I'm an atheist, but ... Thursday Investigator

After my cancer treatment three years ago I was living alone in a new town, looking for ways to give back and to connect to my community. Like plenty of cancer survivors and carers before me I volunteered to help at the local Hospice. 

What  sticks in my mind about my Hospice volunteer stint is a conversation I heard during the three-day orientation course. We were addressed by a spiritual adviser. This’ll be good, I thought. I love a bit of philosophising. After all, he had a generic title; he wasn’t a chaplain.

He talked about how he comforted dying patients. Great. I’m going to learn a lot here. But I was taken aback when the conversation took a religious turn. He was a devout Catholic and he and the volunteers’ manager assumed that everyone was on the same religious page. They said that most people reach for God and an afterlife when they are dying. Hmmmm. They should know; they work in a Hospice.

This was a bit difficult for me because I’d been a proud atheist for most to my life. And a sceptic with a capital S too. Was Hospice not for me if my cancer came back and I was dying? Where do atheists go?

I think I overreacted. The conversation was channeled a certain way by the interactions between the spiritual advisor and the manager to give the impression that a belief in God was essential to coming to terms with death. And everyone was nodding in agreement because it was a groupthink situation.

The 2013 census shows that 41% of New Zealanders have no religious faith. That is of the people who ticked the “religion” box on the form. (I thought it would be more.)  

(Many other societies are less secular and have more churchgoers than New Zealand does.)

I doubt if everyone converts to a religion as they face death but of course I could be wrong. Or it’s possible that those who face death with some equanimity have a sort of personal philosophy that helps them on their way though - just not as black and white as God and heaven and hell.  

I think the comfort we humans get from religion can be extended to any belief or thought system that makes us feel connected to the world, to nature, to other people.  It’s an attitude, a perspective, a love, a joy,  an ability to see your own “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as part of the larger workings of the universe.

It’s a way of zooming out and seeing your struggling self as part of one huge interconnected whole. The little poem by Edward Thomas at the foot of the article shows this. If we are forced to slow down - a funny name for a train station, a quiet rural moment - we can sense those interconnections.

Sometimes that attitude is dressed in traditional religious robes and sometimes not. I’m sure the Hospice is good for people of all beliefs or non-belief systems. I needn’t panic

Without that sort of “secular spirituality” if you could call it that, I would have found it hard to cope with 10 years of on again, off again head and neck cancer. It’s hard to roll with the punches if you don’t have a sustaining philosophy or belief system, a sense of purpose, a strong inner life. Family and friends are great but they can’t suffer the illness for you. I think people need their own sense of purpose and meaning, a connection with a larger reality gained through religion or meditation or nature or art or a deeper than usual sense of family and community.

It’s easy to talk about the principles of this sort of secular spirituality but harder to really live them. Yoga, meditation, music, art, nature, mindfulness all help. Exercise helps if we are able:  fitness, walking, running, swimming, the gym. Literature is inspiring. Even self-help books, heck, even “positive thinking” which I used to mock but which I have now come to appreciate. Lifelong learning helps.

And finally, helping others. There’s nothing like deliberately setting out to help others to keep you connected and give you a sense of purpose.

Some links:

Books that deal with finding meaning:

Statistics about religious affiliation in New Zealand:

A secular blessing written by Celtic philosopher, John O’Donohue, whose website is worth looking at. have a soft spot for blessings and tried to write one for us last Christmas.

jd blessings.jpg

And finally the little British poem Adelstrop, beloved by English teachers, written by Edward Thomas, who was killed in WWI. Other people think it’s about the peace and beauty before the storm but I think of all the birds singing all over England as just a symbol of a beautiful  interconnection.

adlestrop image.jpg


E-mail me when people leave their comments –

Maureen Jansen, editor of HNCSN, amateur investigator of head and neck cancer issues. Always willing to be questioned and challenged.

You need to be a member of Head & Neck Cancer Support Network to add comments!

Join Head & Neck Cancer Support Network

Happy with your treatment experience?

Please share your thoughts on your recent treatment experience. This can be at any stage of your cancer journey, pre treatment, treatment, post treatment, and survivorship. 

You can take our survey as many times as you like, and we encourage you to have your family/whanau and carers share their thoughts as well. Click the link to share your thoughts.



Donations are always welcome

Donate via Givealittle

Or, you can put a little bit of money in our Kiwibank account!


Upcoming Events

Cancer Dictionary