Friday, March 16, 2012

Coping With Pesonal Tragedy: Two Perspectives

Thanks to, I've been able to reconnect with some of my fellow high school alumni. I was pleased to learn several months ago that one of these people, who also happened to be my next door neighbor when we were kids, had achieved a fulfilling life life including a Ph.D, a successful career, and a long andfrom what I  gatherhappy marriage. I remember her as a fine person who deserves her good fortune.

So I was saddened to later learn that she had been stricken with (a non-smoker's form of) lung cancer for which a cause hadn't been detected (as is often the case with cancer anyway) and which appeared to be inoperable.  As it turns out, however,  a regimen of chemotherapy eventually shrank the tumor which was then was fully excised, and her chances of recovery are favorable. 

As a theist and the wife of a rabbi, her initial reaction to the original diagnosis was to question why this dreadful illness had befallen her and that she must be a bad person for God to punish her this way(!).  Although she kept her faith,  she says that she came to understand that's not the way misfortune works.  But her initial reaction of feeling forsaken by a trusted supreme being is not only instructive in its contrast  to an atheist's response to distressing news but is also an indictment of religion to the extent that the latter adds unnecessary feelings of guilt and betrayal to the emotional devastation of the crisis itself.

As an atheist I don't claim that non-believers are any less emotionally affected by bad news, e.g. life threatening illnesses, than are theists.  However, not having a god to blame, fear, question,  or beg for divine intervention, is one less obstacle to the opportunity of dealing and coming to terms with the matter at hand with less clouded judgment. I know this from personal experience simply by comparing my response as an atheist upon learning of my own perilous health situations and of those close to me reaction when I was still a god-believer  wasting time and energy with the self delusion that prayer might lead to a positive outcome.

In short atheism makes it easier to face reality. This is not to say that non-believers can't hope for happy endings in bad times. After all, life without that state of mind is barren. But for hope to be meaningful, it must be based on an objective and reasonable assessment of the situation.  So although I'm well aware of  the reality that my former schoolmate's cancer may return, based on the circumstances to date I can rationally hope for her to enjoy a long term and perhaps permanent remission.