Connecticut Shooting: Warm Lies, Cold Truth, Free Minds

This is a reaction to some of the goddy rhetoric surrounding the shooting in Connecticut:

Even as an atheist good with words, I can barely express how repulsive I find the claim that those children are in Heaven, skipping along beside Jesus as he gives them a tour of Heaven. Yet we’ve heard exactly that, and more than once.

When I posted on Facebook a day or so ago about a mental image related to the tragedy, one of my readers told me she almost threw up when that same image came to her: the picture of 20 lonely Christmas trees standing in 20 silent homes, decorated and flashing with lights and warmth, already surrounded by presents bright with colorful wrapping paper, gilt cards and shining ribbons.

And no children to unwrap them.

Even that small side part of the situation, I don’t even want to think about how the parents are supposed to deal with it.

All of us, at many, many times in life, will face something of the same thing. The choice is accepting the cozy comfort of belief in an afterlife, for which there are an endless number of smiling salesmen and cheerleaders and codependents.

Or of going with this other thing, the bleak reality of real death. Real ending of the lives of our loved ones, and even of ourselves. A reality which is lonely and barren, and has few champions.

Why would anyone choose that second one? Even I sometimes wonder it.

Mostly, I’ve gone with the same intuitive feeling you might get when a stranger pulls up beside you on the street and offers you candy. That there’s something wrong with it. That there’s a catch, and it might be a big one.

But living as we have in this goddy society for all these thousands of years, swimming in a fish tank filled to the brim with religion and religious thought, breathing it in and swallowing it for so many generations, until our very language and minds are shaped by it, we have very few answers. You have to fight to even THINK about thrashing your way up to the surface and finding a breath of fresh air. Human imagination and intelligence, poisoned and dulled by long exposure, is slow to come up with answers.

I think I got one this morning, something scary but also exciting, what feels to me like a powerful idea, and one I’ll be spending some serious time thinking about. Here it is:

True things can HURT you, but they can’t HARM you.

I’m aware that lots and lots of people think there are certain little lies, and even certain big ones (Heaven, life after death, etc.), that are helpful.

But it’s not true. There might be certain comfort in believing that bad things don’t happen, but there’s immense danger in that idea too.

Lies can unmake you. They can wound you in ways that you can never recover from. Lies open you to other lies. In fact, they demand it.

Every lie that you admit into yourself, make a part of yourself, you commit to protecting it. Because your intimate sense of SELF is bound up in it, you guard it from harm, help it live within you by creating other lies to shield it, feed it, strengthen it.

The wounding of lies is immensely deeper than you imagine. The warm, soft, fellow-traveler lies you tell yourself to protect the lies already resident in your mind will seem harmless in themselves. But they establish a familiar process, a sturdy mental habit.

And once you develop that habit, once you become comfortable with the process of embracing lies, you will accept lies from other people. The lies of outside predators will hit home in your mind like long-lost kin. The outside looter needs only one key into you, a knowledge of the type of lies you already accept, and it’s like he has the secret password to your entire being.

Familiar lies, protective lies make you feel more comfortable, more at-ease within yourself, but at the same time they help these outside looters sail past your natural mental protections and lay you open to believing – and doing – ANYTHING they tell you.

You will give your life to them. If they desire it, you will give up your life.

They don’t have to hold a gun to your head, or threaten your family. They only have to talk you into it. As they are already inside your protective barriers, it’s just a matter of saying the words, holding up the symbols, pushing your buttons. And you will march into debt and servitude and even death, cheering all the while.

True things can hurt like hell.

But they can’t destroy you the way lies can.

They can only change you. Make you tougher, stronger, more yourself, more aware in the nature of the real world, and the ways in which we have to live in it.

Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
  • Catchling

    No one has ever been able to explain why, if dead children go to heaven, their death is something worth preventing. Maybe Earth has something to offer that Heaven lacks? But even then, the attitudes are incompatible, assuming we grant the existence of Hell as a “default” afterlife. If I truly believed that the average adult had a nontrivial chance of being eternally tortured in Hell, but that all children were spared this, then I would still be against anything that leads to the death of children, but I would hate myself for being against it. It would be an irrational impulse on my part to think that people should drive slowly in neighborhoods, or that children should be vaccinated, etc. I’m very glad I don’t believe in Heaven. Those who do, especially if they also believe in Hell, are necessarily living in a world where Adam Lanza is a saint to be emulated. Fortunately, (nearly all) such people are fundamentally good enough they would never do such a thing themselves, and hypocrisy is a much lesser crime than murder.

  • =8)-DX

    I’d make a distinction here: between lies and secrets. Yes: tell the truth admit to it as well. But there are some experiences that we shouldn’t just wear on our lapels, some things that one has a responsibility to oneself and others to keep secret.

    The right to privacy also creates in us the duty to protect that privacy, and respect the privacy of others.

  • MatthewLaboratory

    If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns

    • Hank Fox


    • logicpriest

      This person has said this exact thing on every post on FTB about anything relating to Connecticut. Seriously. If we outlaw nukes or anthrax or murder only outlaws will have/do those things. Because any solution that isn’t 100% effective is 100% wrong?

    • BecomingJulie

      I’m actually 100% cool with only outlaws having guns. At the moment, outlaws and non-outlaws have guns. Fewer people having guns = unquestionably a good thing.

      Disclosure: I’m British. We take the right not to get shot very seriously over here — so seriously, not even our police are armed. Criminals carrying firearms (while committing some other crime besides possession of a firearm) get automatic custodial sentences. And it seems to work.

      You probably need to start off gently, with a system of designated “gun-free zones” — initially around schools and hospitals, say — where mere possession of a firearm, even an unloaded one, will undoubtedly lead to a custodial sentence. And build it up from there.

      You also need to disabuse yourself of any notions of an afterlife, because that shit is poisoning you.

    • bradleybetts

      On every thread about the shootings you have written exactly the same thing. And guess what? It’s just as shit an argument now as it was the first time. Not to mention incredibly disrepectful to the dead and their families that, instead of showing compassion, you jump straight in with a knee-jerk cliched argument. Fuck off, little troll.

  • douglaslm

    It just twists my brain. Saying that the death of these little kids is a TRAGEDY, and with the next breath say that it is OK because they are in heaven now. I just do not understand the logic.

  • otrame

    Hank, that is some of the best writing on this subject I have ever seen. The idea that accepting lies leaves you vulnerable to the predators is not new, but you expressed it with clarity and passion–and even with compassion for those who have done so. Beautiful.

  • arvindiyer

    This is a courageous piece to write at a time when it is hardest to say “Harsh though they maybe, some truths must be told”. Here is an earlier piece expressing a similar sentiment during less harrowing times.
    In response to comment #3 above, here is an earnest question.

  • bradleybetts

    That was a fan-fucking-tastic post. Inspiring, in a way. Very well done.

  • Terri

    You don’t know where the children are at all, fact of life: we all die.
    These parents were ALL RELIGIOUS! Not up to you to tell them
    how to grieve. The shooter was an ATHEIST like yourself. I am wasting
    brain cells even responding to this garbage. The families should be respected
    let them celebrate their loved ones lives how they want.

    • Hank Fox

      By all means, save those brain cells.

      Near as I can tell, I actually am letting the parents grieve and celebrate in any way they wish. They’re in Connecticut, I’m here in Upstate New York, and I doubt they have heard about me, or ever will. Me commenting on the subject, expression my opinion here, would be that “freedom of speech” thing. Which you also seem to be doing, here on my atheist blog.

      You saying “The shooter was an ATHEIST like yourself” seems a little bullshitty. I mean, even apart from the insulting comparison, I haven’t been able to find any trustworthy source that claims Adam Lanza was an atheist.

      Do you have any such sources? I’d be glad to read them, and we could then discuss whether that led to the shooting, perhaps whether Lanza was making some sort of definite anti-religious statement at the time. We could even discuss whether there was some arguable connection between atheism and violence (during which you’d be welcome to toss in Stalin and Mao).

      As to knowing where the children are, I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that when people die they cease to exist. I have an intimate personal understanding of why so many of us would like this not to be so.

      On the other hand, I suspect the strength of the negative reaction to the idea is its own sort of argument: Even goddy people know we end. They’re just willing to trade the truth for a happy fantasy, and to accept the numerous strings and side effects that come with it.

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