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May 7, 2014
Richard Handler

One of the things that always surprise me about committed, believing Christians, especially evangelicals, is that their faith is so darn...personal.  This Christian God sure is a busybody, intimately concerned with each and every one of us--- the human sparrows and the lilies of the field.  In the episode Cancer: Taking Charge.  Lorna asks  Leila Springer, a fervent and dignified Caribbean-Canadian about whether she felt God had “nudged  her”  to seek medical help for her cancer.  (She’s the founder of the Olive Branch of Hope).  The answer is yes.

This God is not a god of submission.  No one in any segment of the show talks about “God’s Will,” as a mark of submission. This is an activist God, very positive, and very North American, blessed with a Can-Do spirit which He transmits to those who believe in Him.

This God does not necessarily heal directly, with a stroke of magic (though I suppose He can do that too).  As Lorna suggests, this God  nudges you  “not to feel passive.” This is a god who acts as a coach, motivator, counselor, a divine patient advocate who can prod believers to seek a “second opinion.” 

With such a God by your side, you have a much better chance of  getting the right treatment.  But you can’t be passive. This is an ennobling message, very acceptable to a secular person like me.    

I find this remarkable, even compelling,   because as a stubborn agnostic, I resist believing in a god who is intimately connected with us humans in what seems like a totally random  and haphazard way.  Some people rally in their fight against a cancer (or any disease) and others succumb, even with the best of help and lots of back up prayer.  Why some people are luckier is never clear.  It’s never a matter of earned belief or good works (children and fine, deserving folks die as easily as the sinful).  It’s all a mystery.  On this point, the agnostic, the atheist and believer can agree, perhaps for the first and only time:   it’s a mystery!

But that’s where agreement stops.   What’s consoling for the Christian is baffling to the non-believer. 

I am an “agnostic” by belief and temperament.  But I am also sympathetic to my Christian and believing friends --- whose faith gives them courage and strength (as long as they respect and don’t hector me).   I am like not like one of those so- called “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens.  These New Atheists are decidedly hostile to religion and see nothing good in it.  They see religion as a form of delusion, superstition and magical thinking.  For them, a belief in God is childish.   They hate the infantile posture of religion. To them, such belief makes us all hobbled, terrified children who are prone to be bullied by religious leaders—who in turn bully non believers, to the detriment  of society. 

Still, as a “stubborn agnostic” who still requires evidence to believe, I sense there may be something “out there-- or in here.”   And when I see a brave woman like Leila Springer call on God to empower her in her fight against cancer, I think, well, what’s there to dislike?

Yet, as an agnostic (and a secular Jew) I resist it all. You tell me that God works through human beings, and I might agree, as a proposition. But He might not, either. He may not have anything to do with it--- if indeed there is a He (or a She or an It). All I have before me is the evidence that human beings are helping each other in trying circumstances.  If they believe that God is enabling them,  picks them up  and raises their downcast spirit, then advises them about their treatment, who am I to belittle  and deprive them of their consolations?  

Yet, the wary disbeliever in me whispers it’s all a great confidence game,  created by our own inglorious minds to avoid the most unpleasant, dreadful parts of life--- and the final, terrible truth of death, which will come for everybody, sooner or later, healthy or not. 

So, in this episode of Context, we hear the story of Krisha Moore, who lost her battle with cancer, but according to her husband, Joseph, gained in strength and fervor during her final months.  There he was on stage, being interviewed by Lorna, sporting a pork pie hat, his children nestling by his side, happily transfixed, smiling, becalmed, consoled, even though the death was still relatively fresh.  This is when I thought, “if you can believe in the power of religion, of faith, you never lose”.  It’s a “win-win” all the way.  No wonder people believe.

Meaning, if you win the battle against cancer (these things are always described in military metaphors) then God has helped heal you, whether by spurring you on or by direct intervention.  And, if the patient dies, as happened to Krisha Moore, we the audience are witness to a display of blissful acceptance in her husband’s demeanor.  For the Christian, death is clearly not the end of the story. You win even when you lose, so you never lose. Amazing!

On the other hand, the atheist or agnostic could counter, watching this sweet spectacle:  this is merely a trick of the mind, a deception, a nice story, a fairy tale, a fantasy, a way to avoid the unbearable pain of death of a love one. Atheists see the ploy and refuse to accept it.

But it’s a remarkable thing to watch, whether you believe it or not.  For atheists it can seem foolish--- but for a sympathetic and prudent agnostic like me, the spectacle of belief can be moving, a source of regret, even envy. I know that all religions are a means of defeating death, and evangelical Christianity is very accomplished in this way, for those who believe.  For those who don’t, well, we must find our consolations elsewhere and keep searching, even if we know there may be no end to this journey.  


Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto. 


"Evidence to believe" has nothing to do with Christianity; nor have "confidence games" anything to do with it. You describe people who relate their stories as "we never lose the battle of cancer." -- I would say nonsense -- since "we never win the battle of cancer." There is grace. Those who experience it in the fullness life, while suffering a life threatening illness, or at the end of life know it. I can only describe it as a gift. Unexpected, uncontrolled, there.
May 12, 2014 | Karla Poewe

Richard, I am wondering what, for you, would be evidence sufficient to believe?
May 9, 2014 | Franklin Pyles

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