Issue #265 / December 2023

[ ] Over the years I detached myself from religion until I became an atheist. Yesterday, I had video contact with friends in the USA and a husband of one, Paul E, an American banjo player with whom I play, has cancer and is very weak. His wife asked us to think of him, which I do all the time, but also to pray for him. I find myself caught between my desire to respond to the request and that of preserving an intellectual honesty that would avoid being confronted with a lie.


Dear Jean-Marc,

Although I am not an atheist myself, I have a lot of time for their position, because I do struggle with the notion of God’s existence to a certain extent. Atheists, though, fall decisively on one side of the dividing line, whereas I have moved back and forth across that line over the years, spending more time with the believers than the non-believers these days. Many atheists are well informed on religion and hold a view on the significance of the nature of the theological struggle, and so I feel closer to them than I do to the spiritually complacent, the religiously dogmatic or those who are simply indifferent to these matters. I think complacency and indifference are more of a problem for the embattled soul of the world than emphatic disbelief.

But in regard to your dilemma, Jean-Marc, I can’t think of an act more generous than an atheist at prayer, who temporarily puts aside their disbelief in a god in order to bring comfort to a friend. Loosening your position for a moment, and doing something difficult because it has been asked of you by someone you care for, demonstrates a confidence in your beliefs, and shows that they are not so prideful or absolutist that they manifest into a smallness of being. Of course, to some this act will seem intellectually dishonest, a sham and a lie, but to others it will appear as the purest kindness, where heart eclipses mind, a true and complex gesture of what it means to love somebody. We show that in times of need we can do whatever is required of us, with a magnanimous heart, bending to the will of those we love. Understandably, it will be difficult for you to pray, but that is the very reason to do it. What is true friendship if we are not tested at times, if we are not prepared to soften our cherished ideals as an act of fidelity and commitment to those we love. In the end, this act of friendship may be the most eloquent prayer of all.

If it is appropriate, please send Paul E my thoughts and prayers.

Love, Nick


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