The dying grandma gambit

The dying grandma gambit is a scenario familiar to most atheists; it’s been played out a few times in this thread. I’m sure you know it.

Here’s how it works. An atheist says something assertive about religion; religious sympathizer retorts, “Would you say that to your dying grandmother? You atheists can’t give any consolation to the dying or grieving, and all you can do is flip a finger at believers.” There is usually a tone of high moral indignation, as well, and a smug expression of superiority that the faithful have over the godless.

Does this sound familiar to you yet?

I’ve heard it a thousand times if I’ve heard it once, and I have to marvel at the ability of the pious to pretend to be on the moral high road while they clout you about the head with the carcass of your dying grandma. And they also have this superior air about them, as if they’ve bested you in logic as well as human kindness. It’s clear that they can only imagine two outcomes when you kneel at the deathbed:

  1. You must pray together. Talk about Jesus and the Lord and meeting Grandpa again in Heaven. This will reassure Grandma that dying is alright.

  2. Curse granny’s religion; slap her hands if she tries to pray. Let her know that all she can expect is the peace of oblivion.

Item A is common enough, and happens all the time. I presume that beginning with that foundation of accuracy, no matter how obnoxious the behavior, adds verisimilitude to their belief that atheists must do the exact opposite in all things, and therefore Pat Condell, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and any other outspoken atheist must walk into a hospice like Clint Eastwood entering a seedy saloon (B).

I shall tell you a deep secret, however. Here’s what atheists do when confronted with a dying loved one.

  1. Hold her hand. Talk. Weep. Reminisce. Tell her about your day, how the kids are doing in school, what the weather is like. Browse the family photo album together. Tell her how much you care. Beg her to hang on longer—there’s so much more to do and see. Sit quietly by her side. Wait.

You know, the important, human stuff.

You might be surprised…even Christians can do item C, and they often do. Yet there’s nothing religious at all about it, and it’s probably more reassuring, more consoling, and more considerate than droning on about imminent nothingness (which atheists don’t do anyway) or lying to her about Jesus.

So put away the dying grandma gambit, apologists for religion. It just makes you look stupid and sanctimonious, and denies the fact that the important matters in facing death are families and love and support and togetherness, all virtues that have nothing to do with your delusions.


  1. #1 Sastra, OM
    November 29, 2007

    I always find it a bit odd when theists play the Dying Grandma Gambit — same with the No Atheist in Foxholes Shtick. They both seem to be tacit admissions that the real purpose of religion is comfort. Screw the actual facts of the matter, just do whatever it takes to make yourself feel better. To me, there doesn’t seem to be any real respect for religion itself in this approach — no thoughtful analysis or objective consideration of the issue. It isn’t about actually believing something is true: it’s about NEEDING to believe it’s true.

    In fact, sometimes it seems more about the belief than it is about the truth.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    November 29, 2007

    My mother is as godless as I am. If the sad day came that I were to be standing beside her deathbed, and she asked me if dead people went to Heaven, and I said “Yes,” she’d probably be pissed off that she raised a liar of a son.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    November 29, 2007

    Marcus Ranum:

    Ever slept with a physicist?

  4. #4 AlanWCan
    November 29, 2007

    Sastra: tacit admissions that the real purpose of religion is comfort

    Worse than that, it’s an admission that the real purpose of religion is to serve the godbotherer’s selfish desire to not have to deal with the discomfort, pain and fear of someone close to them. Placate them with fairy stories so they’ll just slip off without making the godbotherer uncomfortable. Despicable ghouls the lot of them. I’m with Stephen Daedalus on this one, despite what Buck Mulligan might say.

  5. #5 MAJeff
    November 29, 2007

    I’ve got a couple links up in that other thread about the dying grandma bit, seeing as how mine was put in the ground a week ago today.

    Not only do people who use the dying grandma bit look like fools, they are assholes.

  6. #6 Sastra
    November 29, 2007

    I’m not sure why there is confusion over what atheists say to someone with other beliefs who is dying — isn’t pretty much everyone open to being put in that position? Beliefs about God, an afterlife, and The Point of It All run the gamut. Even if you’re a theist, sooner or later someone you love will be in dire distress and say something you consider “theologically incorrect.” Now what?

    My guess is that people with sensitivity and tact probably all follow the same basic rules on religion and death beds. Now is not the time to convert. When asked a specific question where your real answer is ‘no’ — but the other person wants it to be ‘yes’ — say “I don’t know.” Or “maybe.” Or “could be — what do you think?” And, if you can, change the subject to something you do have in common, something positive or meaningful or helpful having to do with life and love. As PZ suggests.

    “Will I see my puppy when I’m in heaven?” Plenty of Christians who don’t believe animals have souls will choke pride and tell the dying child that well, they just might. That’s not a sign they don’t really believe what they believe — and atheists who sidestep specific questions from a dying grandmother or otherwise make kindly compromises are in the same position. (Of course, this excludes fine folks like thalarctos’ cousin — who usually aren’t insisting that people playact for deathbed scenes anyway.)

    Trouble is some people think the Dying Grandma Gambit is indicative of how atheists should always act — as if they are constantly confronting the newly bereaved — and yet wouldn’t think of applying the same rule to themselves.

  7. #7 Steve Zara
    November 29, 2007

    Jsn: Just to give more information – I have also posted frequently to Richard Dawkins’s site. I am out there too – I post there as steve99 as well.

  8. #8 Matt Penfold
    November 29, 2007

    The 23rd Psalm is nice poetry if nothing else. At least in the King James Version it is. I am not sure how well it would come across in more modern translations.

    Of course even that arch-atheist Richard Dawkins considers parts of the bible, including some of the Psalms to have literary merit.

  9. #9 Brownian, OM
    November 29, 2007

    It seems to me everything anyone needs to know about how an atheist might talk to a dying grandmother is right here, on this thread:

    A bunch of individuals sharing their experiences of grief with each other and commiserating.

    Athiest or theist, it seems like a pretty decently human thing to do.

  10. #10 Sastra, OM
    November 29, 2007

    robbrown #59 wrote:

    Does “horrible” (or “good”, “bad”, “happy”, or “sad”) have any meaning whatsoever in a materialist worldview?

    I think you misunderstand materialism/atheism a bit. Materialists generally don’t deny that minds, thoughts, feelings, values, and judgments exist (because they’re not physical). Instead, we see them as real but subjective, related only to how people and other animals react and behave. We deal with phenomenom at various levels of description, and so it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about what motivates human beings — and we usually don’t like to die. It’s “horrible” to us.

    The supernatural/theistic alternative is to believe that values and consciousness are transcendent and cosmic, and somehow objectively imbedded into (or acting upon) the entire universe. It seems to be a way of reifying abstractions. Death is “horrible” as a general fact, regardless of whether there is anything alive that cares one way or the other. Reality itself cares.

    djt #81 wrote:

    To commentors numbers 5 and 6 re: “no atheists in foxholes”. It’s not because someone suddenly finds faith in a god when they are in a foxhole, it’s because when that term was coined, a soldier was not allowed to put the word atheist on their dogtag.

    That may be true, but from what I can tell that’s not what most theists mean when they use the phrase. They seem to think that deep down we all need God, fear brings it out, and so the atheist is now forced to admit it.

    That’s one reason I’d really hesitate to tell an unknown doctor or car mechanic that I’m an atheist. Too many theists think a sudden attack of panicky terror is God’s loving way of removing your pride and showing you what you’ve known all along — you do need Him after all. I’d rather not have someone who sincerely believes that operating on me or my brakes.

  11. #11 Ichthyic
    November 29, 2007

    I would have hoped that PZ could at least have done the decent thing, and replied to me. I would have thought it was nothing more than expected politeness and good manners.

    um, no inflated ego or anything on your part, I’m sure…

    but PZ was addressing a general issue, hardly the first time it has been raised.

    put a pin in that head of yours, quick.

  12. #12 Sastra, OM
    November 29, 2007

    I’ve seen something similar to the Dying Grandmother Gambit used on war protesters:

    “There are grieving mothers and widows who have lost a soldier in Iraq: when you speak out or march or write a letter to the editor saying the war was a bad idea in the first place, that’s like telling them their loved one died for nothing. Would you say that to their face, at the funeral? No? Well then, think about that, and shut up about the war.”

    (Btw, I didn’t get around to reading the Condell thread, and it appears Steve99 was misunderstood, but I don’t think it matters that much, since even if he wasn’t really pulling the Dying Grandma Gambit as such, others do it all the time. But in the spirit of our tactful response to the Dying Grandma situation, I will apologize to Steve. I didn’t do anything, but what the hell, be polite anway. ­čśë

  13. #13 djt
    November 29, 2007


    Here is my source regarding atheist/foxholes:

  14. #14 Ichthyic
    November 29, 2007

    Angelina Jolie?

    *clap clap*

    good answer.

    I wonder how many well wishers said they would pray for her after the tabloids reported she had a miscarriage.

  15. #15 MAJeff
    November 29, 2007

    No one will probably read this post since it’s so far at the end, but usually, when I have sex with someone, if I call out anything, it’s that person’s name.

    I just hope I can remember their name by the time it’s time to call out something.

  16. #16 Jsn
    November 29, 2007

    /I just hope I can remember their name by the time it’s time to call out something/
    Surely you can remember a name for two minutes…
    (heh, heh)

  17. #17 MAJeff
    November 29, 2007

    /I just hope I can remember their name by the time it’s time to call out something/

    Surely you can remember a name for two minutes…
    (heh, heh)

    I feel sorry for your lovers.

  18. #18 Russell Blackford
    November 30, 2007

    This has been a bit of a trainwreck.

    Steve99 has posted here before without problem, and is very well-known at He’s one of the most “militant” atheists there, and spends a lot of time doggedly and ably defending atheism against some of the most stubborn theist attackers. He has a lot more patience for that task than I do. In short, he’s a valuable ally with a viewpoint worth considering.

    I realise that he may not be known to a lot of people who comment here, and perhaps he didn’t realise until how little overlap there is between the two sites, but I don’t blame him if he assumed his comments would be read charitably. This ought to be a lesson in not jumping to conclusions about people and not posting in anger or in a way that is meant to hurt (things that I am still guilty of all too often, myself, despite being slightly older even than PZ and Wilkins).

    I can’t imagine what he said on the other thread that has caused assumptions that he is some kind of troll. When I left my cursory reading that thread yesterday, he seemed to be engaged in a reasonable discussion.

    For what it’s worth, I also thought the Condell video was a bit over the top, but not the extent that I felt any need to comment at the time. I’m used to “reading down” broad, yet extreme-sounding, statements. I take it that Condell was not, for example, meaning to decry the value of a book like The God Delusion or God is Not Great, even though if you take some of what he said literally he is attacking any and all attempts to defend atheism with reason. I felt a bit “Meh!” about the video, but that’s all.

  19. #19 Christianjb
    November 30, 2007

    Thank-you Russell. It seems that some of the posters here are a little prone to righteous indignation when the mood suits them. There wasn’t anything in Steve’s original post that looked trollish to me and I think a few people were to quick to make assumptions about Steve’s intent, rather than his actual words.

    Someone who asks a question about a possible ethical dilemma with atheism could be a troll- but I’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt.

    Personally- I still think an apology is owed. Steve99 has written 100’s of posts to Dawkins’ site and didn’t deserve the lambasting he got here.

    Steve’s posts on Dawkins’ site:,page1,8096

  20. #20 Ichthyic
    November 30, 2007

    fucking *YAWN* already.

    Steve doesn’t need people to defend him; if he can’t make his meaning clear, that’s his problem. Steve is a big boy and appears more than capable of dealing with any miscommunication on his own, ego aside, that is.

    the internet is a wonderful place to hone your ability to ask clear questions, rhetorical or not.

    personally, I view asking for an apology for somebody else on an internet forum as an insult to the person who made the original post.

    give it up already, your making yourself look silly, and steve as well in the process.

  21. #21 MAJeff
    November 30, 2007

    and they are, cm, they are demented fuckwits.

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?, OM
    November 30, 2007

    I always point out that there are no atheist suicide bombers either…

    The PKK has had several. (Often women.)

    Which, of course, actually fits the argument: (Ícalan’s derivative of) Stalinism works like a religion.

  23. #23 David Marjanovi?, OM
    November 30, 2007

    I always point out that there are no atheist suicide bombers either…

    The PKK has had several. (Often women.)

    Which, of course, actually fits the argument: (Ícalan’s derivative of) Stalinism works like a religion.

  24. #24 Ichthyic
    November 30, 2007

    It aint exactly E.O. Wilson’s blog here.

    oh, i rather think that shortly after Wilson published Sociobiology, he ended up calling a lot of his more silly detractors something similar.

    so the recollections of those who were publishing at the time tell me, anyway.

  25. #25 Ichthyic
    November 30, 2007

    who was not only perfectly courteous but raising a perfectly reasonable point for discussion, whether or not you or anyone else actually agreed with his worry.

    …and then exposing his own sense of ego when accusing PZ of “not responding to him directly” in posting this thread.

    It was an overly simplistic argument, one made literally millions of times over hundreds of years, that should be called out regardless of who made it or why.

    PZ did NOT ever attack Steve, but rather was very specific to attack the argument itself, and only referred to the previous thread so people could see how the argument inevitably plays out.

    enough already.

  26. #26 Ichthyic
    December 2, 2007

    It would seem that your concept of polite behaviour allows people to spout totally crap.

    sad to say, but that IS the moderation policy over on, which is why I gave up on that forum ages ago.

    The nightmare Dave Hawkins created over there, and how the moderators reacted to it, was more than instructive.

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