How Not to Console a Sceptic

Someone very dear to me has recently been diagnosed with a very grave form of cancer. The condition is not untreatable, but the prognosis is poor. Five year survival rates for this condition are under forty percent. There is no reason to lose hope, but it would also be foolish to pretend the situation is not very serious. This person is from the Mormon part of my acquaintance, and in general I’ve been dealing with it better than the Mormons and other believers. I think this is because I can recognise that this tumour is just a statistical reality of the natural world. It’s horrible and it’s unfair and it’s bewildering, but it’s just random chance and my friend drew the short straw. I don’t have to go through the mental gymnastics of reconciling the Problem of Evil with the idea of a supposedly benevolent and just God. Sorry, people, but a young, decent, ethical person with small children being stricken with cancer serves no legitimate purpose for moral instruction. Any God that thinks that is a sick bastard who deserves to be dethroned as quickly as Satan can manage it.

So whilst a sceptic can come to terms with the gruesome facts of living in an impassive natural world full of death and destruction, there are a few things that make my brain boil. Here are precisely the wrong things to say to someone you know to be rational rather than superstitious when they are dealing with an already difficult situation.

1. “Everything happens for a reason.”

Everything happens for a reason? Really? I wouldn’t argue with this if those who spouted it off were just being literal. The solar system revolves for the reasons laid out by astrophysics. Bread rises for the reason that yeast digests sugars and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products. Men sometimes give their bollocks a good scratching for the reason that they have become itchy. And cancer emerges for the reason that random mutations or environmental hazards can trigger undesirable replication of cell structures. These are causes, but causes of events do not require a conscious initiator.

What I despise about this phrase is that it shows utter ignorance to something that humans really ought to be more aware of. In evolutionary history our slightly more paranoid ancestors survived better. If an Australopithecus heard a rustling in the brush and failed to react, it might turn out to be nothing but then it also might turn out to be a bloody great lion looking for a hominid hamburger. Individuals who attributed a conscious motive to every possible threat were more likely to survive because even when they were wrong about a lurking predator, they still sharpened their reflexes by running away from an imaginary threat. This has left us with a genetic predisposition to assign a motive to every force we encounter, and is likely the cause of our beliefs in gods.

Saying “everything happens for a reason” is a betrayal that you haven’t read the user’s manual on your own brain. Having the impulse to attribute a personal motive to outside forces is natural, but we now know enough about the brain to where you’re out of excuses if you give in to that primitive impulse. The universe is not a massive conspiracy theory. The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is precisely three words too long. Everything happens. Full stop. Do not attempt to sound deep by speculating about the wisdom of the universe when it comes to inflicting fatal conditions on people. Any force that would intentionally inflict cancer on a person is a complete arsehole, and therefore I have no interest in their reasons for behaving so badly.

2. Medical advice of any kind

Should you provide advice to me about my friend’s cancer? Let’s see. Are you a doctor? Are you her doctor? Are you her doctor, and have you familiarised yourself with all of the intricacies of her particular case? No? Then kindly shut up.

This problem is exacerbated by questions like “Has she considered alternative medicine?” I was told by someone today who is an unemployed clown — this is not an insult but rather a descriptor of a circus performer on the dole — that chemotherapy didn’t make sense because putting chemical poisons in a body that is already ill did not seem like a more sensible thing to do than, say, homeopathic placebo pills or acupuncture.

Let me clarify something for you, O thou genius devotee of Deepak Chopra: Alternative Medicine means something which is an alternative . . . to medicine. Medicine works because it is based on science. The alternative will not be based on science. Yes, chemotherapy is horribly toxic and often has dreadful side effects. But it works. Cancer is a civil war within a person’s body. There will be casualties in any battle that gains ground. While many aspects of the holistic movement can perhaps stave off disease through good nutrition and improved health, nothing at a natural foods store is going to kill cancer. It would be lovely if Chinese foot massages and herbal tisanes could magically dissipate tumours. And I’d like a flying pony while we’re engaging in wishful thinking. I’m not going to “teach the controversy” of Creation Science any more than I’m going to look into “alternative medicine,” because I’m not an expert and my anecdotal, nonscientific perspective is irrelevant.

3. “God has blessed us so much”

God botherers are at their most hypocritical when it comes to dealing out credit for the good and bad in life. If everything goes well, God gets all the credit for the hard work of human beings. If things go poorly, than any non-miserable factors in the equation are credited as blessings from the Lord. The horribleness of the situation must be twisted into some kind of good thing.

I don’t believe that when I moved house nearly a year ago and ended up living very close to my friend that this was part of God’s plan so that I could be on hand to help out when the cancer diagnosis came in, whatever my mother may say. In reality, I moved house because the city I moved to seemed like a nice place to live. And I don’t help my friend with babysitting and meals because I’m some kind of pawn of a sick man in the sky who enjoys watching people try to cheer one another up whilst suffering. I do it because I choose to. Because I care.

Look, believers, if your God was such a great guy, he wouldn’t have allowed the cancer to happen in the first place. Don’t skirt around that and tell me that it’s a blessing that we have oncologists and it’s a blessing that my friend has friends and it’s a blessing that my friend is otherwise healthy. None of these things are blessings. They are things that exist because real people did real work to make them happen.

4. “I’ll pray for you.”

Prayer only makes sense when you are dealing with a capricious, primitive god that is open to bribery. That’s why ancient people sacrificed goats and did rain dances. They believed their gods were just like them — people coasting through existence who were capable of momentary whims. Bribing an imaginary friend for favours makes no sense at all when you believe that your God is omniscient and that he has a plan. If it’s in his plan for my friend to get cancer, then where on earth do you get off asking him to reconsider? If your God is really so bloody smart, what does he need your suggestions for? Either God is capricious and won’t cure cancer without making you go through a song and dance to beg him properly. This would make him a sadist. Or he has a plan, and cancer is part of that plan, which would make him an arsehole. The obvious resolution is that he’s a figment of your very twisted imagination. If you want to plea bargain with your sociopathic imaginary friend, do it on your own time and don’t tell me about it or I’ll just think you’re barmy.

Fighting cancer is hard enough without having to also fight against pseudoscientific nonsense, new agey platitudes, and mindless religiosity. Some things are just random chance. We have much better odds of beating them if we accept the reality of the situation instead of falling into wishful thinking.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Console a Sceptic

  1. It isn’t just people with religious faith but they can be particularly noxious.

    “Everything happens for a reason” – so someone is being tortured near to death so some other people might change their minds about god. Makes me wish that Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy was correct and then we could start fighting.

    Medical advice – should never be given although things to suggest to the medics are not necessarily bad, If your friend is on chemo then medical marijuana can help some people with the side effects; always assuming you are in a State that permits its use.

    “God has blessed us so much” – so now he can torture us because … ? This argument makes God sound like a trainer of fighting dogs, but with less compassion.

    “I’ll pray for you” – fine; but help with getting the prescriptions, cleaning the house, comforting the kids, cleaning up the diarrhea and vomit, mopping up the sweat would be more use.

  2. Your comments resonated with me here. I was raised in a loving mormon family, but had not been a regular church attendee when my 38 year old husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The reactions from the loving mormons in my life drove me from agnostic to atheist. Thank you for articulating my feelings exactly.

    • While I’m glad that you were able to resonate, I’m sorry that you had to have such an experience that allows you to resonate. I hope that you were able to get better support from people who understood your needs.

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