How Can Atheists Console Religious Believers?

I got this e-mail from a reader, which I was asked to pass along in the hope of getting some advice:


I was raised in an Evangelical household and most of my friends and family from the early part of my life are Christians of some variety or another. They know I'm an atheist and it's not really a source of contention.

Two close friends of the family have a young child with serious health issues. They use Facebook to get out updates on the child's health and medical treatment. Most of their friends are also Christian, so the statuses and comments tend to look like this:

FRIEND: [Child's health] is XYZ. Things are looking [better|worse]. Comment #1: Praying! Comment #2: Lifting [child] up in prayer! Comment #3: We have an awesome God, HE WILL NOT FAIL Comment #4: Praying for you guys! Comment #5: Praying! (etc. for dozens more comments)

I never really know how to respond. I want to respond and show that I care about them and their family. But I'm not really sure how to express this in a way that is not lame. "Good luck," "best wishes," "thinking about you," might be great in a card but look really stupid and out of place in a sea of religious language, promises to pray, and in the midst of what is essentially part of their spiritual community. Is there a good response in this case? If so, what? I am reconciled to the possibility that there is nothing I could say that would both preserve my own integrity and also express my concern in a way that would be meaningful to these friends. But if the gallery has any insight, please share.

Here's what I think about this dilemma: I agree that a single non-religious statement of consolation looks weird and out of place in a sea of religious fluff. But - and call me a grouch if you must - is it really necessary to reply through Facebook at all? I doubt you'll be thought of as any less a friend if you don't post something in response to their every status update.

What if, instead, you send them a phone call or a card, or even an e-mail, every few weeks or every month, just to let them know you're still keeping up with how things are going? That approach has the advantage that you can express your sympathy without religious language, and it won't look so strange if it's not surrounded by well-meaning but ineffective prayers and other superstitious gobbledegook.

But that's just my opinion. What advice would you offer someone in this situation?

Image credit: Shaun Merritt, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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