Yesterday, Friday the 15th of December 2012, a maniac entered a school in Newtown Connecticut, and callously murdered 20 children and 6 adults. My heart goes out to the parents of the victims, and the entire community.
To make matters even worse, the gunman, 20 year old Adam Lanza seems to have taken his own life before he could be apprehended, so whilst there is someone to blame, there is no-one to lash out at.
At times like this, incredibly strong emotions are stirred in theists and atheists alike. We are no different to each other in our desire for safe, reasonably orderly lives. We are no different to each other in our love for friends and family. We are no different to each other in our hope that justice prevails wherever evil is perpetrated, and that goodness is rewarded. But one important difference, is that atheists do not believe that there is cosmic justice; some divine reckoning that follows Adam Lanza into existence beyond the grave.
For theists, an event of such tragic magnitude is enough to test their faith, and it’s common to hear Christians asking, “How can there be a God of love who allows such things to happen to innocent children?” Of course, if they truly knew their Bible, they would know that it claims there’s no such thing as “innocence”; that we are all tainted from birth, by the disobedience and curiosity of Adam and Eve, and given a death sentence as a result. But that’s a discussion for another video. It is common that events such as this act as the catalyst that cause many Christians to lose their faith – just at the time when it would have proved most useful, providing the placebo of a promise that their loved ones continued to exist somewhere else.
Reprehensible creatures such as the youtube apologist William Lane Craig have argued that the premature death of children is actually a good thing, hastening them to an eternity in paradise, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury has argued that a nuclear holocaust would be good for the same reason.
However, in the acute agony of violent separation from their loved ones, it is unlikely that such thoughts will provide any succour to the bereaved of Newtown. It’s likely that in the future, it is a platitude that may help their recovery, just as Prozac can help a suicidal person by numbing the pain, and disguising the true weight of emotions. It’s a fuzzy lie that some will embrace, but many will not. Because in the face of such savagery, who could honestly believe that there is a divine being who even cares about us, much less loves us enough to “number the hairs on our heads”?
And of course, this is a testing time for atheists too. A Christian recently said to me, ” Men always meet God when they are on their knees and their own mortality and destruction is before their eyes…” and he was partially right. In the extremity of agony and bereavement, even the strongest of atheists will sometimes cry out into the darkness in the hope that something greater will answer. Even the most scientific minded of people may cling to the vain belief that their loved ones continue to exist and that they are happy. This is nothing to do with the voice of God appealing to them, and everything to do with mankind’s willingness to clutch at the most irrational of straws in the depths of emotional stress. Just like an adult calling for his long dead mother, when his own life is in danger, such actions are not a sign of God’s hand, or a thought process that suddenly become lucid. It is the sign of a mind that has been pushed to the point that it loses all rationality, and all connection to the intellectual tenets and values upon which it normally operates. Just as dozens of people jumped from the burning towers to a certain death on 9/11, people do not behave logically when they are suffering.
And it’s worth noting, that whilst many a lifelong atheist may well cry out to God in extremis, none, nor any Christian, has ever been answered. If there is a God, he sits listening with the same disinterested lack of compassion as he showed whilst a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School…
But I can understand an atheist’s desperation to try anything, no matter how antithetical to his or rational beliefs under this sort of pressure, and there will be no end of theists around, only too happy to try to indoctrinate you into their faith, offering you the unsupported comfort that your loved ones are in a better place. But perhaps rather than attending church or praying, you would be better off spending your energies campaigning against bullying, or for better mental health care,or for tougher gun regulations, in the hope that you can reduce the chance of things like this happening again.
I realise that many people reading this post will consider it distasteful and opportunistic, taking advantage of a terrible tragedy to express my atheist opinions. Perhaps it is, but for once, I mean absolutely no disrespect to theists, and this video is no less moral than news programs that use this incident to question the wisdom of guns, talk about school security, bullying, or an entire tranche of issues raised by the event.
I am truly sorry and sickened for everyone’s loss. But before you all rush to condemn me, just consider this: on the night of the killings, the news broadcasts were already publicising prayer rallies, and there were priests on hand to offer comfort to anyone who needed it. I expect that these people all did so with the purest of motives, to offer comfort, but how are they different to a drug-pusher, albeit a well-meaning one, who turns up and offers free crack cocaine to help the families through the coming days? Yes, the immediate days may go a little easier, but at what long-term cost?
For a video version of this post go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpJNzRxhqPs