Truth Matters More Than Fake Consolation

Susan Jacoby recently published an op-ed in the New York Times, which I have not read, entitled The Blessings of Atheism. Dennis Prager responds to it, and in particular to a quotation she offers from Robert Ingersoll about how atheists can console someone grieving the death of a loved one. This is the Ingersoll quote:

Called “The Great Agnostic” . . . he also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest . . . The dead do not suffer” (ellipsis in original).

Prager, unsurprisingly, finds this quite unhelpful:

I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message.

“The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife — to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn’t suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance. And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared with the religious message that we humans are not just matter, but possess eternal souls.

Though I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence, I understand atheism. Anyone observing the terrible amount of unjust human suffering understands the atheist. But even atheists — indeed, especially atheists, since they claim that, unlike believers, they are guided solely by reason and intellect — have to be intellectually honest. They would have to acknowledge that, in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on and you will be reunited with her.”

I agree with him that the quoted passage may be of some comfort to someone whose friend or family member died of a disease that caused them to suffer but is of little consolation to parents of a child who has died, especially in a manner as horrifying as a school shooting. But he seems not to care at all whether the claim that one will be reunited with the deceased is true or not. All that seems to matter is that it offers consolation, even if that consolation is entirely illusory. This treats as as children who must be mollified rather than as adults that can handle reality.

This, he says, is the real message of atheism:

If they did, they would have to say something like this to the parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook:

“As atheists, we truly feel awful for you. And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten, as if we never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence are flukes. And you will never see your child again.”

And yeah, that’s pretty close. I might quibble a bit with some of it, but not with the basic message. Life really is mostly a random crapshoot and our existence, as specific people, are little more than flukes. And no, you will almost certainly never see your child again. But does theism offer any greater consolation? I don’t think it really does, if one really follows its implications to their logical conclusion.

Christians like to console people whose lives are visited by terrible tragedy by telling them things like “God is in control, He has a plan and he would never give you more than you can handle.” I don’t find that any more comforting than a random, contingent and uncaring universe; in fact, I find it considerably more disturbing. If that is true, it means that God literally decides everything that happens, that nothing happens that is not his will, as we often hear Christians say. Which means he decides that one person will be born into enormous wealth and privilege while another will die of a terrible disease in childhood, or starve to death, or contract a flesh-eating infection, or be hit by a bus, or any of the limitless number of horrible things that can happen to us. We are thus playthings, puppets on a string and always subject to the whims of a madman. Comforting? Not by a longshot.

And at least one researcher, Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University, who has interviewed grieving families has found that spiritual leaders weren’t really of much help at all:

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

Let me take a shot at what an atheist might actually say to someone who has endured a terrible loss like that of a child. How about this:

Life is almost entirely random and every single thing that happens is a result of a million prior contingent events over which we have no control. Everyone faces loss and tragedy, often many times during their lives, and when those things happen we grieve and then, over time, our loss diminishes and we move on with our lives, as we must. It’s not easy, but the fact that tragedy is part of our shared humanity allows us to help one another through it with love, compassion and understanding. And the fact that life can be cut short in a moment, that we are not guaranteed a long or painless life, means that we must make the most of each day that we have. The fact that we have no eternal life that awaits us makes every day mean more, not less.

I think that’s a much better answer, and it has the great virtue of being true.

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