I recently heard that an old college friend of mine’s husband had died in Sri Lanka so I called her twice, once just after the funeral and then again a few weeks later. My friend is a lovely, gentle, generous person who is also a very religious evangelical Christian. When I reached her soon after the funeral, I learned that her husband had been in excellent health and had gone in for routine bypass surgery and, from what she described to me, seemed to have been the victim of a surgical misadventure.
Clearly the death had come as a huge shock to her. One does not know what to say on such occasions because how can you console someone who has suffered such a sudden and tragic loss? I mumbled the usual platitudes but I really did not have to say much because my friend spoke almost the entire time and almost all of it was about how god had some mysterious plan for them that required him to suddenly take the life of her husband and that she was thankful to god for her husband having had so many years of life and that she was confident that god would give her and her children the strength to overcome their sorrow. She was sure that there was some benevolent plan in operation even if she could not understand why god would take her husband’s life away so suddenly. I have learned on such occasions to simply listen and murmur occasional words of consolation and that seems sufficient.
This whole business of everything being part of god’s plan can be a dangerous idea in some hands. It is used by some people as an excuse to not do anything they do not want to do because they can say that if god wanted something different, he would do it. For example, it is used by some politicians to argue that we need not to do anything to combat global warming since god would not let the Earth be destroyed. It is also used by some to draw hateful conclusions from random events, such as arguing that some weather calamity is god’s punishment for the occurrence of some particular sin. The idea of everything being part of god’s plan can also cause some people to rage against god when a senseless tragedy happens and lose their faith.
But there is no doubt that some religious people feel greatly reassured by the idea that their lives are controlled by something other than themselves. This is the great appeal of religion that enables it to keep its grip on people’s imagination.
This poses a problem for atheists. Should one try and disabuse people of such beliefs? I think it depends on the time and place. I would not dream of having such a discussion when people are going through a crisis such as my friend. But when I met her and another evangelical friend a few years ago in happier times, we did discuss religion because they were surprised and saddened by the fact that I, the close religious friend they had known in college, had become an atheist. We discussed religion quite openly and parted amicably without having changed any minds. So when my friend spoke to me about her husband’s death as being part of god’s plan, she knew I did not believe any such thing. But it did not matter. At such times, people want an outlet for their emotions and a chance to express their grief and just need someone who will listen to them, not discuss deep theological questions.