Dear Cyber Rav,
I have a good friend, an older Gentile man who is in his 70's. He has a large wonderful family. He is dying rapidly of cancer. I spent today with him. What I find so sad is that he has never had any type of faith and he has none now. It is so sad to see a person such as this. I attempted to comfort him to no avail, due to his lack of faith. What scares me is two-fold. If I were in a position of imminent death, would I hold true to my faith and should I be put into a situation that forced me to hold true to my faith, would I be able to sustain my faith and hold fast? These are the only things in my life that I am petrified of. Any thoughts to sustain me when my hour of need arises? I firmly attempt to lead my life by building bridges before I need them.
It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I don't think that is an absolute. People who have spent their whole life without a concept of God or afterlife or heaven, do not suddenly erect those belief structures when death is imminent. I have seen this many times. No one can force another to believe, whether it is the Bat Mitzvah at the age of 12 or an elderly man lying on his death bed. My sense is that those who leave this world with a sense of the afterlife, a faith that God does not merely commit us to oblivion, do better at dying than others. It is not that God is rewarding them and punishing the atheists. It is that some leave this world with hope while others do not or cannot. Hope is better—and that's simply a value judgment that we, as Jews, embrace.
Where does faith come from? It may be generated independent of any influences around you, but most likely it is the product of being together with people whose lives are a demonstration of faith--people who believe, who pray, who make a point of bringing joy and relief into the world, who verbally say "Thank God," and so forth. When our faith falters, their faith supports us and when their faith falters, our faith inspires them. People of faith will suffer moments of doubt, but doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is the demand that our faith be based on truth. Our doubts often compel us to square reality with our sense of divine justice, an enterprise that can sometimes be daunting and frustrating.
Having said that, I think that in the same way that non-believers do not necessarily "get religion" when death is imminent, I don't know of many people who become atheists when death stands at the door. After all, faith is a world view, it is an understanding of who we are in this vast world in which we live, and what our relationship to the Almighty (and vice versa) is. That doesn't dissipate at the moment of crisis. It is at the moment of crisis that this faith should kick in with full power.
Don't worry. I know you and what a deep and abiding faith you have. And moreover, I know how many people love you and would be ready to support you at a time of crisis.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav