Atheism and Tragedy

Recently, there have been many tragedies around the world. The factory collapse in Bangladesh, the Newtown school shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and most recently, the tornado that tore through Oklahoma City. As a mom to two school-age girls, remembering the Newtown shooting in particular still gets me choked up.

Every time something bad happens on a large scale, my Facebook feed erupts with prayers, twitter explodes with comments about God’s wrath and online “news” articles ask how something like this could happen. As an ex-Christian, I understand the reflexive response of prayer, I sympathize with the comfort it brings people. But today, I don’t try to understand or explain such horrors with religious language. I don’t ask “where was God?”, I don’t try to interpret God’s will or agonize over figuring out some deeper message. I don’t picture the dead in some glorious afterlife to dull my sadness. I don’t turn the shooter into a devil so I don’t have to address issues like gun ownership/regulation, mental illness or access to health services.

Something always bothered me about the way Christians handle tragedy – especially the death of loved ones. It felt like denial. There was a sense I got that it wasn’t ok to be really, really sad because you’d see them again in heaven. It seemed like people weren’t allowed to go through the grieving process. How on earth can I explain to my kids that God loves people and he sends tornados through a school because they think it’s ok to be gay? How can I live with myself telling my kids they don’t have to be so sad about grandma because they’ll see her again in heaven – wherever that is.

I now face tragedy (personal and impersonal) eye to eye and work through the feelings and thoughts that come. Newtown, Connecticut; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Dhaka, Bangladesh and Boston, Massachusetts (and every other city around the world that has experienced tragedy in the past year) will be altered because members of their communities are no longer in it. The parents and siblings of the dead children will forever have a gaping hole in their lives. The spouses, partners and loved ones of the adults who were killed will forever mourn. Untimely death affects us all, it changes us all, we are all lesser for it.

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Atheists face tragedy without the protective mechanisms of prayer and a belief in an afterlife. I think, in many ways, this is a gift we can give to our communities in times of grief – offering it gently and with sensitivity, mostly by example. Atheists are just as sensitive, compassionate and empathetic as theists. We are just as capable of holding space for the grieving. In addition, we are able to model practical things that can be done to help, taking action side by side with people of faith.

I appreciate these comments made in the wake of the Aurora theatre shootings earlier this year:

“It’s (religious belief) an empty comfort, however. Brains must be partially shut off to partake in it. Faith must trump fact. If the foundations of the comfort are analyzed rationally, cognitive dissonance arrives and hope fades.” Daniel Florien, responding to the shooting in Aurora, CO earlier this year.

“Atheists don’t have such platitudes to pull out of their pockets. They must summon the courage to approach the bereaved with nothing but their empty, open hands, saying “I care about you,” and “Is there anything I can do to help you?”” Richard Wade

Atheists usually react to tragedies like this emotionally at first, just like anyone. But instead of moving on to thoughts about God, scripture readings or prayer meetings, we try to make sense of it all in a world without gods (usually acknowledging that there is often very little sense) and then move on to the practical work of helping and sorting through our own fears and grief. Sometimes that’s hard. And that’s ok. Because none of us was promised a world without pain, suffering, death or confusion. So we struggle and we hurt and we find ways to reach out with an open hand to say, “I care, how can I help”?

The reality is that everyone handles these tragedies differently. Everyone explains it to their kids differently. Atheists are no different. We don’t need to be overly rational in the face of such tragedies. We have emotions and these things hurt and confuse us. We have an opportunity to be vulnerable. Let us extend gentle empathy and compassion without the religious platitudes and be a true light in very, very dark space.

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