Joan and I had been casual friends for twenty years. Her funeral today was at Wesley where she served as lay minister. We never talked about religion, so she didn’t know of my antipathy for it (I’m truthful with anyone who asks, but I rarely initiate such conversations). Joan and I shared a bond because she had been in chronic pain since being hit by a school bus in 1964. We also shared a dark and wacky sense of humor and a better than average knowledge of literature. She had a smile that could make me glad I got out of bed even on a bad day, and if she ever met a person who didn’t like her, I can but assume that there was something wrong with that person.
The last time I visited Joan, her doctors had given up on treating the cancer that had spread from someplace unknown and settled in her bones and lungs. I had never seen her despondent, and I was curious about whether she would be now. I was surprised to find her in good spirits and seemingly full of energy. She told me almost casually that, thanks to the prayers of people from around the world, God had cured her of her cancer, and she was feeling better than she had felt in years. I glanced at her husband, expecting to see him looking at the floor and shaking his head, but he simply nodded matter of factly as if the cure was a done deal and hardly worth discussing. A few weeks later, Joan appeared on the local TV news, and told people for a hundred miles around about about her healing. Two weeks after that, she was dead.
“The prayer of faith shall heal the sick…” James 5:15
So, what happened—despite giving his word, God said no to her prayers, yet remained silent as she trusted in his promise and praised his mercy to thousands?
The TV news didn’t report the death of their ”faith-healed” cancer victim, and the newspaper obituary made no mention of her misplaced trust. Nor did Pastor Anne allude to it during the funeral, although if Joan had really gone into remission and died ten years from now of unrelated causes, Anne might have considered her “miraculous healing” of 2012 worthy of mention.
I can think of three reasons for going to a funeral: to show respect for the dead, to comfort the family, and to be comforted oneself. I do what I can with the first two, but since I believe that everything I’m hearing about God is a fabulous fiction, I’m not only un-comforted, I’m downright annoyed that every non-Christian in the audience is being excluded from the community of mourners with every sentence spoken. Does one funeral really need five hymns, five prayers, three lengthy Bible readings, and one sermon about God’s comforting presence, plus a eulogy? It’s not the presence of religious references that’s hard for me—after all, Joan was a committed Christian—but the fact that that’s all there is, and everyone is expected to participate. Imagine that you’re sitting in an audience for a good ninety minutes, and nearly everything you hear—and are told to do (“Let us now stand as we join in prayer,” “Let us now recite from the Word of God,” etc.)—represents to you a belief system that, in the name of The Prince of Peace, has inspired two millennia of violence, oppression, and genocide.
Okay, so none of the scores—if not hundreds—of religious funerals I’ve attended were held in my honor, so I’m understandably stuck with other people’s choices unless I prefer to stay home. I accept that at the level of action (that is, I still attend religious funerals), but atheists are like everyone else in that they want to feel a sense of belonging when they’re grieving instead of being reminded that they live in a society that holds them in the same contempt that it holds child molesters.
I must admit though that my regard for religious faith—though not every religious person—isn’t much better, because as I sat in that audience today with those hundreds of other people, most of them from Joan’s church, I felt like I was in an asylum. I knew that most of the people I was among were probably quite reasonable in other areas of their lives, but as for what they were participating in right then, I considered it dishonest for some, delusional for others, and downright monomaniacal for a few. Despite the fact that I spent a great deal of my life in just such a setting, I was as overwhelmed by the irrationality of it all—especially in light of Joan’s misplaced faith—as if I was witnessing some barbaric ritual for the first time.
For many years after I left the church, I would feel nostalgic for those same hymns we sang today (I probably hadn’t heard “Wonderful Words of Life” since I was a teenager) along with all kinds of other things such as dinners-on-the-ground, being asked to preach short sermons, helping to serve “The Lord’s Supper,” and the smell of a new red-letter Bible with finger tabs and linen pages edged with gold. Maybe I’m done with that now because all I felt today was repugnance. Yet, I can truly say that it’s not religious people I’m against (there are too many good ones, and I absolutely adore those among them who continue to read this blog); it’s the mean things that their belief in that which is rationally indefensible causes millions of them to do. Once proof and logic is deemed inferior to faith, anything can happen.