Social Question

laureth's avatar

Why is this religious sentiment socially acceptable?

Asked by laureth (27091 points ) June 4th, 2010

Yesterday my grandpa (who helped raise me) was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. When my mother-in-law (an evangelical Christian) found out about this, she said that she hoped that my I would “come to know Jesus” through my grandpa’s illness. From what I can see, this sentiment is quite polite and socially acceptable.

I’m an atheist. Imagine if the situation were reversed and I told my MIL that I hoped she would lose her faith in God through having one of her dear relatives die of cancer. I can only expect that this would be seen as an insult of the highest degree.

Why is it perfectly OK for her to evangelize me through this tragedy, and I am expected to thank her for her concern, yet the reverse would be a slap in the face that would make even my atheist friends wince?

Please note that this is not a debate about God’s existence. I’m sure there are plenty of those in the archives that we can reanimate if need be. This is more of a question about social and religious etiquette.

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48 Answers

RocketSquid's avatar

I’ve wondered this myself. It’s ridiculous to use a tragedy to push an agenda, regardless of how well meaning it’s supposed to be.

I think, at the most basic level, it’s a way of saying that they hope something positive will come out of this tragedy. On the other end, the reverse states that you’re hoping they lose something else along with a loved one.

I also wonder if a lot of it is due to the “saving” that some christians feel is their duty. They see it as almost provided a vaccination to a disease or some kind of spiritual blight, and although their methods are obnoxious, they’re “well meaning” enough because they’re trying to get you in on what they believe is a good deal. On the other end, preaching against a religion could be seen as trying to take away that deal, or even as hateful because you’re trying to get rid of something instead of providing something.

the100thmonkey's avatar

This is part of the thrust of Dawkins’ argument against religion in The God Delusion.

What he (rather over-acerbically, though, IMO) does is make a very strong case against – and highlight the existence of – special pleading and the inherent social bias towards religion and religious statements.

Fundamentally, it’s not acceptable to impose one’s religious beliefs in such a way against another person, as the converse situation you suggest would constitute a grave insult – would it be innocuous to ask her why she thought you could “come to know Jesus” through watching your grandfather die? I suspect not.

Fortunately, you have the advantage of being able to not only forgive her for her ignorance (I can’t think of a more charitable term, my apologies if it upset you) but also to understand it. The very fact that you asked this question suggests that you know the answer.

rentluva5256's avatar

I agree with @RocketSuid. I think its just that losing faith is more tragic than gaining faith. However, say you were Jewish, and someone was trying to convert you to Christianity from this event. That would also be a slap in the face. So, as I said, gaining faith is better than losing faith.

laureth's avatar

For what it’s worth, she also said the same to Mr. Laureth, who is an AsatrĂșer. However, if he were to hope aloud that a relative’s death would help her come to know Thor or Freya, I think it wouldn’t be very welcome.

It’s interesting that the loss of faith is seen as a negative. For me, it wasn’t really. I could wish her the Light of Reason or somesuch, but I doubt that would be seen as a positive either.

tinyfaery's avatar

I really don’t see the difference between this scenario and general proselytizing. Some people feel the need to press their own beliefs upon others.

AmWiser's avatar

Unfortunately most people make so called religious remarks without showing proof of what they are saying. Ask your MIL how coming to know Jesus has anything to with your grandpa’s illness. Whatever the outcome of your grandpa’s illness, be at peace within yourself.

ubersiren's avatar

First off, I’m so sorry about your news.

I think it’s becoming less acceptable. She’s probably in the minority of those who would actually say something so inappropriate. It seems that people who say things like that are just being self-indulgent. I don’t know, maybe she truly meant well. It’s just such a pity she used this sad time to strut her superiority complex.

LuckyGuy's avatar

She just doesn’t know any better. Pity her and move on.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

No one I know would see that as socially acceptable, they’d see it at very rude especially bringing it up because of your relative’s illness.

JLeslie's avatar

The two scenarios are completely equal. Evangelicals are so wrapped up in their view of the world they are unable to put themselves in another persons shoes, to practice the golden rule in such a situation. I do believe they genuinely think they are saying something helpful and caring, and not try to seize an opportunity to convert. These Christians, when someone is sick or dying, or there is a tragedy, they talk about taking comfort in God not only to non-Christians, but among themselves. It is their language.

Generally, I just say, “thank you.” The best thing is to rise above it. If she did that to my young children though, if I had any, I would pull her aside and read her the riot act.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

My thoughts are with you as you face your grandpa’s illness.

As for grandma’s comment being socially acceptable, I would say that I would not challenge you for feeling that way but I would find such a comment addressed at me if my parents were facing a dread disease to be intrusive and inconsiderate. I am Jewish and I respect others’ rights to belief (or not belief) in the deity of their choice. As soon as they use some pretext to promote their beliefs in my time of worry or any other time for that matter, they will be politely advised to keep their proselytizing comments to themselves.

I would suggest an appropriate comment would be: “I hope you find some strength or support from those who love you and from whatever belief system on which you draw for comfort.”

Maybe my wording is a bit stilted or formal but it allows a person to hear my kind expression of concern and support for them without having to fend off some underhanded attempt to cajole them into adopting my beliefs or those of anyone other than themselves.

MissA's avatar

I like to quote this author in such situations…but, it may not be received as well as Dr. Lawrence’s suggestion. Robert Heinlein said, “One man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh.”

ETpro's avatar

First my sincere sympathy to upi and hopes for a remission. It does happen.

You are so right. Your Mother In Law would likely be outraged beyond measure if the tables were turned. And yet you culd argue far more logically that a diagnosis of incurable cancer in a loved one is proof there is no loving God guiding human affairs than she can argue that losing your beloved grandmother to cancer is proof Jesus is God. WHen stated as what her arguemnt clearly implies, it is patently absurd. Believing the absurd is the stuff relgiion thrives on. It’s the only sopil in which religion can grow.

Do you want to risk becoming a family pariah by asking your mother in law how she would feel if you made the more logical reverse statement? I doubt it. Nor do I think it would have much chance of getting through to her logical side. People’s religious beliefs are tightly woven into their egos. When challenged, the onld fight-or-flight reaction kicks in, adrenalin starts coursing through their veins, and all logical thought flies out the window.

evandad's avatar

She meant well. That’s all that matters. I’m glad you’re not arguing about theology at Grandpa’s deathbed.

MissA's avatar

And yes…I mean’t to offer the best of thoughts as you go through this time. Your grampa loves you…and, arguing with someone in this situation would not be good for anyone.

lillycoyote's avatar

I would have let her have it and I’m not an atheist, I’m somewhere in the agnostic, deist, mostly, theist range, depending on the day. Well, really, I guess I wouldn’t have let her have it, because of the whole mother-in-law thing, one must try to keep peace in the family, but she had no right to do that. To use your personal tragedy to further her personal religious agenda. And in many circles it is not considered polite or acceptable to do that.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

I don’t think it is polite and socially acceptable. I think most people would say she stepped over the line of socially acceptable there and would be as offended by it as you are.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

why is religion socially acceptable?

6rant6's avatar

I am not a religious person, but here is my belief about what’s going on.

People choose to belong to a religion because of the benefits it offers to them, primarily fellowship and the reduction of uncertainty. To them, it seems that the benefits of believing outweigh any “Rational purity”. I can’t say they’re wrong about benefiting from their membership, but they are wrong that we can choose to believe something we don’t. And their belief causes consequences that they don’t foresee – like the pain your MIL caused you – because they don’t consider whether they should do them or not. They are, as they would say about themselves, followers.

I hope you gramps get better.

silverfly's avatar

It’s socially acceptable because Christianity is the norm in this country. Your MIL might not be so quick to say this in a country that wasn’t predominately Christian.

JLeslie's avatar

@silverfly You touched on what I say all of the time. I think that is a very good point.

zenele's avatar

It’s even funnier when the person is Jewish.

Harold's avatar

Sorry to hear about your grandfather. As a Christian, I find what she said to you inappropriate. Tragic situations are not the time to press your viewpoint.

However, misguided as she may be, she probably was only really doing what she considered to be correct. Same goes when Mormons or JWs knock at the door. As much as it may be annoying, I am never rude to them, as I respect their sincerity.

As for the tables being reversed, as I see it, the difference is that Atheism does not offer hope to the suffering. It is just a philosophiocal standpoint (which you are entitled to). Christianity does offer hope. That is the difference.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold Snake oil offers hope. So is the snake oiil salesman doing good, or is he a huckster?

lillycoyote's avatar

@Harold It is people who offer hope and comfort to the suffering, not ideologies. And @laureth‘s mother -in-law failed in that respect

Harold's avatar

@ETpro – There is no similarity there- your comparison is invalid.
@lillycoyote – You are entitled to your opinion. The MIL failed because she offered the right thing at the wrong time and in an inappropriate way. People cannot offer hope if all they believe is nothingness after death. The fact that there is something offers hope to those who choose to believe. Call that an ideology if you will, but it offers more hope than any person.

6rant6's avatar

@harold Atheism isn’t hopeless. I would say that religious people replace the comfort and strength which we should draw from and lend to one another with a “Personal relationship” with a ghost. Atheism doesn’t mean “No hope” any more than it means “No morality” or “No potlucks.”

What it does mean is greater personal responsibility for the consequences of our actions in this world – well intended or not. There’s no one to pat us on the head after we flatline, and say, “Thanks for upsetting your daughter-in-law in my name that time.”

Let’s not confuse “well-intentioned” with acceptable. People are cruel and hard hearted for reasons they believe to be meritorious. There are murderers who think they are doing the work of God. They aren’t. They’re deluded. They cause harm, and are judged accordingly. Harm caused on behalf of your belief system is still harm.

JLeslie's avatar

@Harold I think you find comfort in the idea that you will be with God, or go to heaven, or be with other loved ones who have passed away, whichever defines your belief. Atheists who do not believe in afterlife find just as much comfort in the idea that it is all over. All of us, religious or not, I think I can say, see death as a release when someone has suffered greatly from a horrible disease. All of us I think are sad about leaving our loved ones behind when we face death. All of us don’t want life to end much earlier than we expected for ourselves or the people we care about. All of us miss the people we lose to death. When I think about dying I think that I don’t want to leave my husband, or the many things I love about life. I am not very focused on where I would be going. It is kind of a non-issue. I can’t see how believing in God would make me have hope? We are still leaving what we know and love in our life on earth. That is the saddest part isn’t it? No longer existing here in life? God does not change that from what I can tell.

Jabe73's avatar

It seems she had good intensions so I would leave it at that. When my dad was dying from cancer my one sisters fiances mother made a comment at his bed (he was alive but not fully conscious anymore) that he was suffering because he didn’t believe that Jesus was his savior. I had some “kind” words for her and we threw her out of the room. (I am not an atheist by the way). As long as your mother-in-law doesn’t say anything insulting and just wants to pray I would leave it alone.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold There is a valid and applicable analogy in “offers hope” and snake oil meets that test. I am guessing you are a religious person to whom snake oil is ridiculous because it is unproven, but you see nothing wrong with placing your hope in things that are equally unsupported by evidence. You don’t “get” the analogy because to you your hope is right and therefore everyone else who puts their hope in something different is obviously wrong and close-minded to boot if they refuse to accept your premise.

Harold's avatar

@6rant6 – Yes, I have no argument with you. I agree that the comments were harmful, and therefore inappropriate. I just don’t think they were intended to be.
@JLeslie – If you find comfort in ending it all, then I am happy for you. I won’t pretend to understand how you can, but it is not my place to ridicule your position, and I wish you well with it.
@ETpro – You are wrong that my position is unsupported by evidence. It is just that you interpret the evidence differently, apparently, which is your right. I do not claim that others are wrong, or closed-minded, and I am sorry if you got that impression from me. I know that a lot of Christians would fall into that category, especially fundamentalists. I have learned to be more open-minded. My own son is an atheist, and we have good discussions. It just disappoints me when derogatory comparisons, such as your snake oil one, are made. Please don’t judge all Christians by the small minded attitude that a lot do have- we really aren’t all like that.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold I apologize if the Snake Oil comparison seemed insulting. I didn’t choose it for that purpose, but just to illustrate a point of putting faith in something scientifically untested. The analogy would be as valid if I said palm reading, worship of Allah or astral projection. All of these things are held out by their believers to offer great hope. None of them are supported by scientifically acceptable evidence. But the believers in each would say otherwise. There is obviously sufficient evidence in their minds, or they would not believe. But the evidence they accept won’t stand up to scientific testing. It is feelings, anecdotal evidence, inner surety, faith.

Harold's avatar

@ETpro – Apology accepted of course. Thank you. Happy to agree to disagree. I guess you wouldn’t accept personal revelation as substantive evidence, as one would have to believe that its subject was not hallucinating, or mentally unbalanced. Believe me, as a university academic, I know what is accepted as scientific evidence. But I also know what I know, and that is that God is real. As I said, I don’t expect you to take my word for it. I only hope you experience it one day.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold No, I wouldn’t accept personal revelation because competing religions boast converts who all claim this experience, yet they believe in religions which claim to be the one great truth and further claim that those other religions are flat-out wrong. If personal revelation is steadfast proof, then it should not support conclusions that openly contradict one another.

Harold's avatar

@ETpro – fair comment. I won’t go into detail, as I don’t want to bore you. As I said, happy to agree to disagree.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold Oh you certainly wouldn’t bore me. I love to discuss how the Universe began and whether a creator is involved. It’s the most fascinating, awe inspiring thing I know of to think about. But if you wish to beg off debate, that’s fine. Just know that while I don’t accept personal revelation as scientific evidence, I certainly do not thank you are hallucinating or insane when you say you feel it.

laureth's avatar

Frankly, it doesn’t matter where a scientific hypothesis comes from. It can be from reading tarot cards, a random pattern in a kaleidoscope, studying Nostradamus, personal revelation, a vision in the night, or any other thing. (Lots of religious experiences fall into categories like this, from all over the world.) Many people accept these insights to be true because they feel it to be so. That is their prerogative.

Where science comes into it (and therefore “scientifically acceptable evidence”) is when the insight gained through personal revelation (etc.) can be tested, repeated, evaluated by other scientists, and in short, made clearly evident by using the scientific method. This is where a lot of tarot readings, revelations, prophecies, etc., fall short. The evidence may be very clear to the original observer (so clear to be accepted as true without further study), but it is not usually so clear to other people in an indisputable way.

Again – it doesn’t matter where the idea comes from. It only matters that it can be tested.

Harold's avatar

@laureth – That is true, but even if it can’t be tested in this way, it still doesn’t explain what that person experienced! I think the basic point that many people miss (and I expect to be shot down in flames for this, but here goes…...........) is that God created science, and is not bound by it in the same way that we are. He is above it, and when one has experienced that, one realises that scientific method is irrelevant in these discussions. What I cannot explain is why God reveals Himself to some and not others. If I needed all the answers based on scientific method I guess I’d be a believer in evolution…......................

laureth's avatar

I’m not going to shoot you down in flames. However, when one is not convinced by evidence, nor do they find evidence necessary to make or believe a point, it’s pretty much anything-goes, ya know? At that point, the two people can’t even really communicate.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold, @laureth is elegantly and simply restating my point regarding revelation knowledge of God. I except is as a genuine and moving emotional experience. I think it comes from the brain and the desire to accept something beyond ones self, the desire to set asside the fear or uncertainty involved in deat, things like that. But however compelling it may feel to the person who experiences it, it is not sound proof, because one sound proof can’t prove two or more mutually exclusive statements.

Regarding a deity or supreme being, the Christian says God is the creator and the only salvation is through accepting Jesus Christ. The Jew says that it is Yahweh (same God as the Christians) but that any belief in Jesus as The Christ voids the deal. Mormons worship God and Jesus but also are convinced that Joseph Smith brought the final message from God and those pursuing other sects are lost. Muslims insist the deity’s name is Allah and while they revere Jesus as a prophet, they insist that Mohamed is Allah’s chief prophet and only by belief in Mohamed can you attain oneness with Allah. Sikhs are quite certain that the deity is named Waheguru and that all those worshiping outside their faith are deluded and separate from Waheguru. We could carry on, but the important point is that true believers in all these religions have experienced the revelation of their deity and yet they cannot all possibly be right. So revealed knowledge has to be a bit suspect.

Harold's avatar

As usual, we’ll have to agree to disagree. I am not saying that my experience tells me that the Christian God is the only true one. I AM saying that it proves there IS a God of some description. I don’t doubt the sincerity of other religions at all, nor their genuineness. It could be that the same God reveals Himself to different people in different ways. I don’t know, but I DO know He exists, in SOME form!!
@laureth – I accept your point, but there is evidence and evidence. My point is that evidence of God does not always conform to scientific method.
BTW, thanks to you both for your openness, and willingness to discuss without ridicule. I appreciate it.

ETpro's avatar

@Harold It is possible you are right that God just reveals himself in different ways and with different names. Looking at the massive list of names and the massive contradictions in revealed traits, though, it seems to me that the probability of that is small, and the probability that mankind has some inner need to invent God is large. And I agree to disagree as I am sure you will. It has been a pleasure for me too. Thanks back at you. :-)

laureth's avatar

@Harold – I also accept that your brain and my brain might be structured slightly differently. There are some areas of the brain which, when stimulated, provide the feeling of religious intensity and an overwhelming experience of God. (That is, “evidence of God.”) For me, this part of the brain doesn’t seem to be turned on in the same way, so, no evidence of God. But to me, the idea of of a fervent religious experience being a result of the firing of specific neurons or temporal lobe epilepsy is enough repeatable, scientific evidence to make some kind of hypothesis about God’s existence. ;)

Aster's avatar

@worriedguy GA hit the nail on the head. She just doesn’t know any better.

laureth's avatar

Well, this was almost five months ago, grandpa is still kickin’, and I have not yet come to know Jesus through his illness – just through people telling me that I should. ;)

6rant6's avatar

Our prayers were answered!!!

(just kidding)

peridot's avatar

It’s been enlightening reading all the intelligent responses and discussions here. This site is so freakin’ awesome!

While I think some proselytizing types genuinely think they’re offering comfort with their words, there’s much more of a predatory attitude toward another’s misfortune. “Rebuild your credit” offers and guys who rape drunk women work this angle, too: “Ooh look, a moment of vulnerability—here’s my chance…” How disgusting and offensive is that?!

We just lost our mom a few months ago. Fortunately, we seem to have somehow flown under the “come-to-Jesus” crowd’s radar for the most part. I would not be responsible for my actions if some glassy-eyed jackalope tried to tell me she suffered because we haven’t accepted “their” guy as our Personal Savior.

snowberry's avatar

@laureth I’m a strong Christian, but I hate the kind of comment that your mother in law dished out for you. It’s one thing to think something, but not everything you think should be said out loud. I’m sure she meant well, and I’m also pretty sure she did not stop to consider how you would feel when she said it.

Don’t let other people “should” on you.

Not every Christian is like this.

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