Deathbed duties

deathbedThere’s an interesting Reddit thread on whether you should pretend to convert if you have a dying loved one who really wants you to.

Most commenters seem to agree that it’s no big deal (as I would phrase it, it’s not like non-God is going to non-condemn you to non-hell for non-non-belief), although there’s an interesting discussion about the value of honesty vs. the value of doing something good for someone you love.

And I do tend to come down on the side of saying it’s OK — maybe even just plain right — to tell a religious loved one on their deathbed that you’ve found Jesus (or whoever they desire you to have found). It’s not much skin off your nose, and it’ll give comfort to someone who really needs all the comfort they can get.

But I do have to wonder about something. If someone is dying, and they really want you to be religious, then don’t they believe (assuming it’s a Christian or Muslim) that they’re going to heaven? And that everything will be hunky-dory?

Sure, the prospect of a loved one going to hell seems pretty bad, here on earth. But what kind of heaven is it that doesn’t make you happy pretty much all the time? Presumably the powers that be have arranged things so that once you see the big picture and know everything (and for me, it wouldn’t be heaven if I didn’t know everything), it all gets put in perspective and existence seems pretty darned good. I mean, that’s why it’s called heaven, right?

If that’s the case, why should they be alarmed at the prospect of someone they love not being there? Is heaven going to be a big bummer if that happens? Will they be moping around their cloud all day, disconsolately strumming their harp?

I suppose it could be that as they face the terrifying forever darkness, it’s only natural that they’d have such fears, no matter how great their faith that they’re going to a better place. But how would such fears be relieved by your pretending to convert? I mean, if the only reason to be afraid is if their cherished religious beliefs are wrong, then how would it comfort them to know that their loved one has converted to those selfsame beliefs?

(cartoon via Shoebox Blog)

12 responses to this post.

  1. I am sorry but I just could not do that as I personally equate it to mental prostitution. I am an atheist, I am very likely going to die an atheist (unless I get honest, real proof that another religion is true) and I am not going to lie to anyone about it.


  2. Posted by Jessica G. on September 23, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    I think I’ll have to disagree on this one as well. What if your loved one’s doctor is wrong and they don’t die? Then either you’re a liar and you’ve broken their heart (probably yet again) over this religion thing or you now have to pretend you’re religious until they do die. I think that may negatively affect the relationship. In my opinion, honesty, while tempered with lots of tact and maybe even just not talking about it, is the best policy.


  3. Posted by Rob A on September 24, 2009 at 7:31 am

    I’m imagining that the loved-one on the deathbed really is just about to pop their clogs, likely to be in pain, not really aware what’s happening some of the time, and pretty much having a shit time of it.

    In that case, I think you are really pushing it to expect there to be any logic in what they say or do.

    In fact, when has theism ever meant a reliance on logic, whatever the person’s state of health? It sounds like you are asking them to have a deathbed conversion towards rationality!


  4. Posted by Brian E on September 24, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Apparently concepts such as dignity, self-respect, and honor mean nothing to reddit users. The thought of doing this just to appease a superstitious loved one is so demeaning and degrading I’m offended by the thought of it.

    As usual, it helps to think of this in terms outside of the societal norms. Suppose your loved one is a Wiccan or a fortune teller and they’re pleading with you on your deathbed to acknowledge the existence of magic or the power of the crystal ball. Do you sell out your integrity on your deathbed just to appease them? What does that really say about your beliefs and you as a person?

    I understand you’re approaching this from the perspective that, since we don’t believe in god, what difference does it make, but I think that is the completely wrong way to look at the situation.


  5. Posted by Stepan on September 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I imagine most religious people have an anthropomorphic view of heaven even though their faith may be describing it more abstract terms (basking on God’s presence or whatever). That’s why they still cry at a funeral, even though their loved on is “in a better place”.

    So yeah, the hope and anticipation of meeting your loved ones there (whether it’s Fluffy who got run over by a car or your child or a favorite grandmother) could most definitely provide a lot of comfort on the death bed.

    I’d still have a hard time pretending to have found Jesus, but I think providing comfort to my loved ones ought to trump remaining seated on my moral high horse.


  6. I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of the loved one “missing” you if you’re not in heaven with them, but more that they’re afraid you’re going to miss salvation if you haven’t converted. So they’re not worried about their own afterlife experience, they’re concerned that you won’t get your own reward.

    My dad once tried to explain my mom’s great concern that we all follow her religion by likening it to someone who knew that a flood was coming and trying to make sure that everyone in her family knew how to swim so they’d all survive. In her mind, she was trying to protect us by making sure we followed the path she knew was correct.

    I certainly don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t reassure a dying loved one that you’re going to be “saved” too. It would ease their minds, and it seems like the humane thing to do.


  7. I don’t see the harm, really, one way or the other. But I don’t see the upside to hurting the dying intentionally. So don’t tell them you’re converting, tell them you’re looking into it. You can give them hope without lying. Unless this deathbed conversation came as a surprise, it wouldn’t hurt to have an appropriate religious quotation handy to give them comfort.


  8. good point Michael. You could promise to look into it, which would probably be comforting, and you could actually follow through, as many of us atheists are doing often anyway. All you’d need to do is read an apologist book or two (if you can do it without having your head implode), or even spend a little time reconsidering your atheist position. I think spending time reflecting on it on a regular basis is important, anyway, and giving a loved one a bit of comfort at the same time isn’t a bad thing.


  9. Posted by J. Allen on September 24, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    I don’t know if lying is a great way to go out…I’d rather they think I’m in Hell…maybe they’ll realize what a stupid and horrible idea it is.


  10. Posted by Ryan on September 26, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    This is an interesting debate. I remember when my grandmother died and I was at the funeral, my very religious aunt hugged me and said “All you have to do is believe.” I was 9 years old at the time and the only atheist in my family. She did’nt know that I was an atheist. I had no reason to discuss my atheism until after Sept. 11. Anyway, my reaction was at first to just say “ok” and let her get her jollies. But I thought about it for a second and her statement really started to grate on my nerves. So, I just said nothing and remained polite. The funeral, after all, was no more about my atheism that it was about her theism.

    I thought it was really wrong to push religious beliefs on a grieving person. I really see no difference in the case of a deathbed conversion. I think that it would be morally and ethically wrong to be dishonest at such a time. When it is my death, it will be my choice and will (probably) remain atheist until my last breath.

    If you wish, I remember seeing Richard Dawkins talking about phoney deathbed conversions of famous and important atheists. He says that his death will be recorded so that there is proof that he did not give in. ‘Atta boy, Richard!


  11. I’ve only just found this site, but entries like this make me think that etiquette for atheists is a misguided idea. Especially if it leads to death-bed conversions, or even just worrying about offending someone who asked you why you don’t believe in their god.

    Expecting that a certain group of scorned, underrepresented, hated,oppressed, mocked, or otherwise discriminated against people be nice, polite and nonoffensive, to the point that they even pretend to give up their personal beliefs for the imaginary benefit of others, seems to me just another way to keep that group in their place — which is usually a notch below equal, human, and dignified.

    My relatives and loved ones can suck it. Being an atheist ain’t always easy, and if after a lifetime of fighting for my rights one of them asks me to convert, they’re going to get a swift rap on the head with my old-man cane, which I will keep next to my deathbed just for such an occasion.

    False hope is no hope at all. If I can leave my rude, pompous loved ones with one lingering idea, it will be that dying without god is just as valid as living without him and maybe someday they’ll come to realize how wrong they were to push for conversion and become better people for it.

    Perhaps a better use of web space would be “The Assertive Atheist”.


  12. Posted by jemand on October 12, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    @ David, I think the discussion was about other people’s deaths and not your own. Though I’m coming down firmly in the camp which would say “I’ll look into it” to ease a dying relative’s psychological state, giving them hope, but not violating my honesty or principles.


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