In a previous post, I defended the conclusion that atheists should, under certain circumstances, evangelize on behalf of atheism. I recently read a story that bears on this conclusion, thanks to a recent edition of the Grand Rounds medical blog carnival - a beautiful and moving post titled "The rites of passage", about a badly injured old man admitted to the emergency room who kept himself alive, seemingly by an act of pure will, until a priest could be found to administer him his last rites.
I am not ashamed to admit that this story touched me deeply. As I wrote in the essay "Stardust", there are real reasons why the need for religion is so enduring and so strong in human beings. We atheists forget this at our peril. The injustices perpetrated in the name of faith need to be strongly criticized, there can be no doubt about that; but if in the process of doing so we overlook the very real and sincere reasons why people believe, we risk appearing insensitive, angry, dismissive of the things people hold most sacred.
Religious apologists without number have accused atheism of being a gloomy, dismal worldview that deprives people of hope. This is not true - if anything, atheism is a liberation, a freedom from the heavy, clanking dogmas and ossified creeds of religion and all the unnecessary guilt and fear they engender. But the question remains: what, if anything, should we say to the people who have grown dependent on religion as the source of meaning and purpose in their lives and who may have little time left to change that decision?
I advocated atheist evangelism on a political and not an individual level, but this does not answer the basic dilemma. If we truly believe that atheism is a positive and beneficial worldview, as I do, then should we not want everyone to adopt it, even the dying man of that story? Or is it, under some circumstances, better to allow people to persist in what we see as a delusion, and if so, what does that say about the relative value of the truth?
This is a complex and difficult issue, one that does not admit of bumper-sticker solutions. However, there is one moral principle that I hope brings clarity to the discussion. Namely, I believe that it is deeply wrong to bother people with issues of lesser importance when they are in the midst of a life-or-death crisis, or any other serious personal tragedy or catastrophe. Some religious evangelists prey on people in their weakest and most vulnerable state, but we should be better than that. After all, we have no concern for "saving souls".
This principle should help guide decisions in cases such as these. I stand by the claim that atheism is a positive worldview, and more importantly, that it is true; and I stand by the claim that we should encourage people to adopt it for these reasons. However, I do not think it serves any worthy purpose to preach at the bedsides of the dying. If a person recovers and has a rich and full life ahead of them, one that could be improved by their becoming atheists, then I would not hesitate to offer them this good news. On the other hand, if a person is passing away who has been sincerely religious all their life, then to be honest, what harm will it do them to remain religious for just a short while longer? In the absence of crippling, ongoing harm their beliefs are doing them, basic considerations of respect suggest that we should not intrude upon their lives in the most personal of all moments.
There are two exceptions that occur to me, both related to the significant clause "absence of ongoing harm". One is if their beliefs are actually causing their jeopardy - for example, a Jehovah's Witness who is dying and refuses, based on their religion, to receive a life-saving blood transfusion. The other is if the person is not at peace with their situation, but is in a state of emotional distress due to their beliefs - for example, a dying theist consumed with fear of damnation. In both cases, it would not be improper to try to help that person by encouraging them to adopt atheism, even in their last moments.