Poland High Court: Atheists Are Human, Too

“It isn’t important,” you’ve argued before,
“Cos God doesn’t really exist”
But look! When the hospital gave you last rites,
Though you weren’t on the Catholic list,
(And when you recovered, which no one expected,
And found your desires were ignored),
You sued, and you claimed “immaterial damages”
Thus making fun of our Lord.
The sacrament shouldn’t have bothered you much;
It’s nothing—or that’s what you’ve said—
We couldn’t have known that you’d think to object
(And of course, we all thought you’d be dead!)
Yes, yes, we intruded, but in our defense
It’s not like you’re Catholic, like us!
Your views are quite foreign; they’re godless; they’re strange
Not really worth making a fuss!
Your second-rate views, why, they’re not worth defending—
They’re merely the atheist sort—
You have no religion, no reason to live,
And no reason to take us to court!

My aggregator threw something strange at me today–a story out of Poland, reported in Germany, of an atheist who, in a coma, had received “extreme unction” by the hospital’s priest, and who, upon recovering, sued the hospital for “immaterial damages” in the amount of 21,00 Euros. Poland’s Supreme Court has (apparently–any readers who can verify, please do!) ruled that freedom of conscience applies to atheists as well as to the godly, and has asked the lower court to determine the amount of the atheist’s award.

Oh, yeah, I did not read this in the Berliner-Zeitung; I read the reaction to it in a site that thought it was a horrible overreach:

Somehow, this case is quintessential for what is going on in our society: we are reaching new levels of idiocy that were unknown to previous generations. What we have here is, on the one hand, the perfect prototype of a militant atheist (or, as they nowadays prefer to call themselves, a “humanist” or “secularist”): a man who squeamishly asserts his status as a “victim” whose rights have been trampled upon, and who at the same time is aggressive and quarrelsome enough to spend his and other people’s time and resources for a lawsuit on such a matter. What a cantankerous, obnoxious, ridiculous, fussy, stingy, petty-minded, lamentable pain in the neck this man must be! I feel sorry for the guy, but I really would not want to be like him.

That horrible atheist, in his manipulative coma, forcing the Catholic hospital to overlook his beliefs and assert their power over him.

How strong is Catholic privilege?

In my humble opinion, this lawsuit is the best proof that so-called “secularists” don’t take their own stated beliefs seriously. If they did, then the rite of the anointing of the sick would simply be of no meaning of them: just a few words, muttered sotto voce, and maybe the sign of the cross – not more. In the case at hand, the plaintiff, being in a coma, was probably not even able to notice that someone was praying at his bedside. So, what damage does he believe to have suffered? Did he feel pain? Was his (unexpected) healing delayed? Or was his self-esteem hurt by the fact that someone charitably prayed for him when he seemed to need it?

Treating you by our beliefs is a compliment; treating us by your beliefs is an insult. It is charitable to pray for an atheist.

Yeah… no. When my brother was dying, the hospital chaplains were worse than useless. If lawsuits like this mean that priests are an opt-in feature, rather than an opt-out, then people can have whatever rites they want performed, at their explicit request. And not before. You want extreme unction, wear a medic-alert chaplain-alert bracelet.


  1. John Morales says

    Anointing ain’t just words and gestures; it means being smeared with oil.

    But yeah, claiming to have been somehow hurt by this sort of mumbo-jumbo (rather than merely insulted) is pretty ridiculous, and belongs to the province of the religious for mine.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    That’s what I love about “immaterial damages”–there are no material damages, but by damn, the hospital did treat this man as if his views were somehow less important than the Catholic views. Had it gone the other way around, no one would have blinked at the idea of real damages. This is a simple matter of equal treatment.

  3. thephilosophicalprimate says

    I’m with you, Cuttlefish. If I were in a coma and woke to find that some witch doctor had performed his primitive rites over my unconscious form, I’d be pissed! I AM NOT A PROP FOR YOUR SUPERSTITIONS, ASSHOLE! It’s perfectly fine for you to perform your mummery over the unconscious form of a believer, but if you exploit my unconscious body to normalize your perverted death cult rituals, I have been harmed.

    To John Morales (comment 1), I’ll explain it this way. If the last rites involved bodily violation (ritual thumb up my anus, for hilarious example), the problem is not that there has been a bodily violation which harms me: If I never knew it happened, and it left no physical evidence — no lingering pain, no risk of disease (because of course the administering of extreme anal unction wears gloves) — my personal integrity has still been violated and it is still wrong. Why is it wrong? BECAUSE I DID NOT IN ANY WAY APPROVE OR ACCEPT SUCH TREATMENT.

    The whole “No harm done” principle your position implicitly advocates suggests that the harm is some actual effect of the ritual; but of course, religious rituals have no actual effect, as they invoke the power of nonexistent entities. But that’s not the harm. The harm is in the violation of the autonomy of the participant: It’s one thing to include me in a religious rite if I voluntarily participate in said rite, or voluntarily and explicitly participate in a religion where such rites are expected and therefore implicitly approved and accepted. But if I do not participate in any such religion, it is a violation of my integrity to inflict religious rites on me without my permission, quite without regard to whether I am awake or not at the time.

  4. says

    Re. the privilege inherent in saying:

    In my humble opinion, this lawsuit is the best proof that so-called “secularists” don’t take their own stated beliefs seriously.

    I propose the following experiment: an imam goes around the hospital reciting Sura Yā Sīn over non-Muslim and non-consenting comatose patients. After all, it’s “just a few words”, right? * Then observe the reactions.

    *As others have pointed out, “extreme unction” also includes being smeared with oil (preferably oil made by pressing olives and then presented to a bishop for approval during a Holy Thursday mass). But I think the analogy still works.

  5. trog69 says

    I lean towards tempest/teapot, but I think it is important that the man sued for relief. Not his own, mind you, but to let the privileged know that we’re not taking it silently any longer.

  6. John Morales says

    thephilosophicalprimate @3, I can’t dispute your explanation as a general philosophical principle, and I guess I too would feel somewhat psychologically traumatised if informed that I’d been subjected to unsolicited digital buggery — but I even so personally think that it would take an exceedingly sensitive person to actually feel a similar degree emotional trauma given the actual example of the transgression of bodily autonomy at hand, i.e. a superstitious ritual recitation (and probably a smear of oil on the forehead).

  7. khms says

    Judging by the article, they’d have done the same with a Muslim, or a Sikh. And I don’t think those would have been happy, either.

    In any case, the article references the Katholische Nachrichtenagentur KNA, which doesn’t really help much as they only list a few last messages, not including this one.

    Hmm. A little Googling leads me to a polish paper that tells me some speaker for Polish muftis (one Musa Czachorowski) claimed that he’d argue against any suits if it had been a Muslim. Then again, Poland does have a large catholic majority, so making waves might be seen as unwise. The same paper claims that when hearing it, he had a breakdown that threatened “another” heart attack.

    Hmm. A number of polish sites seem to refer Rzeczpospolita (a large Polish paper, “The Republic”) which calls him “Jerzego R.” – Google translates to “George R.” – and where I don’t see the other background mentioned. Google doesn’t translate the comments on that article, so I can’t comment on the comments.

  8. badgersdaughter says

    If I was in the hospital and not able to speak for myself, and my fundamentalist brother was representing my interests, he would absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, allow or even ask them to pray over me, and they would probably do it even if I had a written directive not to. I’m thinking of sewing my own hospital gowns with “No Religion Of Any Kind Please” printed as an overall pattern on the fabric.

  9. sathyalacey says

    If a right of freedom of religious choice exists (no idea if Poland has this), then it applies to atheists as well as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, etc.

    If the man had been a religious non-Catholic, his religious rights would have been violated. Note that many religions do not necessarily believe that other religion’s rituals have any supernatural power at all – after all, they are often atheist about other “wrong” religions. But we don’t use their lack of belief in the offending religious practitioner to go “well I guess it’s ok after all”.

    His lack of belief doesn’t somehow make the action any less offensive or violating.

  10. Cuttlefish says

    I’d agree, so long as they agree to double it with each successive invasive anointing, until the cost becomes prohibitive.

    This is a case where the damages are nothing, but the practice systematically insults and discriminates against non-Catholics. If the church is willing to pay for their place of privilege, by all means let them continue.

  11. jimroberts says

    If I am in a coma and doctors are struggling to save my life, surely it is obvious that permitting a man in elaborate (insanitary) fancy dress to smear me with something cannot but increase my chance of dying. This is not “immaterial damage”, it is assault.

  12. Joan says

    To imroberts.You have a point except the house priests do not wear ‘elaborate unsanitary fancy dress’ in America, just the usual clerical collar with black shirt. Admittedly I don’t know what they wear in Poland. As for the oil, it could well be unsanitary. I don’t really know if people in comas are treated with the same degree sanitary hyper-vigilance as those in isolation. Sadly, with the number of drug resistant bugs now populating hospitals, he might have more chance of getting infected by his surroundings than the priest.

    To Cuttle: (grin)

  13. machintelligence says

    I agree with the thought “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing.” It is important that he win the suit even if the damages are immaterial. (Word choice intentional.)

  14. billyeager says

    who, in a coma, had received “extreme unction” by the hospital’s priest

    Let’s rephrase that to better describe the process:”Who, while unconscious, helpless, incapacitated and unable to prevent such a thing from being done to him, had oil smeared over various parts of his body by a complete stranger for no other purpose than to satisfy the stranger’s desires.

    No, I can’t see why the patient could possibly have reason to object. Well, apart from this and, as has been mentioned already, the fact he was being used as a prop in someone else’s ritualised belief, thereby likely compounding the normalisation of said behaviour being seen as acceptable and/or desirous.

    Seriously, he got to promote someone else’s religion AND have a strange guy rub oil on him, all the while he only had to lay there and remain unconscious? Damn militanty secularisty atheisticy fundies, always getting’ in the way of God’s work. He should be grateful instead of wasting everybody’s time and money by complainin’ about something done to him FOR FREE!

  15. =8)-DX says

    I think the arguments for “there wasn’t much harm” are just talking out of thier asses – that’s something you can’t know. A person may have been traumatised in the past in ways that such rituals being told over them could cause severe psychological harm to a person – this is the *potential* for harm of any violation of freedom of conscience and/or bodily integrity.

    Just to give a similar example – I have a sister-in-law who was subject to child-abuse from her (Catholic) father coinciding with a traumatic experience of the Catholic Church’s treatment of her mother (the marriage was anulled because they deemed her “insane” based on false accusations at a church “trial”). She is currently a healthy mother of two, but still has struggles with depression and other psychological problems.

    She would NOT appreciate waking up in hospital too find they’d had some clerical nonse (*especially* the local priest) wave and mumble over her smear oil on her head in case she died.

  16. outeast says


    an imam goes around the hospital reciting Sura Yā Sīn over non-Muslim and non-consenting comatose patients. After all, it’s “just a few words”, right? * Then observe the reactions.

    Hm. That’s not quite fair, since those inclined to religious superstition imbue those words with real meaning. So to them, it’s not ‘just a few words.’

    The claim that ‘just a few words’ should by definition be inoffensive, though, is disingenuous. Belief in words having otherworldly power is not required, or we’d have no concept of courtesy in speech and certainly no concept of profanity outwith blasphemy.

    (I can’t really get behind litigation in this case though. Seriously… yes, it’s offensive, yes it was unethical, but in reality the harm done was negligible. Bringing a case really does seem frivolous to me.)

  17. outeast says

    Addendum: ‘the harm done was negligible’… =8)-DX above has a good hypothetical context for where the harm could be real. If some such circumstances were involved then yeah, I’d withdraw that.

  18. Joan says

    Ok, let’s set up a hypothetical situation. Say a man was Atheist and his family, sitting by his bed during his coma is heavily Catholic. As such they might be quite terrified that he would burn in hell unless anointed and implore the hospital priest to give him last rites. A real hail Mary pass, so to speak. When he awakens is he going to sue his family and the hospital, or just the hospital, assuming the family is not well off?

  19. Cuttlefish says

    If they followed procedures, and the family had power of attorney, the hospital is safe. If the hospital knowingly goes against his wishes, and the family did not have legal standing, hell yes I’d sue. I would not sue my family, though, cos there’s no money there to be had.

  20. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    If I use Florence Nightingale’s name and face to sell my statistical database and reporting software, is anyone harmed?

    What if I use Wendy Carlos’s name and face to promote my school for up and coming composers and pianists? She suffers no material harm. She’s not teaching composition any more that I can tell, though she’s certainly still alive and paying attention to her image. Why should she get a say in my advertising policies?

    Moreover, Poland has “immaterial damages” at law for persuasive historical reasons (e.g. forced baptisms of Jews). Why should immaterial damages be available only to theists whose bodies are subject to unwanted ceremonial use? Jews and atheists equally consider Catholics’ rites to be “mumbo jumbo”. yet one is entitled to legal compensation and the other isn’t?

    Name one reason that should be so.

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