I was in the hospital recently for knee replacement surgery. I was getting along fine with my roommate, I'll call her Lucy. It turned out Lucy is Catholic, which I had overheard her mention during a phone conversation she received. I kept hoping I might have an opportunity to discuss my atheism with her but it didn’t come up. By the second day of our sharing a room, her priest, dressed in street clothes, stopped in to visit her and give her communion.
The priest was very friendly. He greeted us both with a smile and, as he talked with Lucy, he occasionally looked my way as if to include me in the conversation. My stomach was beginning to tighten, as it often does when I want so much to have an opportunity to talk to the religious about my life as an atheist and former Christian. As I listened politely, eventually the priest addressed me directly and asked if I was affiliated with any church. I said simply and with confidence, “No, I’m an atheist. I used to belong to the Methodist Church many years ago.”
How I wish I could have known what was going on in his mind. From the way his face suddenly looked, a look I would call totally expressionless, you would have thought I had just told him I was a terrorist or a satanist. At that moment, a medical staff person came in to tend to Lucy; so the priest excused himself and said he would be back.
My first thought was that I was sorry I hadn’t had a chance to say more; but then I gave myself kudos for speaking up and saying, with confidence, “I’m an atheist.” When the priest returned, he was very serious. He mostly ignored me, gave Lucy communion and left.
Lucy said nothing to me about my atheism but continued to treat me just as she had, with friendliness.
I am so proud of myself for standing up confidently as an atheist; and I am so glad I took that opportunity, though very brief, to demonstrate that atheists are “coming out of the closet.”I would be interested to hear of experiences others have had announcing their atheism.
Congratulations for your courage, Lois. I would like to tell my experience.
In 2000, my husband of 22 years was diagnosed with untreatable cancer and given a year to live. After doctors, the first people we encountered in the hospital were social workers, who wanted to care for our "spiritual needs". I have always been an atheist and Michael declared himself to be agnostic. He was assigned the non-demoninational chaplain, who visited regularly. The chaplain would ask me to be present if I wanted, and I said I wanted to be there for Michael. I simply asked him to carry on and not include me in prayers. This did not work, as the chaplain continued to insist on my participation. Eventually, I would just leave when he came in, as I became very tense and didnt want Michael to have to deal with that, but also to get what he needed. It was his death, after all. I did this quietly, never wanting a confrontation. However, the chaplain would stalk me around the waiting rooms, wanting to discuss my lack of participation. I asked him to please focus on Michael and not worry about me. He reported me as being non-supportive. As death drew closer, I sought out the head social worker on the floor simply to talk about how I was feeling. She told me that the chaplain had tried to talk with me, but that I had refused because of my atheism. If I wanted guidance, I would have to see the chaplain. I questioned her judgment in this regard, saying that I didn't realize I had to declare myself a theist in order to talk about my feeling towards my husband's impending death. The social worker gave me this smile that conveyed the message that they had finally been able to show me the reality of what my atheism meant in Palliative Care. She said if I couldnt speak with the chaplain, she was sorry, but that's what he was there for and that I had made my choice not to participate in the prayers he was offering.
At the same time, my sister-in-law, an American born-again Christian, came all the way from Illinois to London Ontario to say her goodbyes. I had asked her to be respectful of our beliefs, or lack of, and keep religion private. She promised. One day, as he lay on his deathbed, she told him that she had "good news" for him and that if he just took Jesus into his heart, he would die saved. Michael, very fragile and longing for her love, started to cry uncontrollably and begged her to stop. She would not. He was helpless. I was horrified by her selfishness and told her that what she had done was unconscienable and that she had no respect for others. Just recently, I learned that she did this because she believed Michael was gay and that I was a lesbian and that we were going to hell and she had to do what she believed right. I was flabbergasted and told her I had no idea where she got these ideas from. Even if she had been accurate, that was no excuse for forcing these hateful words on him about being saved from hell. I admit I have never forgiven her and she has never backed down from justifying this violation of his person and our wishes. I said, as far as I was concerned, she had verbally assaulted a dying man, one who had lived his life with great courage, integrity and kindness.
I tried my best to stay out of these discussions of religion. The closer he came to death, the more he wanted that religious comfort, and I made sure he had what he needed. However, it was clear to me that the medical system had no idea how to comfort or support someone when there was no common language of fairy tales they subtlely force upon us. I felt as if I had compromised his "spiritual care" simply because I had quietly tried to withdraw from the chaplain's prayers. I said so little, never being confrontational or pretending that I had something to prove. I was just trying to survive.
Our neighbours, both born agains, did ask if they could help us. I said they were welcome to, as long as they could respect my lack of belief and just give Michael what he needed, whatever he said that was. They did all the right things and provided support in helpful ways. As we got closer to his death, however, I felt their disapproval. Michael lived longer than that year, and they were smuggly sure it was because of their intervention. The implication of this, was that if I had participated, that he might still be alive.
We pay lip service to "religious freedom" but when it comes down to the wire, there is no such thing. Our hospital system is supposed to be secular, but it was clear to me that I would get no suppport from them unless I declared myself open to "god".
Between the hospital, my sister-in-law and my neighbours, I realized how atheism is truly abhorrent and frightening to others. Outting myself, for which I felt I had no choice, had serious implications and I felt that I was punished. I accept that for myself, but I can't accept the big deal that was made of my atheism when a lovely man was dying. I felt that he was punished for having an unruly spouse. I learned that coming out has serious and frightening consequences, and that once that ball gets rolling, we never know what we will be made to suffer. Now that it is just me, I feel totally free outting myself, but I am under no illusion how much anger and discomfort is generated amongst theists when I do it. People will lie that it doesnt matter, but then try to convert me. No wonder I am a hermit these days!
I have believed that in Canada was sufficient separation of church and state, that I had nothing to worry about. Yet, I learned that even outside of religious institutions, we risk much by being "unruly". I felt coerced and intimidated by the whole experience, and received no support whatsoever from anyone except friends. I felt blackballed by the system and that that original social worker took great pleasure in telling me I had made my own bed.
Wow! Here in the US, we don't even have a secular hospital system. Many hospitals, if not most, are affiliated with a religion. I've had to go to St Mary's several times. So much difference, in this setting, between declaring oneself agnostic or atheist. Don't you have any UU affiliates nearby? What a tragedy that prayer is the only end of life psychological comfort a hospital can imagine. I suppose celebrants don't do a lot of end of life support, they mostly focus on birth and marriage celebrations.
You got a load of self-righteous persecution in the guise of compassion. *sigh*
Kathy, I'm so sorry for the events you experienced. The death of a loved one is difficult enough without one's requests being respected. It is truly a scary thought to be unable to prevent what others think are noble and helpful offerings. The arrogance is very offensive.
When I went for an ultrasound of my kidney this past spring, it was in a former Catholic hospital. But that didn't prevent someone from asking me my religion. When I said I was atheist, the women looked at me and said "You want to declare nothing?" or something to that affect. I showed her my "Atheist and proud of it" bracelet and my copy of "The God Delusion". She looked at me with a big smile and I took it as a "Cool! Good for you!" type smile. Thankfully, there was no looking down at me and smirking. That would have sent me to the someone in charge to complain about the lack of compassion and respect.
At least I know I will not be bullied into believing mythology as truth, but I imagine that you may still have reservations, understandably. I hope events of this type aren't in your future, Kathy :)
Oddly enough, I am pretty "ruly". My rules involve fairness, honesty, and not expecting others to think or live like me. My husband always called me a "brat" because I love the band, Wilco, lol. He was a funny guy and a talented singer/songwriter. I had no idea until that experience with the hospital just how problematic atheists are to any "system". It is assumed that we all believe in god and if we don't we, they can't give their pat answers to really difficult situations.
It is somewhat analogous to meeting someone whose sexual identity is ambiguous. I have experienced really being thrown by this, and understood that I know how to speak to men and how to speak to women, but that when I don't know, all the hidden rules about how a woman addresses a man, versus how she addresses a woman, are suddenly useless. It is like being on the ocean without compasses. When i understood the depth of my confusion, I understood how much I rely on those stereotypes and easy ways to approach people, without thinking of them first as people, not men or women. I imagine that those used to playing the god card experience similar disorientation . When people are forced to think beyond stock responses, they get scared. I think this reveals a lot about how much we depend on the "programs" our linguistic constructs provide us so we don't have to think.
Atheists force others to think. We make people uncomfortable because we don't respond to the easy answers. I think this is why we are hated so much. That, and the fact that we are far harder to control.
In my experience, atheists are more feared than hated.
To some people we are unknown, and therefore perhaps dangerous. Fear is normal.
Those who deal with the danger find that in the future, fear is unnecessary.
Those who don't deal with the danger have to create safety for themselves. Increasing the physical distance is one way to do this. Increasing the emotional distance, perhaps with hate, is another way.
Our son lost a friend a couple of years ago when my wife told the other kid's mom that she is an atheist. The mom is a big church lady and was starting to do the insistent invitation behavior that we've all encountered. My wife's comment shut that down, but had unintended consequences. The other kid stopped coming over our house. Based on some other cues, I think that mom honestly thinks that we are out of control, amoral, moustache twirling villains. It makes sense to their way of thinking - without the bribes of heaven and hell, why would anyone behave?
With the kids involved, it's all just a big, sad mess.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I am so sorry for your loss and that your feelings and desires were not respected at such a delicate and difficult time for you and your husband.
You truly demonstrated courage and did the best that you could for Michael considering the abuse you had to deal with from narrow-minded, bigoted theists.
I hope that I would show as much courage under those circumstances. Your experience demonstrates the true nature of “Christian tolerance and benevolence.”
Kathy, I'm sorry that happened to you. It sounds like you were alone through that experience, and nobody should go through that. But the thing that's hard to see is that none of your antagonists thought they were being selfish or mean. It sounds like the sister and chaplain at least thought they were doing the right thing, within their limits.
If you had it to do over, would you do anything differently? Maybe find a therapist or Unitarian minister to talk to? I'm asking because my wife and I have a similar dynamic. Thank whoever, we're both still healthy, but this has got to be a common problem.