What an Atheist Learned from a Discussion on Faith & Adversity

Written By Alaina Cyr
Image of speaker
Imam Alli speaks at the podium while Michael Marshall and Sensei Henderson listen

​A rabbi, a chaplain, a spiritual grandmother, an imam, a sensei, and a sister all walk into ELLICSR...

It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but during our National Cancer Survivors Day celebration we invited representatives from a range of different faiths to take part in a panel discussion on Faith in the Face of Adversity.

This may be the last place you’d expect to find an atheist, but there was at least one in the room: me. While the discussion was framed with the context of faith and religion, there were 3 messages that also stuck with me.

  1. It's OK to ask questions, even if there aren’t answers.
    Some people ask “why?”, “why me?”, “why not me?”, or “where am I now?” No matter what your question may be, everyone on the panel agreed that asking existential questions is healthy and a valid reaction to a cancer diagnosis.
  2. Adversity challenges, and ultimately strengthens, us and our faith.
    Hardship may initially shatter our faith, but it will end up strengthening it in the end, Sister Mary Carol suggested. Imam Alli built on this idea by talking about the lotus flower. He explained that the lotus blooms from dirty water; hope, too, can come from a dark or dirty place.
  3. Everyone copes with difficulty in different but equally valid ways.
    Rabbi Elkin shared a teaching by Rabbi Akiva about a king and his four sons. Each son had a different way of facing adversity: the first kept silent, the second protested, the third begged for mercy, and the fourth asked for more. This story emphasizes that there are many different ways to face a difficult situation. The “right” way is the one that works for you.

The panel presented quite a few perspectives that I didn’t know much about before the event. It was enriching to learn a little more about them. The range of beliefs made for an interesting discussion, particularly when their views were at odds with each other. But even with these disagreements, it was inspiring to have such a diverse group come together and participate in a respectful, open discussion on faith.

Thank you to the panelists for the thought-provoking discussion:

  • Michael Marshall, panel facilitator
  • Sensei Henderson, representing the Buddhist perspective
  • Sister Mary Carol, representing the Christian perspective
  • Alita Sauve, representing the Indigenous perspective
  • Imam Alli, representing the Muslim perspective
  • Rabbi Elkin, representing the Jewish perspective

Special thanks to Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto for organizing the panel.

How did your spirituality help you face cancer? Or did it? Join the discussion on Facebook.