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← Religion as "comfort" to people in distress: fact or myth?

Ted Foureagles's Avatar Jump to comment 13 by Ted Foureagles

Dear Ex and I ran a hospice in our home, and so I have been with several people as they died. Largely, but not exclusively, those who were most devout were most terrified of death if they were conscious when it came. They often did, however, seem to take comfort prior to death in the notion that something better awaited.

My dearest friend is a Christian fundamentalist (we invest quite a bit of intellectual energy and no small amount of temporary rancor in discussing this). He has recently experienced some very difficult situations (home foreclosure, etc., etc.). When times are tough for him I back off my criticism of his faith and note that he is greatly comforted by his Christian friends promising to pray for him (whether they actually do anything real or not).

Those examples describe real benefit of religion to real people. They may not advance understanding of reality, but they do sometimes provide comfort. I'd argue that the overall balance of a life lived in such delusion accounts on the negative, but that's the perspective of someone who has never believed.

Dear Nephew Case is 8 years old and is a precious to me as if he were my own child. He lives next door with Mom who is my Li'l Dear Sis, and knows nothing of his father (who was a sperm donor, is a great guy, and just a favoirte "Uncle" by his choice. They spend at least a week together each year, and the true nature of their relationship will eventually have to be broached). Sis is a thoughtful agnostic active in the Unitarian church. Case, who is strikingly brilliant, attends a private Christian school because local (South Carolina) public schools are depressingly grim and arguably more religiously dogmatic.

Case has had two encounters with the specter of death just this year. He had a big cancer scare (doctors were talking of 6-month survivability) that turned out to be misdiagnosis (actually cat scratch fever), and a few weeks later had half his face torn off by a dog (no important pieces were swallowed, and it all now looks pretty good, considering). In both instances he bravely but quiveringly told us that he didn't want to die. Oh, I should mention that his twin was stillborn, and he's always been aware of that. We have a little birthday ceremony each year down in the woods where the ashes were scattered. Point is, this kid is more familiar with death than most of us in "first world" societies are until we actually buy the farm.

Case's shrink says that he's a high-functioning, high level sufferer of PTSD -- understandable. He comes home from his Christian school talking about the literal historical account of Noah and the flood, and crying because it seems so cruel. I imagine that he imagines that his beloved kitten (who gave him cat scratch fever) would have drowned if another kitten had been chosen first, I tell him that these are stories made up by people a long time ago who didn't have science and were just trying to figure out how things worked, and needn't be taken as true. That seems to calm him for now, but we're sure to soon get to the point of discussing whether the comforting bits as well as the horrifying bits are likewise unreliable. In the meantime, I've bought him Dawkin's "The Magic Of Reality", and hope to read it with him.

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Tue, 24 Apr 2012 23:30:20 UTC | #937099