« Hey, weren't we supposed to be dead by now? | Main | New @ Full Comment »

What would Jesus do?

Flying Spaghetti MonsterA troubled unbeliever writes to Slate's advice columnist:

I have been an atheist for the last several years, ever since losing my (Christian) faith following a close friend's untimely death. Recently, my boss's mother told me about a serious and risky surgery that her other child would soon have. After I said to her, "I'll keep him in my thoughts," she responded, "Oh, would you please pray for him?" I said yes, and she began talking about her belief in the power of prayer, a belief I once would have shared. At the time, I wanted to comfort her in any way that I could, so I agreed with what she said. Also, it hardly would have been appropriate to launch into a "Why I'm an Atheist" speech. Later, though, I felt very uncomfortable with the fact that I'd lied and acted as if I shared her beliefs. Is this kind of thing a no-win situation? -Not a Believer

Emily Yoffe gives pretty much the only answer possible to N.A.B.: in such circumstances (and with an interlocutor who is your boss's mother), you shouldn't feel bad about momentarily opting not to play the asshole village atheist. What's interesting here is the play of incentives. People like "Not a Believer" get backed into corners like this a great deal less often if they do, in fact, signal their atheism aggressively in everyday life. (HEY GUYS CHECK OUT MY NEW DARWIN FISH) The more ostensively superfluous signaling you do, the less likely you are to have to face some painful choice, at an awkward, emotionally high-leverage moment, between lying and offending somebody. This suggests two things that most of us (believers or not) may not have considered: (1) Village-atheist types potentially have good personal reasons beyond mere bolshiness for acting that way, and (2) their frantic signalling can actually be considered a benefit to Christians, who, by it, gain useful foreknowledge that they should not trust/confide in/impose upon a particular acquaintance.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments (18)


"I'm sure the doctors are doing all they can," is both comforting and an affirmation of science over witchcraft.


"... that they should not trust/confide in/impose upon a particular acquaintance."

Agreed. On the other hand that may well be the motivation for many non-believers for not telegraphing their lack of belief.

Maybe, but the opposite problem—noxiousness rather than concealment—is the one more usually complained of.


"... that they should not trust/confide in/impose upon a particular acquaintance."

So atheists aren't trustworthy or worthy enough to confide in?

I'd have thought you capable of more subtle thinking on morality than that garbage.

See how this works? Apparently I've failed to signal the fact that I AM AN ATHEIST clearly enough, and Cameron has confused an attempt to adopt the Christian's point of view for the sake of argument with an actual statement about atheists. I need a Darwin fish for the banner of my site.


I guess Cameron is not a regular reader.


Mea Culpa, I am not a regular reader and thus your post whizzed over my knuckle head.

Lord Bob:

I bet colbycoshthecanadianathiestnewspaperguy.com is available as a domain just to allay all possible confusion.


This one's easy. Lie. All that matters is your friend's feelings.

If she feels better because she thinks you'll pray for her kid, lie, and say you'll pray for her kid. If you have an attack of conscience, pray for her kid even though you have no faith in what you're doing.

Will S.:

Darrell: re your last suggestion, "If you have an attack of conscience, pray for her kid even though you have no faith in what you're doing."

How can one who doesn't believe in God talk to God? Since prayer is, by definition, communication with the Almighty, how can one who doesn't believe in said Almighty, engage in communication with an entity in whose existence he/she doesn't believe?

At least your first suggestion, lying, has the virtue of being feasible; anyone can lie. But not everyone can wilfully lie to themselves, as your other suggestion would require.


It doesn't matter waht you tell them, whether you're an atheist or an extraterrestrial. They will still ask you to pray for them. I know, I'm in atheist, people know it, and they still ask me to pray for them, especially when something bad has happened. So you just say yes and move on.


Tell them yes, you'll "pray" for them, and then don't make the mockery quotes visible. And then "pray" for them, by making a point of thinking regularly and seriously about them, and wishing them well. If you're wrong and there is a divinity, it will notice your good intentions. If you're right and there is no divinity, you may still be influencing your surroundings in some way science has yet to define; and you'll influence your own demeanour, and your friend may notice and respond, even unconsciously. It can't do harm to think well of people.


I think ebt wins that one, hands down. It's about the kindness. Not God. In suffering, you offer compassion. Compassion heals, not semantics.


Response to ebt: I am an atheist, so I don't pray. As a previous post noted: prayer is a communication with the almighty. I don't do that because I do not believe there is an almighty. Your suggestion is effectively suggesting that I accept that god exists and act accordingly so that I will get the benefit of the doubt if I am wrong. Is the god you believe in that naive?

At times of great emotional stress I tend to hold back on expressing my point of view regarding religion: there is nothing good to be gained by arguement at such times. When I say I will often think of the afflicted person, that is what happens. As a matter of fact, that is what has prompted me to respond to your post: a former partner of mine is in serious medical distress and he is in my daily thoughts.

Why can you not accept that there are many points of view? I cannot prove mine and you cannot prove yours.

If you have an attack of conscience, pray for her kid even though you have no faith in what you're doing.

If you don't believe in God, how can you have an attack of conscience about lying about praying?

I mean, how can lying, if no one is actually hurt by it, be immoral unless you believe in a supernatural morality? Unless there is someone up there keeping score, who exactly will care about such a lie?

The idea that the immorality of lying is an absolute strikes me as an inherently religious belief.


Wow, I see that being an atheist has done wonders for your attitude, REH. I didn't say or imply that I believe in God. I certainly didn't say or imply that you should. I merely allowed for the possibility of the existence of God. And you jump up and down and scream that I "can't accept that there are many points of view"? Well, clearly one of us can't, and it can't possibly be Mr. Too Smart For God, now can it?

Wish I could offer some sympathy for your friend, but I'm happier seeing him suffer. (No, I'm not. But nothing makes you happier than hating Christians, so there's something you can hate the Christians for. Of course I'm not a Christian, and of course that makes no difference to you. Hate away, genius. No, don't thank me, it's the least I can do for you.)

Tagore Smith:

But this guy doesn't sound like the village atheist type, and he doesn't give much indication in his story of having done much signaling, as you acknowledge in your last para. Of course being bothered enough to write an advice columnist about a simple situation in which he did the right thing is a potent form of signaling in and of itself, I guess.

I'm an unapologetic but quiet and non-evangelic atheist myself. Hailing originally from the your native, frozen, 51st state (though more from the west and east of you, and less from the truly frozen center, though I apparently had some grandparents who grew grain there), and having grown up in New England, I'm always amazed at how frankly people in the American South (where I live now) accost you with their Christianity. If anyone is doing any frantic signaling, it seems to me that it is the true believers.

I think we'd all be better off if we acted like New Englanders and kept religion, or lack of it, private. In this sense I view religion a bit like I view a predilection for golden showers. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, really, but I'd rather not know the details.

By the way, when I was in University (in the states) I used to get approached by a lot of Mormons on their year-long mission to convert the heathens- some other missionaries too, but mainly Mormons. I'm too polite, and too much of a bastard, to just shoo them away, so I used to talk to them a bit.

Eventually they would always get around to saying something like "How can you look at that tree [pointing at an impressive Spruce or Maple or something] and not believe in God?" My response, invariably, was "Ah, but you see, I'm Canadian." Delivered with the right tone of voice (and a good finger wag) it is a foolproof way of disarming missionary zeal, in the States at least- odd, as it is as non-sequiter a sequiter as ever sequitered.

So if you meet any Mormons who are convinced that Canadians are all bolshi village atheists, sorry, my bad.

Tagore Smith:

Cameron: "So atheists aren't trustworthy or worthy enough to confide in?"

No, it's Canadians and people without a sense of humour that are so (sense of humor is not sufficient btw- it's not dry enough for this recipe).


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 8, 2008 5:56 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Hey, weren't we supposed to be dead by now?.

The next post in this blog is New @ Full Comment.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35