To a well intentioned Christian

We suffered a small tragedy in our household this week.  Our second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage after 10 weeks.  We’re sad but coping relatively well.  Raising a toddler we adore helps the healing process significantly.  Friends and family have also sent nice messages, including this one from my wife’s aunt.

Hi guys,
I got an email from your mom telling me about your baby. I am so sorry to hear this. Just know each baby is precious little works from God and apparently this little one was called home sooner. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers and be sure to take good care of yourself.
Love
Aunt Gertrude*

This is where I struggle as an atheist.  There is nothing but kindness intended by that email.  But that kindness is wrapped up in religious nonsense that I find downright offensive.  Without the third sentence, I’d get nothing but warm fuzzies.  With it, I get the churning heavies.

I drafted the following response, but am not sure I’ll ever send it.  Nevertheless, it does help me organize my own thoughts and emotions a bit.

Dear Aunt Gertrude,

Thank you for thinking of us with your email.  This is a somewhat difficult time for us, and we genuinely appreciate the well wishes of friends and family.

Having said that, I also have to tell you that we don’t agree with the religious content of your message.  It’s long overdue for us to say this clearly, but we don’t believe that God exists.  And we find the idea that God “called home” our fetus both silly and offensive.  (Please understand that’s directed at the idea, not you.  We know and appreciate that you’re responding out of love.  It’s the idea you’ve been taught by the church that we object to.)  It’s silly because, according to the doctors, our fetus stopped developing around 6 ½ weeks.  At that point, it was the size of a lentil, which looks like this:

Although the fetus was beginning to develop many of the features of a fully-formed human at that point, it still had a long way to go.  It looked something like this:

What possible reason could a god have to “call home” a fetus at that stage of development?  It hadn’t even formed eyes, let alone relationships or life experiences.  Even if you believe it had a soul, I’m trying to imagine what that soul would say in heaven.  “Well, that was an interesting 6 weeks.  Would have liked to try out seeing or hearing, but hey, those arm buds were pretty spiffy.”

It’s the standard religious answer to this question that is offensive.  If you’ll forgive me for a bit of mind-reading, I’m guessing your answer would be something along the lines of “well, we can’t always understand it, but God has a plan.”  And I respond with another question – what kind of God makes plans that include killing other people’s children?  That would be the height of cruelty.  I wouldn’t worship a god like that, even if I believed he existed.  Especially if the “purpose” behind his “plan” was to punish us, draw us back to him, teach us a lesson, or even to somehow make us better people.  If God thinks I’m lacking somehow, he could build me up in any number of ways that don’t involve snuffing out my children.  Send a stray puppy my way to teach me sympathy.  Burn Jesus into my toast to prove his existence to me.  Make me botch a contract to teach me humility.  The non-homicidal possibilities are endless.  But we’re asked by religion to accept that our suffering in this instance is actually for our own good.  Forgive my language, but fuck that.

The real truth is much more comforting to us.  Anywhere from 10% to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage.  For women between 35 and 39, the rate is around 20%.  That means there’s a 1 in 5 chance that any pregnancy will end in miscarriage in our age range.  What happened to us happens to many people.  And when it does, more often than not it’s because there was something about the pregnancy – a genetic problem, poor development of the placenta, something – that simply wasn’t working out.  That “precious little gift from God” was never going to be born healthy.  Unless you can admit that your God is even crueler, creating pregnancies (and their attendant excitement and hopes) that are doomed from the start, the most reasonable response to a miscarriage is to accept that it’s nothing more than an unfortunate but common biological event.

This kind of acceptance is not callousness.  It is not despair, or resignation, or nihilism.  It is acceptance born of understanding.  Knowing what we know about miscarriage, it’s easier to deal with the emotional ramifications.  Now we can heal, focus on taking physical care of her, and focus on our existing son.  I don’t know how we’d cope if we were sitting around wondering why God allowed/caused this to happen to us.

Thanks for reading this.  I hope you understand that we don’t mean to attack you or rebuff your sympathy, for which we’re very grateful.  But we’re so often confronted with religious statements that we felt it important to explain our very different perspective, and why those religious statements aren’t comforting to us.  We look forward to seeing you next time we’re down visiting.

Love,
EA

* Name changed to protect the well-intentioned.
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4 Responses to To a well intentioned Christian

  1. Ren says:

    Just let it go. Unless you want to set the precedent in your family that a lengthy missive is required every time someone mentions God to you. It wasn’t bad intentioned. She wasn’t trying to convert you. Hell, even Chris Hitchens appreciates people praying for him as he receives treatment for his terminal cancer. But, most of all, don’t be a douchebag. You’ll only end up hurting Gertrude’s feelings, kicking off negativity where something positive was intended. Finally, I’m sorry for your loss. Lentil-sized or not, I’m sure it somehow mattered to you and your wife, so I wish you comfort.

  2. I can see the purpose of writing a note which can never be sent, expressing this sort of frustration. I went through a terrible ordeal where I was held hostage, and I had to bite my tongue for weeks when people tried to comfort me with “god never gives us what we can’t handle”, and similar bunk.

    In times of trauma atheists have to spend far too much time watching themselves so as to not offend our well-wishers.

    It strikes me that this kinda sucks – but sure, I get why you didn’t send the letter. I would not have either. But it needed to be written, and it needed to be read by at least a few others who can empathize.

  3. jeffb says:

    Although this letter cannot be sent without causing a major rift in the family, it can be shared as an example of what not to say to a grieving non-believing couple. I intend to link to this post in the near future. best wishes.

  4. Tom Ryberg says:

    Many Christians are also offended by the the notion that God kills people. As a pastor, I think that this theological perspective is very shallow and harmful. Why is it not enough for us to simply share our heartfelt condolences? I’m confident that if someone who is grieving is interested in hearing my viewpoint as a Christian, they will ask me for it.

    In times of tragedy, I’m pretty sure that, by default, people don’t want or need others to interpret their hardships for them. It’s one thing if we’re part of the same religious community. But if we’re not – religious interpretations should be kept to oneself.

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