How Religion Ruins Relationships

18 Mar

Max knows that he will be dead before the end of the year – probably no later than October. That’s about the time that doctors expect his cancer-riddled body to lose the fight for life. Max, who is not a Christian, is the manager at the branch office of a Christian business. His boss, Mr. Stanley is deeply concerned about the fate of Max’s eternal soul. In addition to soliciting prayers for Max (particularly his soul) from other employees, Mr. Stanley sometimes visits Max at his office. They chat about business, life in general and, eventually, Max’s “need for salvation.” Last week, Mr. Stanley took a chaplain, a fellow named Raymond, along with him to visit Max.

Max shared with me a few things about last week’s pastoral visit. He began by saying, “I love Raymond. He’s a really great guy. So is Mr. Stanley. But, sometimes I don’t hold my tongue very well when they start talking about religion. I just don’t want to talk about it. And Mr. Stanley doesn’t always hold his tongue very well, either, so our conversations can get heated.”

After we chatted some more, Max said, “Mr. Stanley wants me to fly out west to spend time with my sister. I said I’d take a couple of days for that. Mr. Stanley said, ‘No, I want you to really take time and be with your sister.’ I don’t want to do that. I haven’t told her how bad my condition is because she’ll get on the religious stuff even worse than Mr. Stanley and Raymond. A couple of days of it is all I’ll be able to stand.”

As we wound down our conversation, Max said, “Mr. Stanley keeps telling me that he’s praying for a miracle for me. I just tell him it’s not likely to happen. I enjoy visiting with Mr. Stanley and Raymond, but I wish that sometimes they’d come over just to chat and joke with me.”

That last sentence makes me want to cry. It’s haunted me for two days. Max has six months to live and all he wants is for the people around him to accept him. He wants friendship, not evangelism. How often do Christians become so concerned about someone’s soul that they overlook all of the stuff that comprises a person’s life and personality? Mr. Stanley and Raymond genuinely like Max, but he’s also something of a project for them. Their primary concern is to get him saved before he dies. Their prayer requests on Max’s behalf invariably include the idea that “Max needs to come to know the Lord before he dies.” I don’t want to denigrate their concerns, because I understand all too well how deeply felt and sincere they are. But, their passion for Max’s soul is robbing them of the opportunities to appreciate Max just as he is and to enjoy his company in its own right. They’re so busy focusing on what they see as his eternal future that they are shortchanging the present. Max’s sister is making the same mistake and the consequence is heartbreaking: Max can hardly stand the thought of spending more than a token amount of time with his only living relative. Mr. Stanley, Raymond and Max’s sister all believe they have relationships with a god. What they don’t realize is that their belief that Max needs a similar experience is seriously straining their relationships with him. Religion is ruining, or, at the very least, damaging, precious human bonds. I find that very sad.

— the chaplain


32 responses to “How Religion Ruins Relationships

  1. cl

    March 18, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Your last paragraph hit the nail on the head and reminds me of James’ admonitions on the foolishness of overlooking a person’s material needs.

  2. Ebonmuse

    March 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

    Beautiful post, Chaplain. The dying, more than anyone else, deserve our compassion; they don’t need to be treated like an opportunity to score points in a game. I hope your friend is able to make his peace and shut out this harassment by his religious relations, however well-meaning they may be.

  3. Sarge

    March 18, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    The support groups I attend both forbid evangelising and such things.

    This is the great seperation, I know people who really want to laugh (both visitors and patients) but there is all that cultural baggage that comes with it.

    You’re going to “go” and it’s like they’re making sure you’ve got undies and a toothbrush, according to a lady I know in hospice.

    Last year I heard a man tell some of his family members that he would “be seeing them”. Others he just said, “goodby” and asked them to leave. They were going to hell, by his lights. Wrong religion.

  4. John Evo

    March 19, 2009 at 1:33 am

    I’m sure they all care very deeply for Max. But behind it all I can’t help but think they believe that if they can just get him to say some magic words before he dies, then the great sorcerer will look loving upon them for delivering another soul – and thus ensuring their own salvation.

    The insane asylum we live in. I’m telling you.

  5. the chaplain

    March 19, 2009 at 7:36 am

    James was always one of my favorite books of the Bible. Notwithstanding some of the nonsense about the glories of suffering, it has some good, practical advice about stuff like not sucking up to the rich or ignoring the poor, taming one’s tongue and so on. Of course, good bits like these are why the book almost didn’t make it into the canon.

    The dying need our compassion and our respect. Their friends and loved ones should give them the freedom to meet the end of life in the ways that suit them best.

    Your story about the “goodbyes” and “be seeing yous” is terribly sad. If his religious beliefs hadn’t gotten in the way, he could have spent his final days and hours enjoying the company of all the people he knew.

    We do live in an asylum, but it’s the only one we’ve got.

  6. atimetorend

    March 19, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Great post, thanks for writing.

    I heard a sermon at my church about evangelism when I was in the process of giving up on the faith. The pastor gave a story of a neighbor of his who was dying of cancer, very similar to the story you posted. He wanted to show compassion, but true compassion involved evangelism. He then said, “Isn’t the important thing in our culture to make the dying comfortable? The last thing we should do is make those comfortable who are not believing and trusting in Jesus.”

    I was done at that point. The statement is incorrect in that it seems to imply that caring for the dying is unique to our godless culture. Also in that it implies this value is morally wrong.

    More importantly though, it is just a horrible thought, that what you believe personally should take precedent over showing compassion to those who need it most. Or that your version of showing compassion is more important than the suffering person’s view of what compassion is. It also has the sad effect of driving the same wedge between christians and the rest of us, even those who are not so acutely in need of compassion.

  7. PhillyChief

    March 19, 2009 at 10:18 am

    Clearly they like Max, but they love their fantasy more.

    Human bonds, indeed humanity itself, is secondary to their religious beliefs.

  8. (((Billy)))

    March 19, 2009 at 10:31 am

    I’ve known of one or two similar situations over the years. My personal theory is that many Christians (those most heavily indoctrinated) are unable to separate religion from any interpersonal relationship. Religion says that the soul is more important than the body. So if the body is dying, only the soul needs nourishment. Of course, this false dichotomy leaves out the reason and personality of the individual which is, oddly enough, the only part that could actually benefit from an actual relationship. The god lense only allows closeness, compassion and caring through that tiny focus.

    I hope Max (and you, Sarge) has friends who are able to separate the person (consciousness, reason and personality) from the non-existent soul.

  9. GodlessInND

    March 19, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    I realize this isn’t the point of the post, but shouldn’t religious harassment be right up there with sexual harassment in the work place? Sounds to me like Max has himself a hostile work environment.

  10. John Evo

    March 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    Hmmmm…. “Religious harassment”. Certainly has possibilities. Can you imagine Christians across America scared shitless about losing their jobs or smacked with a lawsuit?

    Judy: I’m having a lousy day. Everything seems to be going wrong.
    Jim: Like I told you before, you just need Jesus in your life.
    Judy: EXCUSE ME? That’s really inappropriate in the workplace. I’m feeling rather uncomfortable right now.
    Jim: Er.. uh… look, let’s just forget I said that. It won’t happen again. Hey, did I tell you how hot you look in that dress?

  11. atimetorend

    March 19, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Funny! Looks like someone has profited from their annual sexual harassment training!

  12. the chaplain

    March 19, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that pastor’s attitude is too unusual in fundogelical circles. I’ve known of Christians who have told terminally ill Christians that the reason God wasn’t healing them was because they (the sick people) didn’t have enough faith. Just what dying believers need to hear! They feel like shit physically, some believer says they don’t believe strongly enough, so now they also get to worry about whether their lack of faith will bar them from heaven. That’s one reason this post is included in the “spiritual abuse” category.

    Fantasy love feels like powerful stuff when you’re immersed in it.

    My personal theory is that many Christians (those most heavily indoctrinated) are unable to separate religion from any interpersonal relationship.

    The first thing a Christian typically wants to know about any new acquaintance is, “Is he/she a Christian?” The answer to that question will shape the development of the entire relationship.

    Religion is included with sex, race, age and other categories under civil rights law. The catch is, the burden of proving harassment lies with the harassed employee – and it’s probably as hard to prove as other types of harassment. Also, in Max’s case, he works for a Christian organization. He knew what they were when he took the job and he’s been exposed to all manner of evangelism for years. His company believes a critical part of its mission is to minister to its employees.

    John Evo:
    Jim obviously has a lot more on his mind than Jesus. And he just keeps getting himself in deeper and deeper. It’s a good thing he stopped talking when he did. :)

    If you keep repeating it once a year, some of it may stick eventually.

  13. Sarge

    March 19, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    I think (((Billy))) has a really excellent point in that this is, indeed, what is at the center of their life. It’s the lense that they look through, and it’s “god first” in everything.

    There is no seperate place for many in how they trot out this business.

    I hope that I have the opprotunity to give last words in the Ethan Allen school of valediction, if pressed.

  14. atimetorend

    March 19, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    The first thing a Christian typically wants to know about any new acquaintance is, “Is he/she a Christian?” The answer to that question will shape the development of the entire relationship.

    Oh I hate that line. It is followed by whether they expect you to “fellowship” with the person or evangelize them.

    The one I hate more is, “Was he/she a Christian?” A definite conversation stopper when it is about a loved one of your’s who has died and the answer is, “Well, no.”

  15. John Evo

    March 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm

    John Evo:
    Jim obviously has a lot more on his mind than Jesus.

    Can we really blame him?

  16. athinkingman

    March 20, 2009 at 5:49 am

    I too found this very moving. The ability to be free to accept other human beings as other human beings, without seeing them as a salvation project, is one of the joys of deconversion. You post powerful portrays the costs of the inability to do that.

  17. Lifeguard

    March 21, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Nice post, Chappy.

    I wonder how it would look to christians if a believer was dying of cancer, terrified of going to hell, and an atheist were trying to comfort them by telling them death is a natural part of life, that their suffering would end with death, and that there’s no hell to be afraid of anyway?

    Actually, I think George Carlin did a bit on SNL called “Touched by an Atheist” where he does precisely that. I think it’s on YouTube.

  18. the chaplain

    March 21, 2009 at 8:08 am

    You’re right – Christians are pummeled with the notion that God has to be “first in everything” and “at the center” of one’s life. Anything less means that one has not surrendered completely, is holding something back and is not being the best Christian he or she can be. It’s a big play on guilt and fear, two of organized religion’s highest trump cards.

    That line “is followed by whether they expect you to “fellowship” with the person or evangelize them.” Exactly. These are two entirely different approaches to building a relationship. Fellowship implies equality; evangelism implies superiority – the Christian has something the other person really needs.

    You’re right about the “was he/she a Christian” line when someone dies. The thought is so awful that people will build all sorts of elaborate explanations for why the person ended up in heaven anyway. Case in point: when I was a teenager, a friend’s father committed suicide. My friend was devastated, of course, but he comforted himself with the thought God will judge that his father was insane when he killed himself, so he’ll be in heaven after all. How else could my friend reconcile his religious beliefs with the awful circumstances of his father’s death and not go insane?

    I don’t blame him at all. But, between you and me – both of his pickup lines suck.

    I love the freedom I have just to know people, learn from them and enjoy their company without plastering a layer of religious concerns over the top of the relationship. It’s very refreshing.

    Long time, no see, old friend! How’s life treating you these days? I’ve seen that Carlin skit. Maybe atheists should set up hospital visitation squads to follow along behind the Christian visitors and undo their damage.

  19. OneSmallStep

    March 21, 2009 at 11:57 am

    In a weird way, I almost view the evangelizing behavior as selfish on some level. I know that they’re very concerned with where Max’s eternal location is, and they desperately don’t want him to suffer after death.

    Yet let’s say just to stop all the evangelizing, Max lies and says that, “Okay, I’m a Christian, Jesus is my Savior.”

    The evangelizers would be incredibly relieved, and no doubt happy for Max, thinking his life and afterlife are going to be that much better. Yet, wouldn’t they also be relieved because now they no longer have to “suffer” with this idea of Max being in hell? Because I’ve come across that idea quite a few times, with conservative Christians terrified of the idea of getting into heaven, and not seeing everyone they love there with them. Which I understand, but I can’t help but read that sentence as though everyone the conservative Christian knows must convert so that the conservative Christian no longer has to be terrified, and thus has peace of mind.

    So Max could say all the right things, do all the right things, and still just be play-acting at it. The evangelizers would never know the difference, and yet they’d feel incredibly joyous, because they think one more person is going to heaven.

    In a way, it’s almost as though the only 100% concrete thing that one might get out of this is peace of mind because you’re no longer in agony over the thought of someone in hell.

  20. PhillyChief

    March 21, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Well of course it’s selfish, but then what isn’t? How many TRULY altruistic actions can you list? Still, I’d say it’s fair game to break their balls over the selfishness of it only because they’d assert it’s not selfish. It’s selfish because it:
    • doesn’t take into consideration Max’s feelings
    • makes them feel good
    • can improve how they’re seen by others who witness or at least hear of what they’re doing
    • can be a tonic for any wavering faith they might have

    There’s probably more you can list. Good, evil, or in-between, what they’re doing is definitely selfish. No doubt about that.

  21. (((Billy)))

    March 22, 2009 at 7:07 am

    And the behaviour is also shelfish for one other reason: it helps get the evangelizer into heaven. If Mr. Stanley can stand before his version of god(s) and say, in all honesty, “I tried to keep that poor soul Max out of the clutches of Satan, but, despite my best efforts, I failed. I should get points for effort, right?” Or, if Max is ‘saved’ and suddenly goes insane and starts to believe the right things about the right things, then Mr. Stanley gets credit for another sould for god(s). Either way, Mr. Stanley has not hidden the light under a bushel.

  22. Vitamin R

    March 22, 2009 at 2:30 pm


    It’s not selfish on one level–it’s selfish on all of them. No one should have to comfort others while dealing with cancer. If ever there was a time to be selfish, to be able to tell people that if they can’t shut up about Jesus, then shut up period, it’s when one is dying.

    Yes, it’s awful that the survivors might have to deal with the idea that their loved one died unsaved, but what’s even more awful is knowing that your loved ones would rather see you in Hell, than give up their silly, angry Bronze Age god and all the ridiculous accoutrements that go with him. And that is what it boils down to: insane fantasies taking precedence over the very real person who will shortly be gone.

    If evangelicals can’t give true comfort to the dying, then they deserve none themselves. Let them be miserable or make excuses for why their unsaved love one mighta-coulda gone to Heaven, if that’s what gets them through the rest of their fearful lives. After all, they have plenty of time for such pointless exercise.

    Amazing post, Chaplain.

  23. Sarge

    March 23, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Well, actually one often does have to comfort and reassure those that continue down the path. Since I’ve still got a ways to go I haven’t had to deal with it quite to the extent as some I know, but as a gentleman told me, it gives you “something to do” and another way to think of it.

    If you can help other folks look at these questions it does kind of help you.

    One of my young twenty-something friends quite honestly doesn’t see how a person can think of coping with the end of life, how sad it is.
    How can anyone laugh and joke in that state? She can’t figure it out. She’s a ‘believer’, but it’s more the uncertainty that gets her. Pascal’s Wager has come up as it always does, and she doesn’t see how one can pass up such a bet.

    I can’t get her to see how limited the scope of it is, and she’s a smart girl. But then, when I was her age I had already literally fought for my life.

    We had a rehearsal and I was sitting and talking to a forsythia branch and a box of marshmallow chicks. People came in and someone finally couldn’t stand it, asked what I was doing. I said, “Just hangin’ with my buds and talking to my peeps”. This got the (very satisfactory!!) groan I was looking for, but she burst into tears and ran out of the room. TOO good a result. I HAVE been cussed at for such a jape, but tears…?

    Took some comforting, but I actually got her to smile. Told her she had YEARS of such jokes to look forward to. But she can’t see how a person can laugh or be in the now, and not fear.

    • Vitamin R

      March 23, 2009 at 9:21 pm

      Sarge: I don’t know how my sense of humor would fare at the end of my life, but probably not so well that being proselytized in such a vulnerable moment would go over. I imagine it would hurt, that in my last days, the only thing this supposed loved one might see is an unsaved soul. That even my impending consignment to Hell wouldn’t be enough to shake up their worldview.

      Maybe it’d feel like the time I’d spent with them was wasted–could’ve been spent making memories with someone who didn’t look at me and see Satan’s next chew toy. Even now, hopefully a good span of time away from my death, I find it all but impossible to be around my religious/saved friends. I didn’t used to take it personally that they thought I was Hellbound–it used to actually tickle me–but now. . . .

      I couldn’t imagine the rage I’d be fielding if I was approaching the end, and knew that even that wouldn’t make them bend. That my death wouldn’t make me worth even a moment of doubt.

      I can understand wanting to comfort that worry, yes, but when the loved one keeps pushing . . . I can imagine my sympathy would grow rather thin. And I, like Max, might not want to spend my last days beating my head against a brick wall. Theists offer comfort we can’t accept, and we offer them a comfort–no need to be saved, nothing to save–that they can’t accept. I don’t suppose there’re any easy answers :/

  24. Sarge

    March 24, 2009 at 7:18 am

    @VR I love the Chew Toy For Satan! May I use it? Please? Please?

    I get hints and invitations to talk, but most people don’t come at me with a bible and ‘salvation’. People who know me know better than that. I’ve got some time, but the progress (unless one of the variables assserts itself) is predictable.

    I’ve found that the people who think you are vulnerable tend to leave you be when they find out you are not, and you won’t argue. Arguement implies a willingness to consider, it seems, and I did my considering years ago.

    • Vitamin R

      March 24, 2009 at 10:08 pm

      I love the Chew Toy For Satan! May I use it? Please? Please?

      Sure, go wild, lol.

      One might say you’ve put the fear of god in the people who know you well. . . .

      What? They’re not all gems, Sarge.

      Being unwilling to get drawn into arguments must help–but it must be hard not to scream “shaddup!” sometimes. Hell, I get that urge even when people do agree with me.

      Arguement implies a willingness to consider, it seems, and I did my considering years ago

      That is hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever read.

  25. plonkee @

    March 24, 2009 at 7:52 am

    When you’re looking after the bereaved or dying, it’s not about you, and what you believe, it’s about them, and what they believe. That’s not to say that you should lie, but that you should try and give them the reassurance that they need as far as you can. In the case of Max it’s probably the reassurance that he’s a valuable and important person even whilst he’s dying more quickly than the rest of us.

    Religion done badly it’s damaging. Done well, I can put up with it, but done badly it really sucks.

  26. John Evo

    March 24, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    Arguement implies a willingness to consider, it seems, and I did my
    considering years ago

    That is hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever read.

    Yeah. Most of us have had a Christian say something like “won’t you at least consider the POSSIBILITY that Jesus is your savior”? This is a good response. Unless, of course, you never did “consider”.

  27. Michael Finlayson

    June 29, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    For me there are two parts in the bible that speak volumes and are regularly ignored, especially by those so wrapped up in their form of faith that it has just become a discipline. The first is that the word of God is that we can worship how we want, so long as we do. The second is when Jesus is in the Temple listening to the Pharisees boast of how they follow their faith right down to the last punctuation mark. His response being, that they might get to heaven (after all, fundamentalism is a form of worship) but they would have to wait behind all the tax collectors and prostitutes.

    No-one has the right to bring distress to someone like that, they should be celebrating his life not working out their own righteous guilt on him.

  28. lia

    August 14, 2011 at 11:19 am

    I have been on the receiving end of someone’s *heaven checklist* and let me tell you, it was painful. They portrayed a condensending figurative *pat pat* on my head. thinking they were displaying compassion. The only way I will accept someones *compassion* is if they share their ugly and confess they are not perfect…they *pat* u on the head & walk away….i’m sorry, who are you?!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 105 other followers

%d bloggers like this: