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 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: (Öcalan’s derivative of) Stalinism works like a religion.