Why having chronic illness hasn’t turned me to god

As an atheist, I am often told that I shouldn’t criticise religion, as it offers comfort to people in difficult situations. When you suffer every day, the faithful tell me, you need the hope and meaning that religion gives you – the implication of course being that atheism is a luxury, something that only privileged, comfortable, healthy, able-bodied people can indulge in.

These same people are often surprised to learn that I have a debilitating chronic medical condition, and in fact I do suffer every day. And yet, I have still not turned to god. I still do not believe in an afterlife, despite the fact that in my Earthly life, I will probably never feel truly healthy or ‘normal’ again. Among the community of the chronically ill and disabled, I’m by no means alone in my atheism, but I am in a minority.

The vast majority of people with my medical condition are religious, as evidenced by messages on the internet support group of which I am a member. There are hundreds of members, and messages with religious content are a daily occurrence. Often, sufferers require surgery – when this happens, emails whip round asking for ‘surgery prayers’.  When an operation is successful, god gets part or all of the credit: on one occasion, a woman wrote that she knew the surgeons had done their bit, but the real reason she survived and benefited from the surgery was that god had been watching over her.

Of course, when things go wrong, it’s a pretty safe bet that god doesn’t get the blame. As though the deity were a favourite child who can do no wrong, there is no end to people’s willingness to let god off the hook. When someone dies of the condition (deaths are thankfully rare), god is praised for taking them up to heaven to be with him. When surgery fails to help a person and they continue to suffer, again god is thanked and praised for not making things any worse. When things do get worse, it is presumed that god has a mysterious reason for allowing this, and the prayers continue to be solicited, the thanks still given. One woman wrote thanking god that she could hear the children playing outside while she was ill in bed; presumably it didn’t occur to her to blame god for the fact she was bed-bound in the first place. And so it goes.

I do not find these types of messages either comforting or inspiring, and nor have they convinced me that I must turn to god in my hour of need. I find these views irrational and distasteful, and reading them has galvanised my atheism. In fact, I have found that being an unbeliever actually helps when coming to terms with chronic illness.

If one believes in an all-powerful deity, it follows that this deity must have caused or allowed one’s illness. It follows that your suffering could be relieved, but isn’t for some reason. This raises a multitude of questions: why would god do that, have I sinned, am I a bad person, is it a test, and so on. The search for ‘why’ is made so much more complicated and anxiety-provoking if you posit a supposedly compassionate god. Whereas, I am comforted by the explanation that one of my genes is faulty, that this was a random event, and there is no further ‘why’ to be investigated. I am not being punished or tested – I have just been unlucky. Bad things do happen to good people.

One of the ways in which the religious chronically ill seem to reconcile their faith in an all-powerful, compassionate god with their own medical conditions is to subscribe to the view that their suffering is somehow beautiful or meaningful. I have a self-help book written for the chronically ill, which mostly fulfils its stated function as helpful, except for when it comes to how to find meaning in one’s condition. Then it lapses into a bit of vague blather about Jesus on the cross (surely the most potent symbol of how Christianity can fetishise suffering), before quoting a woman in very ill health, described as “a model for us of graceful endurance”, who cheerfully opined: “God never gives us more than we can bear.” [1] Which raises the question, what kind of deity is this who knows how much each individual can bear, and decides to cause or allow suffering up to that limit but only for certain people? A sadistic one? A contrary one? A psychotic one? I can’t decide, it’s just too bizarre. Likewise, why is it good to endure pain and other symptoms ‘gracefully’? What’s wrong with being pissed off? How is denying reality and real feelings supposed to help people cope?

There is perhaps one Christian figure who has done more damage than most in the ‘suffering is beautiful’ vein: Mother Theresa, who called suffering ‘a gift from God’. Many atheists, particularly Christopher Hitchens, have written extensively criticising her. Her acolytes, however, continue to spread her poisonous message: only a few months ago, on the UK television programme The Big Questions, one such acolyte spoke earnestly about Mother Theresa’s vision, how she saw meaning and beauty in the suffering of those in her care. Perhaps she was unaware that Mother Theresa also denied them medication and a proper bed to sleep in [2].

My response to this is simple: suffering is not beautiful. When you feel like crap, it is not an amazing spiritual experience: you just feel like crap, and you want the feeling to go away. The idea that there is anything positive about suffering at all is profoundly insulting, and as though it weren’t bad enough on its own, there is also the knock-on implication that if people fail to find their suffering anything other than an ultimately uplifting experience, they are somehow a deficient person (Barbara Ehrenreich confronts this issue in her book about breast cancer, Smile Or Die). Essentially, ‘suffering is beautiful/meaningful’ meme is just a dodge whereby the religious ignore the inherent contradiction in the idea of a compassionate, illness-causing deity.

So how do I find meaning in my own suffering? Basically, I don’t. My view is that meaning is essentially a human concept, so we can choose to find meaning in whatever we like, and not everything in our lives has to have it. For me, my medical conditions don’t have any meaning, they’re just there. My suffering doesn’t have any meaning, it just happens, and I would prefer that it didn’t. My life as a whole has meaning though, in that it means something to me, regardless of my medical status.

As for mentally coping with a lifetime of ill health, there are many psychological techniques that can help a chronically ill person, which do not involve maintaining an unreasonable hope that there will be an afterlife in which the pain and other symptoms will magically disappear, or the delusion that one is somehow getting brownie points from god by enduring one’s suffering ‘gracefully’. In not holding out for eternity, I direct my attention to things which give me pleasure and distract me from my illness in the here and now – my partner, my family and friends, my garden, a good film, music, and so on. When things get very difficult, I go for counselling to help work through emotions such as anger, frustration and anxiety – emotions that I am allowed to feel and express, seeing as I’m under no obligation to be grateful for my ‘gift’. It works – and there is no need to believe in anything supernatural.

Some people may argue, what if all you have is god? What if there’s no partner, no family or friends, no garden, no counsellor etc… just suffering? My response to that is, you may as well ask what if you’re stranded on a desert island and all you have for company is a volleyball with a face drawn on it? An imaginary friend is an imaginary friend, whether it’s Wilson from Castaway or Jesus, and just because comfort is derived from them when a person is desperate, it doesn’t mean that they must therefore really exist, and, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that the belief in their actual existence should be coddled and supported at the expense of real help.

Surprising as it may seem, I don’t actually blame people for grasping at straws when they are suffering chronic illness: when my first symptoms began several years ago, I did this myself by indulging in some alternative medicine. (It’s not something I would do now.) We also live in a society that encourages belief in the supernatural, that tells us faith is a virtue, that approves of the false and contradictory ‘comfort’ of religious practice. Perhaps, with more emphasis on reason in our society, people would react to and cope with their illnesses more effectively, as they realised that they weren’t being punished, or tested, or expected to find their suffering meaningful.

These days, having been accurately diagnosed, I am lucky enough to receive the help and support of excellent trained medical professionals; sadly, several years of illness have taught me that medicine is a woefully underfunded discipline, as is social care, which provides assistance for those living with ill health and disability. Real help for chronically ill people does not involve prayer and false hope, it involves money being made available for training of new doctors, for research into conditions and development of new treatments, for the provision of disability aids, for the financial support of sick people and their carers. Whenever a new research paper is published about my condition, I get a real, true sense of hope and comfort from the knowledge that people are working to help me and others like me. It is a wonderful feeling that no god could ever give me. Conversely, I get pissed off whenever I read about the church’s ‘charitable’ tax-exempt status, or the newest faith school opening, funded by public money: because religious institutions are draining money away from real-world, scientifically proven ways to help people.

It is ironic, furthermore, that in order to get to the clinic of one of my specialist consultants at UCLH in London, I have to go past the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, where patients are given publicly-funded vials of water as placebos for their ailments. Enough said, really.

Religion, and indeed anything supernatural, is not truly a comfort in hard times: in the long run it actually makes hard times harder, and often more complicated and confusing. This, added to the fact that I refuse to compromise my reason, is why I have never turned to god in all the years I’ve been ill, and I never will.  Atheism and skepticism are not luxuries: they are necessities.

[1] Paul J Donoghue & Mary E Siegel, Sick and Tired of Feeling Sick and Tired (2000), pp xvii-xviii

[2] Christopher Hitchens, The Missionary Position (1995), pp 39-42

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