes what keeps me from giving up personal integrity when faced with someone else’s fear, or grief, in the face of life’s worst struggles. It’s not as if I’m going to be struck down for bearing false witness. This isn’t like an online argument, all clever semantics between atheists and theists, with a triumphant “gotcha!” at its close. It’s simply being present with someone in pain, in the way that they’ve asked me to be present. All I need to do is say a few words I don’t believe. What’s so wrong about that?

Platitudes and prayers

Except that I don’t do this even with everyday platitudes. I never say “I’m sure it will all turn out well”, unless I have a very good reason for believing that it will. When someone does harm to another, I don’t then tell the injured party “they’ll get theirs in the end”. When someone aches to be a success, I don’t promise that they’ll make it for sure.

A false hope is a false hope, and I prefer to move more pragmatically through the greatest challenges of our lives. I could say, for instance, that the odds of a treatment’s success are high (if indeed they are). I can note that an unrepentant perpetrator of harm has chosen the smallest way to make use of their fleeting time alive. I can tell someone whose talent I believe in that I really hope the industry recognizes their hard work some day.

There are many ways to support fellow human beings without make unrealistic claims.

Intercessory prayer is a whole other level of false hope for me, too. It’s asking for the intervention of a god that has ostensibly allowed suffering to exist up until this point, under the complex theology of said god wanting and waiting to hear human supplication, human desperation en masse, before it might decide to reverse teleological course.

Not that anyone who prays in this way actually thinks in those terms, of course.

For folks of faith, it’s just what one does when one aches and is afraid. One prays, and in praying, attempts to reclaim a measure of agency in a situation where agency has been lost.

But for me, on top of a god not existing, this is just an awful way to frame moral action in the universe. In this context, the pursuit of justice is reduced to having the most fervent, the most widespread, and therefore the most “worthy” prayers of being answered.

Yet no one in such desperate moments is asking me to wax poetic about moral action in the universe as a whole. They’re just asking for my participation in a comforting routine, to address a single frightening moment, for concrete beings here and now.

What kind of humanist am I, to deny my fellow human beings such a simple request?

My litmus test is simply this: Did it help? Did it ease the trauma? Did it get them through another breath, another crisis, another day?

Navigating spiritual grief

My best friend as a kid was Catholic (probably still is, today). Her dad died of cancer when we were on the cusp of adolescence, and I remember sitting with her in her grief, trying to manage my anger and my helplessness when she kept asking “Why did God take him?”

I was angry because I had wanted to believe that her religion would at least be a comfort in his passing. But just as her mother had collapsed in grief while they were carrying out the body from service, so too did my best friend seem inconsolable. Despite her ostensible belief in an afterlife, she knew her father was gone in a way that well and truly mattered.

As a lifelong atheist, I could not answer her question with the sincerity she wanted. The best I could do was remind her that her faith taught that he lived on, united with her god and savior. But truly, young adolescent or not… just try saying that to someone from an outsider position. My words rang cold and false, because she could hear that I didn’t believe them. In reminding her that she belonged to but one tradition in a world of many, I only came off as undermining the all-encompassing certitude that she craved instead.

Years later, I became a bit better at sitting especially with the lonely elderly: folks who would wonder aloud why their god hadn’t taken them yet, or who’d tell me that, if it wasn’t for their spouses watching over them in heaven, they didn’t know how they’d get through the day. If I was only passing through, and such folks asked me what denomination I followed, I had a period in my late teens and early twenties when I’d simply say “I’m between churches”⁠—which, technically, in a Google Maps sort of way, was always true.

And yet, sometimes it’s been very important to push back on religious rhetoric. Especially when sitting with people struggling in Canada, I would come across street folks who performed faith because they believed that they had to prove they were “good Christians” to merit a stranger’s attention: to be treated like a human being worthy of dignity and the basic necessities of life. With care not to be impatient, I would try to bypass the cycle of such performative rhetoric to let them know they didn’t need to be “good” to deserve help with groceries, a hot cup of coffee on a cold day, or shelter to wait out a terrible ice storm.

(Recently here, too, a street preacher I’ve been trying to make peace with told me that he’d wanted to kill himself when his wife died, but his god told him he’d go to hell if he did, so he was still here. I told him his life mattered outside the threat of hell, that it was a good thing he hadn’t killed himself, because he had worth simply as a human being, and that brought out some tears. I suspect his congregation has him thinking of himself as only contingently worthy, based on how well he is or isn’t toeing an angry god’s line. Baby steps.)

The threat (to some) of secular thinking

As we atheists often experience, sometimes our mere existence is taken as an attack on someone else’s beliefs. Woe betide you, too, if you have the audacity to say “I respect your beliefs; I simply ask you to respect mine”. When someone believes their view is absolute and eternal truth, anything less than accepting that truth can sound like condescension.

Granted, with some religious families in crisis, I’ve been able to be honest: to tell them that I’m secular humanist, and that knowing there is no god is precisely why I know human beings need to be present with each other. That we’re alone together in the cosmos, so if we don’t pitch in for one another, no one will. And sometimes that’s worked splendidly!

But when it comes to a child in mortal peril? This has rarely been a winning move. No believing parent is ready for the Well, actually of a cosmology in which their child might cease to exist. Even if, for me, secular thinking only increases the importance of keeping a fellow witness to the cosmos alive for as long as is comfortably possible, all a grieving spiritual parent often has, if their child is lost, is the promise of heavenly reunion later on.

So. I don’t make a habit of trying to destabilize that one last shred of solace.

But what then does that leave?

Bridging the gap on all sides

I’m sure many of my spiritual friends have difficulty sitting with atheists, too. I’m sure it isn’t easy to hold back the rhetoric of faith they’d usually use for hard times, knowing full well that it’s not useful or welcome. For the restraint and respect of so many, though, I am deeply thankful. I have been helped by many spiritual people over the years, all of whom fortify me in my conviction that our shared humanism is far more important than our divergent cosmologies. What we do with our beliefs about the cosmos always matters most.

So what can we do, as secular humanists as much as atheists, when it’s our turn to sit with spiritual folks in need?

1. Focus on positive affirmations

With the latest, frightened father, I’ve held his hands and looked him in the eyes, the same as folks sometimes do when starting a shared blessing, and I’ve told him that his boy deserves to live a long and healthy life. I’ve told him that how his boy responds to treatment is out of our hands, but that if there’s any justice in this world, his child deserves to receive a piece of it. I’ve told him that his child matters, that he matters, and that I look forward to the day when this horrible experience is just a memory, a story to be told to his children’s children, about the challenges his family overcame in harder years behind them.

And it’s worked, as it has with others in the past. Because the key isn’t really in the prayer so much as the presence: the human affirmation that someone else cares what’s happening to you and to your loved ones. That you are not alone in this dread, despairing night.

2. Share the need with others of spiritual conviction

While I certainly won’t pray, when I’m dealing with deeply Catholic people in need here, I have on occasion put out calls for my spiritual Western friends to send their specific brand of well-wishing to the struggling party. I screen-cap the people who show up with assertions of prayer, and I share with the suffering party this ultimately humanist reminder that other people are thinking about them and wishing them well in hard times.

No dishonesty there!

This isn’t a competition, after all. It’s not like I’m ever going to seek out aid only from fellow secular people, so that I can, what, rub it in the hurting person’s face after, that only atheists showed up to support them in their time of greatest need? Is that the kind of distorted worldly action for which all our online atheist/theist debates have primed us?

Yes, I do find it amusing when I receive messages like “All is in God’s hands”, followed hastily by “And yours” (meaning, with thanks for my contribution). There’s a time and place in which to add, say, “and the doctors’ hands, and the medicine’s”. There’s also knowing how to pick one’s battles, and remembering that one isn’t in battle with a person in need.

When there is less need overall, there will inevitably be fewer people who have nothing but frantic prayer upon which to build the whole of their precious, fleeting lives.

3. Do what feels right, in service to comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable

I won’t pray, but maybe you’re a less stubborn and moralistically uptight humanist than I. Maybe you have no qualms faking your way through a few prayers or generic platitudes with someone who’s scared, and in need of immediate comfort in their suffering.

That’s perfectly fine. It’s not my way, but the whole point of humanist thinking is the celebration of many ways: of cultivating individual agency among all we brief, fragile critters in the cosmos. I’m not religious, but I’m more interested in what one does with their beliefs than in what they believe. Similarly, if a fellow secular humanist finds it easier to fib a bit, to provide comfort to the afflicted, my litmus test is simply this: Did it help? Did it ease the trauma? Did it get them through another breath, another crisis, another day?

And further, on your side of things: Did doing so help you to conserve your energy for the bigger battles? The real fights? Our greater struggle against the systemic corruption, cruelty, and neglect that brings fellow human beings into crisis in the first place?

If so, that’s a pretty worthy reason to ease up on the ego of personal integrity.

Because, as atheists, we may well make it cleanly through the foxhole test.

But as humanists? As secular humanists?

The challenge of conviction stands ready to greet us everywhere—for we are together navigating not just a demon-haunted, but also an injustice-haunted world.

Choose your answers to it well.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.