When Religion Probably Doesn’t Help

Question“A Rational Woman” is trying something a little different today for the blog. Here are two questions (that I made up to get us started).

Dear Rational Woman:

Q:  I read a study some time back that young people who are religious wear seat belts more often than the non-religious, smoke and drink less, eat better, and don’t commit as many crimes.  The conclusion of the study was that these kids are trying to figure out their purpose in the world, and they turn to religion. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

A:  Shortcuts are seductive. Young people (and those of all ages going through transitional periods in their lives) often shortchange their own complex and typically cyclical development.  Rather than doing the hard work of thinking things through, learning about themselves, and growing in a conscious way, they instead cling to a love interest or a rigid set of beliefs.

A teenager’s longing for affiliation is particularly intense. Those who believe they’re worthless unless someone loves them become vulnerable to a would-be rescuer, perhaps a supernatural entity, who will save them from the painful search for self.  It doesn’t mean they’re better people.  Perhaps, rather, they’re incompletely evolved.

Dear Rational Woman:

Q: Everyone I know is getting older and more apt to become ill. It often happens that someone asks for my prayers. As an atheist, how should I respond?

A: I’ll assume it’s usually Judeo-Christian-style prayers your acquaintances want from you (I’m American, after all). I wonder if your feelings would be identical if you were asked to perform a Buddhist or Hindu rite on behalf of someone who was ill or who was mourning. (Or Wiccan or Muslim, for that matter.) Just something to consider.

Your response, in general, will probably depend on your closeness to the person asking. The less close, the less reason to do anything but say, “Of course, I do wish him well.” Or “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or whatever. Or say, “I’ll be thinking of him.” (There’s no need to add, “And a fat lot of good that will do.”)

When people I care about are suffering, it makes me ill to even try to imagine their anguish. Certainly, when people are down is not the time to push their most sensitive buttons. But it doesn’t mean you lie or go against your own deeply held beliefs. Do what makes sense to you as a rational person, perhaps taking that energy borne of sympathy to write a letter to a congressperson or a newspaper or sign a petition, at the very least.

  • Readers, do you agree? Do you have any questions of your own you’d like to put out there for my and others’ responses?

Note: In KYLIE’S HEEL, my new novel, you’ll find more Q&As of this type. It’s available for pre-order now at HumanistPress.com, or wait a couple months for the e-book.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on Twitter @bunnyape

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9 Responses to When Religion Probably Doesn’t Help

  1. George Kern says:

    Dear Rational Woman:
    No one can feel the life threatening suffering of another, nor can one determine the
    fate of one’s spirit after death, perhaps nothing? Yet a positive wish or prayer for bodily healing can be personal without being religious. Possibly delivering the suffering individual from the fear of death.

    • I never said you can’t pray if it helps you cope.

      I was only talking about those of us who don’t believe in prayer or wishing, and how we respond to those who ask us to.

  2. PJ Davidson says:

    Whenever I am asked to say prayers for anyone or thing, I always reply that I will keep them in my thoughts and that I send best wishes for a positive outcome.

    Anyone who knows my family and me knows that we don’t say prayers because we don’t understand who or what we would pray to. Should we lie? Saving someone from the fear of dying deserves a rational response; we are all dying and we need to have that conversation with our loved ones, not play into irrational fears.

    Fear of pain I do understand so finding a knowledgable medical advisor would be of more help than prayer.

    • I like your attitude. I don’t believe we should lie about our beliefs, though when someone’s dying, we don’t need to make a big fuss if they’re finding comfort one way or another. At that point, it’s about them and their terror, not us and our beliefs.


  3. Priscilla says:

    As a decendent of Amish & Quakers, a personal well-wishing of future good-health is plenty unless you’d like to send flowers and a nice card.

    • Priscilla says:

      In reply to the first question, yes I agree youngsters may be incompletely evolved in that they are merely following the “rules” set before them in order to be accepted by the in-group, employers, or a religious congregation. If one’s self-image is based on how perfectly one follows rules then fears of imperfection and possible failure [to follow the rules] can be mentally limiting and emotionally devastating. If acceptance by a group means adopting a set of rules or beliefs to get in then how genuine is one’s commitment to that group if all one is doing is “just following the rules?”

      • And if they don’t question the group’s beliefs when they’re relatively young, they may get in the habit of accepting things unconditionally from authorities. Not a good thing in a democracy.

  4. Ron says:

    The teenagers: Such a study falls far short of showing a cause-and-effect relationship. The same mentality that has them conform to certain norms may be what has them adhere to religion.

    Asking for prayers: Anyone who might ask me for prayers should already know that I am a non-believer. If they still ask, well, I’ll have this prayer all prepared: “Dear God, please make so-and-so better. Thank you. The End.”

    • Good, succinct “prayer,” Ron. But why not go all the way and ask God to make the illness not have happened in the first place? I think Superman could do that, so why not an omnipotent God? (Rhetorical question, obviously.)

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