Believing In Belief

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

My grandmother has cancer. And while all cancer is bad, this is of the horrible variety: liver, kidney, pancreas, bladder, bone, and still spreading. Throughout her 89 years, grandma was a devout Christian filled with nothing but love.

Her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. He died in WWII. Her second husband, a grandfather that I never met, died of a heart attack in his early thirties. After that she never married (or even dated) again.

All of her children and grandchildren went to church with her regularly. Every Sunday and most Wednesday nights were virtually mandatory. Not because she mandated it, but because we knew not showing up would hurt her feelings, and nobody wanted to do that.

A majority of the family remains faithfully Christian, at least in practice. I fell out many years ago because I honestly could not take it anymore. Intellectually it made little sense and seemed rather, for lack of a better word, childish. I preferred (and still do) to be spoken to, not at.

These days, I fall somewhere between agnostic and athiest, but this cuts two ways. I don't blame any god for giving a totally dedicated person this horrible diseases. Nor would I ever, ever take this faith from my grandmother that has provided her with nothing but love and hope throughout her life, especially now.

Personally, my feelings seem aligned to yours. As living beings we can never know whether or not God exists. Any statements of certainty on either side strikes me as hubris. But to each his own.

Another reader writes:

I am surrounded by an extended family of fundamentalists, and despite my conviction fundamentalism is always corrosive, how is the humanist––athiest or agnostic--to approach the religious people he loves when they are in pain? Does one attempt to pull their faith from beneath them when they are struggling with a child's divorce or their own terminal illness?

I know my attempts get them to shed a faith I find destructive would 1) fail 2) alienate me from the family and 3) send them reeling. When you are dealing with 70-year-olds, things are pretty fixed in their mind.

The humane response, I suspect, is to sort through the dross of their belief system and find something which might prop them up. That's too much work for me, so I just attend to their creature comforts through superficial conversation, rides to the hospital, help with finances, etc. 

They think I am going to hell, yet when trouble comes, or even spiritual sadness, ;it is the phone of their gay nephew which rings first.

If I were to alienate them all by being angry at their anti-gay stances (which have tempered a lot since I came out) or by pressing my agnosticism, my life would be easier––but immeasurably rich.

It is just plain hard work.