The Ethical Dilemma: Can

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Why Do Atheists Protest So Much? I believe in some sort of god but not in churches. Your discussion about atheists wanting to be accepted in the Boy Scouts has me thinking: These are preteens. Why would they be identifying themselves as atheists or anything else? It bothers me a little that people of any age identify themselves as anything at all. If you’re having an intimate conversation with someone about spiritual beliefs, yes, I can imagine people saying, “I’m Catholic, I’m Jewish, I’m atheist.” But some of the people writing to you for advice feel like they can’t participate in this or that because they’re atheists. I find that puzzling, since they’re saying they believe in nothing. And yet believing in nothing for atheists seems to be as strong-minded as believing in something. I’m surprised to perceive the atheists who write you as being as strident as right-wing fundamentalists. Why can’t people just coexist with different views? 

—I’m Just A Person

Dear Person,

Theism is belief in the existence of a god or gods. The “a” prefix means not or without (as in asexual). So atheists are people who do not believe in any gods. But that by no means means that atheists believe in nothing. We can still believe in morality, fairness, justice, human rights, the arts, science, joy, beauty, the golden rule, and much more.

Check out Greta Christina’s book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? (Christina also received the American Humanist Association’s LGBT Humanist Pride Award this year) which delves into this very topic with humor but dead-serious insight. In a post-religious society we probably would not go around identifying our beliefs or lack thereof, but we are a long, long way from that. In our very theistic world, children are typically indoctrinated into their parents’ beliefs at birth, starting with baptisms and circumcisions and baby-namings, and proceeding to formal religious education (e.g., Sunday school) that often closely follows potty-training. Kids know what religion they “are” from the get-go, as well as the religions of their neighbors. Most organized religions would never dream of waiting until children are old enough to choose for themselves, because they know if they don’t indoctrinate before critical thinking starts to develop, the potential to indoctrinate later will fall off a cliff. 

Many people who “belong” to a religion don’t really think deeply about it, and many atheists don’t either–particularly since atheism isn’t an organization or creed with certifications, rituals, doctrines, buildings and meetings, dress codes and dietary laws. But many non-believers, especially those who consciously broke with religions and recognized their atheism, can be very sensitive to religious discrimination and encroachment on their freedom from religion, the way former smokers can’t bear people blowing stinky smoke their way. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more energetic non-believers as increasing numbers call themselves atheists and “nones.” Even the new pope has acknowledged that atheists can be acceptable fellow humans (which Bill Maher reads as evidence that the pope is an atheist).

Since the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Network News is explicitly about humanism, and “The Ethical Dilemma” column explicitly addresses questions from a humanist perspective, it’s not surprising that most of the discussions have something to do with religious/non-belief issues. And while I tend to advocate against stridency and abrasiveness whenever there’s a kinder, gentler alternative, there are occasions when a strong and perhaps unpopular or uncomfortable—even strident—humanist stand must be taken.

Getting back to the Boy Scouts: The issue is that to apply to become a Scout, boys (or their parents) are required to pledge that they believe in god and/or practice some form of religion—meaning everyone except atheists is welcome. To gain admission, atheist families would have to lie about their personal beliefs. Now there’s a great life lesson with which to launch a new Scout. Are you beginning to see how non-believers need to stand up for things they believe in?


Should I Go For a Ride with the Afterlife? I’m going to be attending the wake of a dear friend’s husband this weekend, and she has asked me to read a book that she’d like to talk with me about: Proof of Heaven, a Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. She presented me with the book as a gift, thinking that the scientific perspective would appeal to me, though all it meant to me is that even the mind of a neurosurgeon can play tricks on itself.

I expect that she’ll be looking to me to affirm that there is an afterlife, that there is a divine being, and that there is reason to believe that her husband is still with us in some form more tangible than fond memory.

Ordinarily, I would be very noncommittal in conversations like this, simply saying everyone is free to believe what they believe. But I suspect I’m going to be asked flat out what I think has happened to her husband and his “immortal soul.”  

I don’t want to lie to her about what I think, but I also don’t want to be callous to her need to find comfort anywhere she can get it. What is the ethical answer here?  Should I exaggerate my credulity in what the book purports to be proof of an afterlife and tacitly encourage the notion that she will meet with her husband again, or should I explain why I think neither of us should be convinced of an afterlife but try to comfort her in other ways, like focusing on his memory and legacy?

—Concerned Friend

Dear Friend,

Everyone should have a sensitive, caring and considerate friend like you. And you answered your own question if you just exchange a few question marks to periods.

It sounds like your friend already knows what you think, and maybe in her heart she agrees but is desperately yearning for a different answer. It’s commendable that you took the trouble and open mind to read and think about the book, so that you are prepared to discuss it with her. And you are right not to want to lie to her.

As you suggest, your appropriate role is to encourage her toward other ways to view how her husband lives on in her life and the lives of everyone he touched. Perhaps rather than say neither of you should believe in an afterlife, just keep to why you don’t, and allow her to entertain whatever ideas give her comfort. Don’t get into heated arguing or debating. More than your endorsement or agreement, right now she just needs you to figuratively (and maybe literally) hold her hand through this extremely painful and unsettling time. Be there for her as the honest, empathetic friend that you are.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.