No, not Ray Comfort, the odd little Kiwi who masturbated a banana and called it “the atheist’s nightmare” (I mean, it was a nightmare, only not just for atheists *shudder*). Rather, this is about the state or condition of being comfortable or comforted; the mitigation or elimination of discomfort. Specifically, the point of view held by defenders of religion, both religious and not-necessarily-religious, that religious belief, even if demonstrably false & unsupported, provides comfort to those who hold it.

With special regard to death & bereavement, this is maintained all the time. Even if someone’s religion is false, they might say, the fact that they believe their departed loved one is in a much better place is easing their pain and dulling their grief. Even in their bereavement and suffering, they take solace from their belief that the deceased person now sits with God. As they contemplate their own inveitable death, they may draw comfort from the prospect of finally meeting their maker and being reunited with those who went before them.

What I’d like to know is how comfortable these believers feel contemplating the afterlives of other people – specifically, people who don’t share their beliefs. With few exceptions, most people in the world have relatives and friends of different faiths and/or of no faith at all. How comforting is it to think about what happens to them once they die? How nice could eternal bliss in Heaven possibly be with the knowledge of loved ones being tormented forever elsewhere or, as some religions maintain, simply ceasing to exist?

As a child, this troubled me. The thought of Hell was bad enough in and of itself, but the thought of friends or family being sent there while I went to Heaven was utterly beastly. Surely God would know that not everyone had the same religion, or if they were, not necessarily of the same sect (as a nominal Protestant, I worried about my Catholic friends and I’m sure they worried about me). Surely God knew that many people in the world, mostly good people, had never heard of Jesus. If they’d never heard of Jesus while they were alive and therefore weren’t Christians when they died, were they to expect eternal torment? This still troubles me – not because I believe it’s true but because so many people seem to be so damned okay with it. Some aren’t though – hence the proclaimed aims of evangelism and the subsequent being woken up on a Saturday morning by one of two main brands of Bible-thumper – and that’s almost admirable. After all, they’re trying to save people from the worst fate they can imagine. However, I can’t help but wonder why they’re not asking themselves why God created Hell in the first place, especially if he was going to make it so easy to gain entry – it’s not like he had no choice in the matter. I’d suggest they actually ask God what the deal is with Hell, but there’s a glaringly obvious reason why I won’t.

I’m just wondering how much comfort a Christian takes from her faith whilst at the funeral of her Jewish best friend, who she believes won’t be joining God in Heaven and may even burn forever. Can a Muslim draw any comfort from his faith if his son, an apostate, an atheist, lies before him in his grave? What of the Jehovah’s Witness on his deathbed, spending his last moments in abject sorrow because his children left the one true faith, the faith of his fathers? It would seem that, in these cases (which must happen every day across the globe), a person’s faith would provide no comfort whatsoever. Quite the opposite.

Of course, some religious people say “specific belief doesn’t matter – all paths lead to God,” in which case there would be no point in subscribing to one belief system over another. But I strongly suspect people who say such things wouldn’t convert to another religion or even just renounce their own for, say, five minutes, even to make a point. I think they say such things to comfort themselves as they contemplate the doom of a loved one. I think the fear of Hell (a cornerstone of even the most moderate Christianity – what did Jesus get himself executed for if not to save us all from the Hell of his father’s – his own making?) will always be strong enough for most believers to remain in the fold.

So, no, I don’t buy this “religion provides comfort” business – especially when talking of death, which is when comfort is most needed. Indeed, it would seem that the stronger your faith, the less comfort you can possibly take from it if the deceased isn’t of your flock, or if you’re contemplating your own death in the unshakeable belief that many of your loved ones won’t be joining you. If I were still Christian, I could think of nothing more harrowing than the prospect of dying & entering Heaven to sit with God, only to see my wife, my brothers, most of my friends or my parents condemned for all eternity and out of my reach. No amount of racing Jim Clark down golden streets or long, stoned conversations with Hendrix or real-life Quake games could comfort me.