A New View on Comfort

One of the fascinating things about embracing atheism for me was the realization that there are other completely different world views out there than the one I grew up with. I'd like to share one of these new views that I now take great comfort in.

A disclaimer: I speak from Christianity because it's what I know. If anyone has insight on other religions, please feel free to share it!

On of the major reasons that many turn to religion is the comfort it offers. It gives you the belief that everything happens for a reason, that the suffering of this life is insignificant in the grand scheme of eternal paradise, and that you will see all of your loved ones again; these can all be comforting things. When there is uncertainty in your life, religion is ready with open arms, caring words, and answers.

I frequently hear disbelief from religious people who are presented with the idea that atheism can offer any comfort. It is depressing for them to consider the idea that everything is just random and that death is the cold, hard end.

When I first realized my atheism, I agreed with this analysis. There were now so many holes in my understanding of the world where my belief in the divine used to sit. I am still filling many of these holes with new understandings, and constantly revising them; it's an interesting journey.

Back on point however, the idea of my purpose and what happens when I die were one of the first things that I addressed ... mainly because the idea of hell still had me terrified, but I'll discuss the afterlife in another post. As I have turned the idea over in my head, I realized that atheism does offer comfort in the face of suffering and uncertainty. Among other things, it offers the idea that our suffering isn't a mystifying punishment or attempt to teach us a lesson. It's simply cause and effect, and we can make reasonable, reality-based decisions about how to deal with it.

I have two examples that I think will help illustrate this; one anonymous, and one personal.

1. Let's look at this series of updates from a Facebook friend who desperately wants to have a baby, over the course of only a few days:

- 'Enjoying the sun shine and the fact that I'm gonna be a mommy!

- Thank you to everyone for the congratulations! We're so excited!

- How come after so long of praying God finally answers your prayers and with a blink of an eye its gone? I wanted this so bad and now my heart is broken.

- Taking things one day at a time. I know all things happen for a reason but I'm still so sad.'

My heart ached for her grief. It seemed to be made worse for her because of her belief that God had answered her prayers and then taken it all away, and that made it even more tragic to me. I haven't been through a miscarriage, or pregnancy of any kind, but I have some understanding of how heartbreaking it would be. Instead of wondering why God decided to tease me with a pregnancy and then rip it away, I can accept the knowledge that miscarriages are a common occurrence. They may be terrible and heart wrenching, but I'm not being punished or taunted, simply joining the ranks of millions of women across the world. I think I would be able to acknowledge my pain, grieve for the loss, and then move on.

2. I actually hadn't thought of this event in this light until working on this post, but I think it helps illuminate the way my view of the world works. For context, I wasn't an atheist at this point, but I had already been drifting away from Christianity.

In 2007 at the age of 20 I was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer. According to everything I knew about cancer and how people reacted to it, I should have been devastated. I know my parents were, my brand new fiance (and everyone else I called) was terrified for me, but for some reason, I wasn't. I took it all in stride. At the time I thought it was odd, but attributed it to not wanting the people around me to worry, because I knew it would all turn out one way or another.

I was fortunate that thyroid cancer is often one of the easiest cancers to treat, the fatal forms of it are incredibly rare, and I had none of the symptoms. It only took three months from diagnosis to completion of treatment. I had to go through a minor surgery, some x-rays, a terrible no-iodine diet (so much harder than you'd think!), and then drink some stale-tasting radioactive water to kill off any thyroid cells that might be left. Not once through the whole process did I wonder why God was punishing me with cancer, ask the agonized 'why me?', or try to figure out what I did wrong. I'm not saying there weren't tears; it was still scary, and the month of being an unmetabolized zombie* was very trying. But I accepted that I had cancer, figured out what I needed to do to get it taken care of, followed the doctor's instructions, and came through on the other side without a problem. I don't think I prayed once; instead I used my own inner strength, the wonderful strength of Mike, and the love and support of my friends and family to get through it.

I'm not saying that religion has it all wrong and that it doesn't offer very real comfort to many. I'm proposing that an atheist world view can also offer comfort. It all depends on how you look at the world. For many, the idea that there is something more powerful than them looking down and controlling the events in their lives is comfortable. For me, 'Everything happens for a reason' but 'God works in mysterious ways' isn't comforting. It just leaves me with more unsettling questions and I need something more tangible. I have evidence of my own personal strength from my encounter with cancer, and very real support from friends and family. I understand that unfortunate events happen indiscriminately to people across the world as frequently as fortunate ones do, and that I am responsible for my own personal happiness. I may not have all of the answers but I can work to understand my questions in a natural sense, instead of wondering about an unknowable divine plan.

And that is comforting to me.

Never stop questioning,


*Your thyroid controls your metabolism, and iodine powers your thyroid. By not having a thyroid or iodine, I had no metabolism and thus very little energy. The grocery store was a trip that would wipe me out for the whole day.

Inspired by Greta Christina's Atheist Meme of the Day


  1. You hit upon a note that I've felt on occasion whenever I see someone thanking God for their successful surgery, or for their safe plane flight, or asking people to pray that their baby recover from his seizure. Years ago, I probably would have been in the same camp, with a touch of pity - well, I'd call it pity, but it would really be more like disdain - in my heart for anyone who wasn't grateful enough to give thanks.

    Nowadays, that's turned on its head. When someone thanks God for a successful surgery, I wonder... doesn't that take credit away from the people who worked hard to enable the operation? Why not thank the surgeon for performing to the best of his/her ability, the hospital staff for enabling the surgeon and the other doctors to perform their work, your friends and family for the support they gave you up to and after the ordeal, your employer for the financial security (insurance, savings, whatever) that let you afford the costly procedure? The same goes for a plane flight; chalk it up to God, and you neglect to recognize the incredible amount of real, human effort that designed and built and cleaned and operated the airplane.

    And similarly, it's a little difficult these days when someone asks for prayer for the health of a loved one, not to ask them in turn, "What are you expecting the prayer to do? Is your concept of God so callous that he would let them sicken and die without enough words of appeasement?" Obviously that's a bit of a harsh way to word it, which is why I generally keep that sentiment to myself.

  2. A correction to the only part of this post that I can address: As your parent, I was NOT devastated, worried, or even concerned. In fact, I felt kind of bad that I was not uptight about it. Your mother was a different story, and it was for her I was concerned. I had no worries about the cancer, and was confident in God's providence. I was accepting of whatever came of it, even your death if that was the result. Not that I want to lose you, of course!

  3. I should have said "the only part I can address that is not my own subjective opinion". Certainly I have opinions on the rest, I just chose at this point to not express them.

  4. WONDERFUL post, Val. I agree with everything you've said here whole-heartedly.

    I have always found comfort in the idea that there is no pattern or plan. The thought that people stop mid-crisis to get down on their knees and pray terrifies me. It's maladaptive to pull your attention away from more pressing needs, and it's dangerous to build such a massive emotional crutch into your belief system. Why give up the credit for every event in your life to a divine power? Why move the locus of control outside yourself?

    I'm constantly impressed by the issues that you and Mike bring to light for me with regard to the assumptions people make about atheism. It never occurred to me to take the time to point out how the concept of randomness can be comforting. I never realized that some people might not understand that.

  5. I've realised over the past year and a half- as I've studdied my own concepts of Spirituality- that I'm a very bad Catholic. Mainly because of my disbelief in concepts such as Hell, the Devil, or the idea that God seeks to punish people through the trials in their life.

    I don't know if I'd call it an "eveything happens for a reason" approach, but I do believe there is a purpose behind struggle and trial; because it strengthens you mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically. I feel that God's role is less that of a judge and jury, and more of a guardian/parent. You can accept any challange for your growth and development; and God will watch from the sidelines to make sure you're not taking on more than you can handle, point you towards those who give you the strength to overcome anything.

    Instead of the randomness factor or retribution factor, I have more comfort in the idea that- if my own strength and the strength of my family can't get me through this, God wouldn't have let me get myself into this mess in the first place. (And you know I count friends as family. You guys have been a great strength for me more often than you know.)

  6. Thomas - I agree completely. I've recently made it a personal goal that instead of offering prayer (obviously) and words of comfort, I will instead make an effort to do something that will be a tangible show of support; a call, visit, card, or care package. I know that's what I would prefer, and even if the person is asking for prayer, I'm sure an extra step wouldn't be unappreciated.

    Dad - Thanks for the clarification, I was basing my statement mostly on Mom. I'll be more careful about generalizations.

    Melissa - I actually really like that view of God, and I can definitely see how it would be comforting. It seems like you basically agree with what I've posted, but have God as a fail-safe, which is actually pretty cool. Thanks for sharing :)


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