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?

For more on religion, atheism, and suffering, read this post.

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.

  • http://tuibguy.com Mike Haubrich

    Yes, let those grieving grieve in peace and get what emotional support that they need.

    I have gotten to the point where my first response to what Bryan Fischer and his ilk is to roll my eyes and think “how predictable.” But, you are correct that we need to point out what arrogant jerks and nasty people they are to exploit the grief and anger of people that they don’t even know.

    Thanks, Dan.

  • http://dododreams.blogspot.com/ John Pieret

    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.

    While we agnostics (and liberal theists and others who believe in a secular state) welcome atheists’ support, don’t imagine you atheists are the sole source of pushback against the theocrats.

  • http://myhumorousagenda.blogspot.com Bret Alan

    I don’t disagree with you, and I wouldn’t suggest you do anything different, but as for me, I would rather not give the various church groups, pastors and conservative pundits the added attention of repeating their remarks. A certain sign-holding church known for protesting gets more publicity than they deserve, both from atheists and the mainstream media. I don’t want any part of it. That’s more of a personal choice, though, and I don’t fault atheists who do want to respond, I just have no interest in making it seem like they deserve my response.

    • mikmik

      But they already have attention and mass visibility. We aren’t giving them any, we are countering their drek with common sense. The only way for evil to flourish, is for Good men(people) to do nothing, and all that.
      Remaining silent is apathy and surrender.

    • http://myhumorousagenda.blogspot.com Bret Alan

      I don’t see good people doing anything, just talking. If we continue to just talk about it, if we continue to just bicker amongst ourselves, if we continue to pretend like it matters who or what gets blamed… it’s just going to happen again, and I assure you, the same people will make the same stupid remarks.

      We need real gun regulation, not properly pointed fingers.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

    I don’t see good people doing anything, just talking. If we continue to just talk about it, if we continue to just bicker amongst ourselves, if we continue to pretend like it matters who or what gets blamed… it’s just going to happen again, and I assure you, the same people will make the same stupid remarks.

    No. It is the talking about what is appropriate and inappropriate that influences what people think is acceptable next time. It’s a matter of creating consciousness. It’s important.

  • http://www.heresyclub.com/author/alex Alex Gabriel

    On the point of religious statements in the public square after things like this, I think they can be problematic even if they don’t ‘scapegoat secularists in general and atheists in specific’. I’m alright with personal religious statements when it comes to public grief, but I think religious voices can easily start to dominate the public square. Take for example the #PrayForNewton hashtag on Twitter, which I think trended globally: how many of the people who tweeted on that were expressing sincere, personal loss or solidarity, and how many were jumping on the bandwagon to keep the trend going? Every religious tweet which expressed support by using that hashtag (rather than not including it) contributed to religious responses to the shootings being the loudest by far. Clearly, I’m in support the right of believers to say these things, but I think for members of majority religions and of religions in general, care should be taken not to drown out other voices. As a comparison, for example, think of the feminist arguments about how male voices tend to dominate gender-related discussion – yes, you have a right to speak, but please be considerate about how you use your voice.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      I don’t think that’s worth complaining about, Alex. If people want to express their solidarity in religious hope, that’s their business.

    • Laurent Weppe

      Every religious tweet which expressed support by using that hashtag (rather than not including it) contributed to religious responses to the shootings being the loudest by far

      Since religious people are far more numerous than atheists, religious responses are going to be the loudest by far anyway. And the non-scapegoating religious statements have little to do with male voices drowning gender relations: “Our Prayers go the the victims and their loved ones” and “What about the meeeeenz” express mindsets so far away from each other that I canot see how one can put them in the same bag.

      ***

      Back to the main topic, I’d say that the main problem lies in sectarian tribalism at its worst:

      In the aftermatch of a massacre, jumping around shouting “Where’s your God, huh? Where’s your God now?” or pointing fingers and saying “It’s because you did not worship enough and allowed icky secularism in the school” are in both case the worst expressions of sectarian tribalism: they express delight in the suffering of someone from outside the tribe.

  • andrew follett

    what authority do you appeal to in formulating your opinions? From the content of this blog the only one i can guess at are the authors of the constitution. All of them professed theist, heretics some, but theist none the less. If your rhetoric is to serve a concrete position like atheism, you should limit citing only those who are as cemented in their ideas as you are. To your expression of hope that one day the atheist of the world will one day provide the institutions to comfort the afflicted and the grieving. I thought the ussr was a atheistic state aimed at bringing the world just what you wish for. that purely intellectual human construct was responsible for more murders in the 20th century than any other. an atheist depends soley on his own ideas and achievements to give hope and purpose to his life. so dont concern yourself with the welfare of the greater good, just worry about your own problems, leave the lofty and expansive problem of human suffering to those who can discern the reality of God s existence. asking an atheist to minister to the needs of the many is like asking a man with no fingers to perform surgery. you identify yourself and your like as a minority, and rightly so. all species bound for extinction spend a time as a minority.

    • harry weseman

      “you identify yourself and your like as a minority, and rightly so. all species bound for extinction spend a time as a minority”

      We are still a minority but a growing one. In several countries in north-west Europe we are close to a majority if not already, so we are not heading for extinction. It looks like religion is heading fro extinction as more and more church buildings are converted into creches and apartments due to lack of believers.

    • Laurent Weppe

      And of course, we could not avoid the usual jerking off contest between a theist and an atheist, each one prophetizing the other’s extinction and looking forward for the day to go piss on the other’s corpses.

    • harry weseman

      Mr. Weppe, I do not understand your comment: atheism IS on the rise in the USA and even more so in Europe. I wouldn’t be pissing on the corpse of Christianity any more than on the dead bodies of the Olympian gods.

      More on topic, it is interesting to compare this tragedy and the one in Norway July last year when Anders Breivik murdered 77 people, no children, but young adults most of them: there has been (as far as I know) no discussions like the one we are having here. No one in Norway or in Europe has claimed that god had punished the Norwegians for their godless ways.

    • smrnda

      So, because you don’t think human problems can be addressed without god or gods, all atheists should just be silent on all issues then? Or that, since you see no basis for human compassion aside from divine command, that atheists shouldn’t have or advocate any sort of social responsibility? Since when did you get to dictate how other people should think? I mean, you said this:

      “an atheist depends soley on his own ideas and achievements to give hope and purpose to his life:

      So, what if an atheist’s idea is that if we would examine social and personal problems rationally, without hoping for supernatural explanations and solutions, we would all be happier? You’ve undermined your own assertion that atheists should be selfish. I think your statement here is just insecurity talking – you can’t sell people on your mythology if people who don’t believe it are decent, caring people.

      As a person wh0 disbelieves in god, when I am suffering, I don’t want to be patronized by fairly tales; I want the causes and effects. I don’t want to see anyone else patronized with the idea that some all-powerful god is letting them suffer because this god has some grand plan that he just can’t take the time to explain. To me, asking a religious person to comfort the afflicted is dragging in some unqualified quack who believes in homeopathy when someone is dying – an ineffectual move since the person’s ‘solutions’ are all based in imaginary BS. Get a reality based practitioner in there.

    • Laurent Weppe

      Mr. Weppe, I do not understand your comment

      No matter how much you, the people on “your side”, or the people on the “other side” try to make this religion-themed “We will bury you” triumphalism look reasonable, this kind of argumentum ad populum is little more than fratboy chest beating and it annoys me.

      ***

      No one in Norway or in Europe has claimed that god had punished the Norwegians for their godless ways.

      That’s because the only people who dare make such claims are from the far-right and therefore decided to be very discreet in the aftermatch of a political massacre commited by a far-right activist.

    • harry weseman

      You write: “No matter how much you, the people on “your side”, or the people on the “other side” try to make this religion-themed “We will bury you” triumphalism look reasonable, this kind of argumentum ad populum is little more than fratboy chest beating and it annoys me.”

      I have no idea how you can read that from my comments. Triumphalism? Fratboy chest beating? The only thing I wanted to do is react to someone who is claiming without any evidence that atheism is a minority that is to go extinct, whereas polls and censuses show that in the Western world atheism/agnosticism/none-ism is on the rise. Take for instance the results of the UK 2011 census published recently:

      http://blog.echurchwebsites.org.uk/2011/09/18/uk-religion-final-tables-2011-census/

      Why would one want to be triumphant about this? It is just so sad that it took so long after centuries of religious intolerance. (Now please don’t start on communist and other authoritarian intolerance, it amounts to the same thing: religious fervor and zealotry in some other’s name).

      The other thing is, I wanted to contrast the reaction of some public figures, religious “leaders” and politicians in the USA to disasters, man-made or otherwise, with the virtual complete absence of such in Europe. You are saying about my example of the Oslo massacre:

      “That’s because the only people who dare make such claims are from the far-right and therefore decided to be very discreet in the aftermatch of a political massacre commited by a far-right activist.”

      How do you know that? Are you from Norway? Or are you just making assumptions? You are in fact claiming that Breivik now is a political prisoner!

      Another example I can give you that is actually very much similar to the Sandy Hook massacre is the Winnenden massacre in Germany in March 2009, see here:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnenden_school_shooting

      I lived in Germany at the time, my German is good enough to understand the German TV coverage. I can assure you, nobody came up with the idea that Germans were being punished for something. Of course there were many people asking “where was God?”. For instance, read this article (it is in German, Google Translate gives a reasonable translation):

      http://www.welt.de/vermischtes/article3366346/Die-Buerger-von-Winnenden-fragen-nach-Gott.html

      The question where he was is not answered but it gives an insight how people were coping, more or less.

      Whatever disaster befalls Americans, religious leaders will claim it is god’s punishment for something: Katrina for the wickedness of the New Orleanians, 9/11 for homosexuality, the Sandy super storm for ditto, Sandy Hook for throwing god out of public schools. Some Americans claimed that the 2010 tsunami in Japan was the punishment of the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, I kid you not. I am not aware that leading political or religious figures in Europe have ever said something like this, at least not in north-west Europe.

      I know from experience that religious people can say horrible things. In 1969 a sister-in-law of mine was killed in a horrific traffic accident (she was 18), my parents-in-law were not allowed to see her, it was that bad. A neighbor had the gall to claim that my mother-in-law was punished by god for something she had done, she said it to her face. They were staunch Catholics, this was truly shocking. I also remember a priest visiting them, I was there, he had actually nothing to say, no words of comfort, he might as well not have been there.

      I am too old to be a fratboy, I am not beating my chest, and I do not feel triumphant. Just sad, very very sad.

    • Laurent Weppe

      The only thing I wanted to do is react to someone who is claiming without any evidence that atheism is a minority that is to go extinct

      To which you answered with a variant of the ever so classy “I know you are but what am I“, and now you’re doing this annoying chest-beating again.

      ***

      How do you know that? Are you from Norway? Or are you just making assumptions? You are in fact claiming that Breivik now is a political prisoner!

      First: I’m from Europe, and yes, I saw the whole fucking european wingnuts brotherhood going through a self-imposed silence in the immediate aftermatch of the slaughter. It went so far that for a few months, in France, members of the local fascist party who displayed too openly their sympathies toward neo-nazis or islamophobic fringe movements were unceremoniously expelled: hiding their commonality with Breivik had become that important to them.

      Second: Breivik deliberately killed dozens of members of the social-democratic party youth division: it was a clearly calculated attempt at exterminating the next generation of the left-wing elites. Arresting someone who commits a murder for political reasons is not turning him into a fucking political prisoner: Jared Loughner who shot Gabrielle Gifford because he disliked the idea of women being involved in politics, Yigal Amir, who murdered Rabin because he signed the Oslo accords, the Godse brothers, who assassinated Ghandi because he did not share their vengeful bloodlust toward India’s Muslims, Beate Zschäpe who with two other neo-nazis murdered nine businessmen of turkish & greek origins and one cop: all of them commited murder for political reason, all were caught and thrown in jail and none of them have ever been considered political prisoners by anyone except their ideological buddies.

      ***

      Whatever disaster befalls Americans, religious leaders will claim it is god’s punishment for something

      No: when disaster befalls America, far-right leaders playacting the devout religious leaders claim it is God’s punishment: when sandy happened, the religious leaders who were not far right charlatans in disguise issued statements like “Help thy neighbour and by the way, global warming is real” or proved to be too busy opening shelters to point fingers and look for someone to blame, ditto for every disaster.

      The blame’o'matic Holier Than Thou people who go on TV or in a radio show or on the internet to say that “God is punishing people for not doing what I Want” are the equivalent of the armchair chickenhawk pundits, who always pontificate about war and bravery and heroism and patriotism and so forth but never actually put themselves into dangerous situation: just like these people, the blame’o'matic vultures keep talking about devotion and virtue and fortitude, but God forbids that they, themselves go out and do something virtuous.

      Far-right charlatans always try to pretend that they are the norm, and thanks to cleverly taking advantage of the US’ disfunctional election system managed to make themselves so vital to one of the two relevant political parties that they were given a soapbox allowing them to pretend that they and only they embody religion.

      There is no excuse for becoming the de facto accomplice of these extremist bullies by playing along and giving credence to their wild claims of supremacy over the religious: corrupt, inept and impopular politicians incapable of winning elections without the support from extremists are already giving them way too much clout as it is.

    • Monado

      Why the hell should we refer to any authority in formulating our opinons? We just observe and deduce.

  • John Rawl

    This is going to be completely non-sequitur to your post, I apologize, but I would like to talk about mass shootings and the media in general. On television today, you will find 24/7 coverage of the Connecticut shooting, but on the Internet, you will predominantly find meta-coverage of the coverage itself. Countless QWERTY icons have made blurbs and diatribes aimed towards the major venues of American news, attacking them for iconizing the killer after his sinister deeds, and the general consensus of Internet users is that vilifying mass shooters in such a way only perpetuates violence and motivates copy-cat killers. Each time there is a publicized shooting such as this one, chances are that there will be another one. But what these commenters don’t seem to acknowledge, for the most part, is that they themselves are a part of the problem. By telling people to blot out killers’ names, and to take interest in mental illness rather than random killings, they themselves are escalating the problem even further.

    Now, am I saying “hush!” to the people that are saying “hush!”? No. I am not saying that people should stop pointing out this issue because it not an important subject of discussion, I am saying that there is no use of even trying to stop the coverage of mass murderers. In this day and age, where the news becomes stale only hours after its conception, it is impossible to expect society to turn their collective backs to stories like this. We are information hunting predators, and we will always satiate ourselves with stories of the perverse and stories of the morose, because when the news is literally at our fingertips, we just can’t help ourselves.

  • Hilary

    Daniel

    Well said. Let those who are grieving find comfort in their beliefs. Do not let grief be manipulated into scape goating the people, beliefs and issues that had nothing to do with the tragedy, for that may easily lead to more tragedy down the line.

    Hilary

  • Chris

    There are some of us among the religious who expressed immediate outrage at what Huckabee and others said. The issue, I think, is that most genuine religious people are not interested in religion gaining political power; therefore, we don’t have as loud of a voice. It’s hard to organize over a non-interest.

    Moreover, those of us who defy evangelical ideals suffer the same way you do. I lost my first fiancée because I believe in evolution and in a scholarly and well-researched interpretation of the Bible. My current fiancée and I are in danger of losing her parents because we hold such views. My beliefs have cost me numerous friends. It’s not atheists whom they despise; it is anyone who actively disagrees with their worldview.

  • Cal

    It turns me off when atheists accuse theists and the leaders theistic thought of being insensitive to tragedy. Why don’t atheists join where there is agreement instead of the drone of critique? Is philosophy more important than morality?

    • Kodie

      It turns me off when theists let words come out of their mouths without thinking at all.


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