This isn’t a post about faith versus atheism—a topic that is not within SHS’s jurisdiction. It is a post about how to best show compassion to people who are seriously ill.

I bring this up because of a fascinating article by one of my favorite writers, Christopher Hitchens—oh, how I wish I had his talent!  Hitchens, among other reasons for his deserved fame, is a proselytizer for atheism. He was recently diagnosed with an advanced esophageal cancer and writes in Vanity Fair—brilliantly as always—about being an atheist, seriously ill with cancer, for whom people are praying. From “Unanswerable Prayers:”

When I described the tumor in my esophagus as a “blind, emotionless alien,” I suppose that even I couldn’t help awarding it some of the qualities of a living thing. This at least I know to be a mistake: an instance of the “pathetic fallacy” (angry cloud, proud mountain, presumptuous little Beaujolais) by which we ascribe animate qualities to inanimate phenomena. To exist, a cancer needs a living organism, but it cannot ever become a living organism. Its whole malice—there I go again—lies in the fact that the “best” it can do is to die with its host. Either that or its host will find the measures with which to extirpate and outlive it.

He describes hate messages from the religious—let’s not get into how awful to wish someone with cancer a painful death (although some have so wished it for me for opposing euthanasia, not the same degree of malevolence at all, since I appear to be healthy)—and then discusses being prayed for by believers:
Of the astonishing and flattering number of people who wrote to me when I fell so ill, very few failed to say one of two things. Either they assured me that they wouldn’t offend me by offering prayers or they tenderly insisted that they would pray anyway. Devotional Web sites consecrated special space to the question...

The most comprehensive investigation of the subject ever conducted—the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer,” of 2006—could find no correlation at all between the number and regularity of prayers offered and the likelihood that the person being prayed for would have improved chances. But it did find a small but interesting negative correlation, in that some patients suffered slight additional woe when they failed to manifest any improvement. They felt that they had disappointed their devoted supporters. And morale is another unquantifiable factor in survival. I now understand this better than I did when I first read it. An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: “If anyone can beat this, you can”; “Cancer has no chance against someone like you”; “We know you can vanquish this.” On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect. If I check out, I’ll be letting all these comrades down. A different secular problem also occurs to me: what if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating

So, how do we best support and love people who are seriously ill? It strikes me that we have entered an area of some paradox and nuance.  I believe, for example, that if they are suicidal, we should treat them just as we would any other suicidal person by trying to help them overcome the self destructive desire.  Otherwise, we abandon them to the darkness and cease to treat them as full equals.  (Or, we should facilitate the exit of all suicidal people, not just those who are ill or disabled: I don’t think there is a middle ground on this point.)

But I also think that to force prayers on an atheist is to not support the person as he or she is, but to be prideful, by using the ill person’s illness to make oneself feel virtuous.  If one wishes to pray for such a person, by all means do, but in the closet.  If God is there, he will hear the prayer. That is the way Francis Collins, the evangelical Christian who heads the NIH, has handled it:
I know Francis, too, from various public and private debates over religion. He has been kind enough to visit me in his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case. And let me put it this way: he hasn’t suggested prayer, and I in turn haven’t teased him about The Screwtape Letters.

In other words, Collins gave Hitchens what he needed, not what Collins needed. And note how in so doing, he gave the ill writer real support.

The root meaning of compassion is to “suffer with.”  I think one of our duties as human beings is to suffer with the ill by offering them emotional support at the place where they are—not from where we might be.  (The same goes for the other way around, of course. Atheists with ill religious friends should not push their non belief on those undergoing a terrible struggle.)  Forcing unwanted agendas on others at a time of extremis isn’t caring, but just the opposite by adding to the burden on their psyches at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Articles by Wesley J. Smith

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