A World in Shadow VI

In 2006 and 2007, I wrote several entries in a series called A World in Shadow, bolstering the atheist’s argument from evil by describing particularly shocking or egregious instances of natural and moral evils. However, I haven’t written any new entries for this series in some time.

To be honest, I stopped writing these posts because I found them too upsetting. There are more than enough – far too many – examples of tragedy and catastrophe in this world to make the case against a benevolent overseer; we need not dwell on them. But today, I have to make just one further exception. I don’t like writing about these things, but this is one case where the tragedy is so shattering, the suffering so horrendous, and the action needed to stop it so trivial, that it perfectly sums up and encapsulates the argument from evil.

I’ll begin where Gene Weingarten begins, from his March 8 article in the Washington Post:

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept.

This ordinary man, Miles Harrison, was a loving father who made an irrevocable mistake: on his way in to work one day last summer, distracted and beset by daily trivialities, he forgot to drop off his infant son at daycare. He entered his office, leaving the child still strapped into his car seat in the parking lot. And over nine hours, on a sweltering July day, the temperatures inside the car rose until the boy slowly boiled to death.

It seems incredible, unbelievable that any parent could forget their own child. But this case is not the first, and it will not be the last. It happens, on average, around 20 times a year in the United States alone, to parents of every occupation and social class:

Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Part of the reason why this happens is the recommendation of safety experts that young children in child seats be in the rear of the car, facing backwards, to protect them from injury in crashes. A child who can’t easily be seen by the driver is easier to forget about. But the larger reason, as Weingarten’s article explains, simply has to do with the fallibility of human memory and attention. Though we value the lives of our children, that does not mean the memory is treated any differently by the neural circuitry of the brain. In people who are stressed, sleep-deprived, distracted, the higher executive functions can be shunted aside by the lower, more primitive system of the basal ganglia, an evolutionary autopilot that carries out frequently rehearsed tasks with mechanical single-mindedness. (This is why you can sometimes drive a familiar route and end up at your destination with no memory of the journey.) Usually this is a harmless mental shortcut, but when it goes awry, this is the tragedy that results.

I have no desire to place blame on the parents who do this. For the most part, they’re not bad people; they’re loving parents who made an awful mistake, and who’ve already punished themselves far beyond anything a judge or jury could ever impose. But consider, now, how little a benevolent god – if there was one – would have to do to stop this from happening. It would take no dramatic interventions, no obvious miracles – just a small, possibly even subconscious nudge to the parent before it was too late. It would interfere with no one’s free will to do this. These parents, after all, are not murderers, did not desire to kill their children.

But these tragedies continue to occur, and that can only mean one of three things. Either there is no cosmic authority watching the affairs of humankind, and we are on our own and must take the initiative ourselves if we are to prevent tragedies like this. Or there is a god who lacks either the knowledge of what is going on or the ability to do anything about it. Or, most horrifyingly, there is a god who knows perfectly well when this happens, could save these children if he so desired, but does nothing – only stands by and watches while innocent infants slowly broil to death behind glass.

For reasons I cannot fathom, millions of people adopt the third of those three choices and call it comforting. What comfort they find in believing that their lives are overseen by such a heartless monster, I couldn’t say. But there is reason to believe that at least some people to whom this has happened have drawn the obvious moral:

The Terrys are Southern Baptists. Before Mika’s death, Mikey Terry says, church used to be every Sunday, all day Sunday, morning Bible study through evening meal. He and his wife, Michele, don’t go much anymore. It’s too confusing, he says.

“I feel guilty about everyone in church talking about how blessed we all are. I don’t feel blessed anymore. I feel I have been wronged by God. And that I have wronged God. And I don’t know how to deal with that.”

Four years have passed, but he still won’t go near the Catholic church he’d been working at that day. As his daughter died outside, he was inside, building a wall on which would hang an enormous crucifix.

Other posts in this series:

SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
Weekend Coffee: March 28
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
The FLDS Cult Is Unraveling
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • velkyn

    The excuse that most theists will use is that they believe it is their deity’s “will” to punish someone by these tragedies or even worse to “teach” them and others by tragedy. I find this disgusting and emblematic of how sado-masochistic theists have be to believe as they do. I have no desire for someone to suffer to “teach” me *anything*.

  • Polly

    I sympathize and don’t blame the parents in these situations. Sometimes, though people do leave kids (or pets) in cars with full awareness for “a short time.”

    It’s this that I have trouble with:

    He and his wife, Michele, don’t go much anymore. It’s too confusing, he says.

    This is pure hypocrisy. Every believer knows that wretched things happen to people the world over. Surely they know they aren’t the first to lose a perfectly, healthy child due to some monstrous accident. Yet, when it happens TO THEM, they become “confused” and sometimes angry (as I have seen) at god.
    I just want to ask them: Why? Why now? Because it happened TO YOU? Did you feel that those other people somehow deserved what they got? Did you think god had a special plan for you that involved only good things while others suffered? Has anything about this universe changed that you should alter your viewpoint?

  • prase

    Did you feel that those other people somehow deserved what they got? Did you think god had a special plan for you that involved only good things while others suffered?

    Actually most people think they are special. Combined with faith it yields all the bogus about Jesus’ special care and personal love. What also comes into play is the just world fallacy. Only after they personally encounter injustice the fallacy becomes untenable.

  • cello

    I wasn’t really on board with this as an argument as against the existence of God until I read the comment from the lady towards the end of the article who noted the little girl who pulled out all her hair……..any God that wanted this child to die for whatever lesson teaching reason didn’t have to allow that child to suffer. There is nothing but pointless in that.

  • Eliza422

    I don’t have kids, nor do I ever intend to (take that Quiverfull nuts!) but there is something especially heartbreaking about babies dying like this, I can hardly bear to think about it. Even seeing it dramatized on fictional TV shows it’s unbearable. To know it’s a freak accident, part of our fallible human structure…
    What makes me angry is all the hate mail they referenced in the article. Who hasn’t seen that kind of response for all sorts of things that happen. Sometimes I wish we would just wipe ourselves off the earth and let evolution start again with something else.
    Sorry for the morose response. Dead babies and judgmental jerks can do that to a person.

  • paradoctor

    Polly: please forgive them for their mere humanity. Of course they knew such horrors exist – intellectually. But now they know emotionally, and it is a very different kind of knowing.

    There are many things that I know intellectually, and hope that I never, ever have to know emotionally. I can only hope that planning and luck might shield me from such lessons; and failing such protection, that afterward my heart heals – that is, that I forget and get on with life, despite what life can be.

  • http://banana-slug.blogspot.com round guy

    That poor family.
    I can understand why you stopped writing posts like this—though they are powerful arguments, this is an incredibly heart wrenching story.

  • nfpendleton

    I think it’s exactly that very knowledge that the world is cold, brutal, and random that makes people who haven’t had to suffer hardships feel “blessed” by their deity. It’s when they realize that that divine armor plating was probably just wishful thinking, that some people pull their heads out of the sand.

    I say some, because for many, no matter how much life smacks them or their families down, they have faith that it’s all god’s plan. I mean, we’re fallen, wicked, debased creatures who lucked into the possibility of salavation, don’t forget…

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    This is a heartbreaking story. I’m sure every commenter here could tell a first-hand story of senseless suffering, death and sorrow. The thought that a “loving” god lets all this stuff happen because, long, long ago, two people committed some petty offense against him is seriously warped. What could any human being possibly do to offend a deity so terribly that they deserve this sort of stuff? If the deity is malevolent, it may be possible, but the deity would be a dick. But, to posit that stuff like this is consistent with the benevolent deity we hear about all the time – no. No amount of kool-aid washes that down my throat.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I think Polly is pointing out something important about religious believers. They do think they’re special and that’s fucked up. How many times has something terrible happened to a large number of people, yet those who survive thank god for saving them. So, what? They think they deserved to be saved, and even more disturbing, that those who suffered and died deserved it? I don’t see any other way to interpet this extremely common reaction. It just reeks of selfishness and close-mindedness. I think it bespeaks a lack of compassion. I think if you can justify all the fucked up things that happen in this world with the will of god, you can justify anything at all, and that disturbs me.

    That’s why I am an atheist. I couldn’t keep rationalizing others’ suffering. I’ve never experiencecd anything terrible in my life, not really, but I didn’t need to in order to feel compassion for those who suffer, and outrage that such things must be.

  • Christopher

    I think if you can justify all the fucked up things that happen in this world with the will of god, you can justify anything at all, and that disturbs me.

    Back in my Christian days, I thought that suffering was all just part of some master plan that no one could see – that’s how I rationalized away the deaths of some of my relatives. I used to believe that if one lived according to the will of “god” that nothing would happen to you that wasn’t supposed to happen: that all one had to do was listen for that still, small voice to guide you and you would live your life happily and without regret – even if the fate that voice led you to was death. Boy was I ever dumb…

    Looking back now, I can see just how much cognative dissonanse one must have to see any kind of order in human events: nothing happens for a “higher” reason or purpose – things just happen and we just react to them. Ultimately there is no justification for existence – it simply is.

  • Alex Weaver

    As a side note, it’s possible to buy mirrors that will clip to the rear seat of the car and allow the driver to monitor a child in a rear-facing car seat by looking at the mirror’s reflection in the windshield-mounted mirror.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    Indeed. There are also pressure sensors that sound an alarm if a child is still in the car when the parent gets out, but such devices don’t sell well; most parents are convinced they could never do something like this. I suppose the ability to monitor a child in the backseat while you’re driving would be a better selling point.

  • TommyP

    Oh wow. Reminds me of how my mom would tell me about how I was born so premature. She and her church prayed for me, and she credits my survival in part to her prayers being answered. At the time I was one of the worst off premies that the Children’s Hospital had ever seen. My mom always reminds me that there were babies far better off than me that died. What I fail to understand is how anyone can believe that God would answer their prayers for their child, and not the prayers of the parents in the next room. The idea sickens me, and I tell you what, when I brought up this thought to my mom, she became absolutely livid. Boy, I wish there was a good way to point things like this out quicker than people can withdraw and ignore it. Something other than yet more tragic experiences.

  • KShep

    To be honest, I stopped writing these posts because I found them too upsetting.

    Agreed. I have two granddaughters, both toddlers, the absolute light of my life, and thinking about how close they are to something like this is just to much for me to contemplate.

    I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about this for days. Arrrrrgh.

  • Theo

    There have been a few recent cases like this in South Africa as well. Absolutely tragic. How does a parent ever recover from something like that?

  • AnonaMiss

    I’m way late to this party, but I’d like to share a preventative measure I’ve heard of that’s a little cheaper and less high-tech than a sensor: a teddy bear. You put the teddy bear in the infant’s seat when the infant isn’t in it, and then put it in the passenger seat when you put the baby in. The bear in the chair next to you acts as a visual cue to remind you that you’ve got a passenger in the back.

    I’ve got no reaction to the article that hasn’t been expressed already, but I thought I’d share this method as an alternative to the mirrors and alarms that were already mentioned.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    My heart goes out to the family. Real talk. However…

    There are more than enough – far too many – examples of tragedy and catastrophe in this world to make the case against a benevolent overseer; we need not dwell on them.

    I often wonder what motivates so many atheists and skeptics to emphasize immeasurable tragedy to construct arguments against a benevolent God, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that immeasurable love also abounds in our world. To me, this seems like selective emphasis, a lopsided estimation of reality, no better or no more rational than the religious person who ignores the problematic parts of their own arguments.

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter Magellan

    @cl: What motivates us atheists, skeptics and – you missed one – rationalists to emphasize immeasurable tragedy is that if your god existed and was how you say he is, the level of tragedy in the world would be barely worth measuring. As many people have pointed out many, many times, and believers have ignored all those many times: if God really was all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful, the world would be a very different and better place than it is.

  • Polly

    while simultaneously ignoring the fact that immeasurable love also abounds in our world.

    That’s just it. BOTH exist in the world in ample quantities. In fact, there’s far more evil because the death rate is 100%. Tragedy is an inevitable and completely natural part of this world. Love and goodness are not.

    But the religious never claim that their god is BOTH evil and good simultaneously. They alway claim the good stuff for their god and then plug their only exit strategy by claiming their god is also omnipotent. What a joke!