On Criticizing Religious Statements In The Wake of Tragedy

Right now the United States of America is mourning twenty murdered little children and seven murdered adults. I think I speak for many atheists, even many of those most hostile to religion, when I say that I don’t lose even a little bit of sleep over the prospect of millions of people seeking solace in their religious beliefs, institutions, or practices at a time like this. We can debate what is true or false and good or bad in religious beliefs at other times and in other contexts. Grieving people need the mental and emotional space to grieve in peace, far away from the arenas where ideas, ethical systems, and political beliefs clash with each other. Coping with bereavement is a burden enough to bear without any more conflict in their lives.

Like a lot of atheists, I am also appalled by the vampires and vultures who would try to exploit people at their most vulnerable to try to manipulate them into conversions or deconversions. When a grieving person talks to me about their beliefs, my only concern in that context is their emotional and mental well being. Were a grieving person to seek out my honest views on matters related to religion, metaphysics, life after death, spirituality, death, or related issues, I would pay them the compassionate respect of gentle, affirmative honesty. But I am not going to barge into people’s lives unbidden and try to ramp up their emotions and twist them towards agreement with me about philosophical or theological matters. Such would be rotten of me.

What I, and other atheists like me, cannot abide, however, is when religious people go into the public square and try to scapegoat secularists in general and atheists in specific for tragedies. Just as we would be duly outraged if blacks or Jews or gays or any other group were being demonized and irrationally blamed for something they collectively could not possibly have had anything to do with, we atheists are stung and infuriated by such behavior from religious people. And we need to respond to it, as I did earlier tonight, swiftly and with due indignation.

That’s not because this tragedy is about us atheists. This tragedy is about the children and the adults who are dead, those who are traumatized, and those families, friends, and communities that will be permanently devastated. They are who the nation’s focus should be squarely upon. Their murderer’s name should be barely if ever mentioned lest infamy-craving copy cats be encouraged. And religious and political partisans should not be demonizing their enemies (perceived or real) over the tragedy.

The reason atheists need to stand up and push back against religious people trying to exploit this tragedy is because in times of trauma individuals, including vigilantes and legislators, do deeply irrational things. The terrorization of America on 9/11 led to a decade and counting’s worth of egregious criminality on the part of the United States government. An aggressive, unjustified war of misplaced anger in Iraq has yielded tens of thousands of deaths of Iraqi innocents and American soldiers. The executive branch of our government has dangerously expanded its powers and has slowly been strangling the fourth amendment to death. We have unrepentantly abandoned our treaty commitments against torture and raised a generation of young Americans in which roughly half morally approve of practices that used to be overwhelmingly seen as obviously evil.

Authoritarians feed off of fear. They seize moments of terror and panic to get people to surrender their liberties to them. Shameless right wing ideologues, including a formerly viable Presidential candidate, who use tragedies like this to attack our nation’s commitment to secularism, and its opposition to state imposed prayers and religious instructions in public schools, cannot get away have their attempts to manipulate the feelings of the public while the nation’s emotions are so raw go uncriticized. When we atheists push back against such rhetoric coming from the right, we are not attacking people’s moral or legal rights to grieve religiously. We are sending the message that it is shameful to go into the public square and cite a tragedy as a justification for fearing and demonizing the views of a minority group. We are saying it is shameful to suggest the nation “remedy” the imagined influence of that vilified minority group by imposing religious beliefs on all children, using governmental leverage. That is shameful. And if you try to manipulate people’s religious sentiments when they are most vulnerable in order to opportunistically reassert your religion’s dominance over public life you will be shamed. The minority you try to bully will express its anger at you for your contemptuous and hateful treatment of us.

And we will do this especially because, certainly, some number of those traumatized children, parents, teachers, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, police officers, and community members are non-believers too. And it is revolting and infuriating that anyone would go into public and point the finger at them while they are grieving their lost loved ones, or the dead children they saw with their own eyes, and tell them that the deaths are their fault because we have laws that protect their freedom from government imposed religious rituals and teaching that would abridge their freedoms of conscience.

It is in response to such cavalierly inhuman thoughtlessness, that I rage.

It is not because others take comforts in their religions or flock to their churches in their hour of horror that I am angry. I fully understand that and just hope for the day we atheists provide comparable resources of community and ritual to non-believers more systematically and reliably.

I am angry because atheists shouldn’t be subjected in these times to sermons like I had to endure when my grandmother died and the priest at the wake explicitly attacked atheists and gloated that they Christians had hope and we atheists had none. I didn’t care because I believed his lie. Of course I didn’t. I cared because he was so smug, self-righteous, and indifferent to my existence as to promulgate it while I sat in the same room with my grandmother’s corpse. That he thought nothing of insulting any mourning atheists present is my problem with religion in times of grief and sorrow. It’s not the comforts religion brings to some, it’s the unthinking cruelty it metes out to others. It’s the nasty instinct to blame grieving parents for not having enough faith or a grieving nation for not being obsequious enough to the small evil narcissistic deity that the smallest, most evil, and most narcissistic of believers worship. That’s what I will speak out against, especially in times of sorrow, because it is in these times that such nastiness is the most damaging.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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