Ask Richard: Handle with Care — Fragile Religious Believers


For Humanist Network News
Sept. 16, 2009

In response to the previous installment of "Ask Richard: Handling the Jesus Saved Me Crowd," a couple of readers asked about how to handle religious people who actually are vulnerable.  They have known a few people who are close to them who seemed genuinely fragile, or they have seen others sometimes paraded in front of congregations, or even put on the street to approach strangers to give their testimonials prematurely, when they are still in a weak position. I hope that this kind of exploitation is rare because, in my opinion, it is reprehensible. 

The previous post was about dealing with those who seem fragile, but are not. They are people who, unbidden, approach you with their sad story as a proselytizing tool. The majority of the time they are shined on, turned down or shooed away. They are already used to it, and have not been crushed.

But some are actually vulnerable and are still in the midst of their troubles, their addiction, their codependency, their emotional turmoil, whatever it is.  They don't yet have the successful outcome to add at the end of their sad story. Most of them will not be approaching strangers with their testimonials. They will likely be avoiding any and all challenges, and that's probably a good idea.

You might know such people because they are close to you in some way, such as a family member or a close friend. That means that you could be close enough to be a possible resource for help, advice or encouragement.

If they are using religion as an emotional support, let them. Ridding them of religion is not what is important in this situation. If their sanity, health or life are at risk, whatever stops the hemorrhaging is fine for the time being.  Listen politely and patiently in a neutral stance. You don't have to debate them and you don't have to pretend that you agree with them either. You don't have to go with them to their church or whatever they ask. All you have to do is to be courteous and tactful. You can still politely decline whatever you wish to decline.

However, because of your closeness, you may be able to be of more tangible help to them. Suggest that in between their religious efforts, they go to see a counselor or go to an appropriate support group, or take classes or training for better employment or whatever might help, just as an augmentation to their religious efforts. Never mind that that's where the real improvement will come from. The important thing is that they have a chance to get better, that they survive.

I do not begrudge those who decide that they need something like religion to cling to while they are hurting, vulnerable and overwhelmed. When later they have recovered, I hope that they can see that it was actually their own strength, determination, willingness to work with others, and the acts of kindness of others that really got them through.

The other-ness of what they thought was helping them was an illusion, and it was always just them and their friends helping themselves and each other. With that realization, they could then be much more effective in helping other suffering people to find their own strength, determination, willingness and kindness, and the illusory outside source of help would not be necessary.

But I think that realization has to come from within them. They must make that decision for themselves, if ever.

This may seem an oddball metaphor, but I'm reminded of the scenes in the cartoon "Dumbo" where he has been learning to fly with his enormous ears, but only because he has been convinced that his magic feather gives him this ability. In the climactic scene, as he plunges from the high tower toward his certain death, the feather slips from his grasp.

At first he is terrified, but at the last moment he spreads his wonderful ears and pulls out of the dive, realizing in a flash of insight that he has always had the ability. The so-called magic feather was just a talisman to give him confidence, an illusion to focus on to get past his disbelief in himself.  In a strange elephantine way, I always saw that movie as a celebration of humanism, even as a little boy before I ever heard of humanism.

As I've expressed here and elsewhere, challenging anyone about their religious beliefs is something that should never be done capriciously, and harshness is never necessary, no matter how strong or frail someone might be. We should always be mindful in these interactions, paying attention to the person's emotional cues rather than just thinking up our next rebuttal, so that we're attending to the possible hurtful effect it will have on them rather than just "scoring points" in a self-centered way. We should talk with our eyes and ears, not just with our mouths.

If there's one thing that I hope people consider from my remarks, it's to see the difference between being clever at argument and being clever at cruelty.

Whether or not you think their stories are true, whether or not you think they are vulnerable people, if you choose to interact with them, please be aware of your motives, and let your actions come from wanting to support your view instead of wanting to cause humiliation.  If your senses tell you its likely you'll cause serious distress, then ask yourself how important is this skirmish.

Practice your fencing skills for the purpose of improving the world around you, not for the pleasure of running someone through.

I'm not saying be a marshmallow or treat everybody else as if they are made out of glass. I'm saying pay attention to everything you sense about them.  I never get into these useless and potentially destructive disputes over the existence of gods. I only contend with people's incorrect beliefs about humanists or atheists, or about social, educational, or constitutional issues.

When debating with someone who is clearly strong and healthy, I won't hold back my best argument; I'll blow them out of the water if I can. But I am never interested in destroying their "spirit" for want of a better word, only their incorrect argument about those issues.

(Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a Marriage and Family Therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseld more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog)