Atheist Groups: Don’t Do This in the Wake of a Tragedy

President Obama, in his remarks about the Colorado shootings, said this:

“I’m sure many of you are parents who had the same reaction I did when we heard the news… My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater as so many kids do each day?”

“I hope all of you will keep the people of Aurora in your hearts and minds today. May the lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come,” he said.

Well, no doubt they will be in my mind. For religious people, I’m sure the families will be in their prayers. You know what Obama was trying to say. There are times when invoking the name of god is really a not-so-subtle middle finger thrown in the direction of Secular Americans. This isn’t one of them.

In any case, it should be fairly obvious that now is the absolute worst time to criticize the president for bringing up religion in his comments:

“I think it’s a little unfortunate,” [Council for Secular Humanism] director Tom Flynn told The Washington Examiner. “Even in a situation like this, [when] he leads a public prayer to a deity that it pretty recognizably the Christian God, much as you can understand the emotional context of it, he’s still sending to some degree a message of exclusion to other religions who don’t call their god “Lord” and to non-religious Americans.”

“By the very act of praying, that’s a message of exclusion,” he continued. “If I’m a public official, I think I’m going to look around in the morning and conclude that, ‘hey, this religion thing is just too hot to handle, I should stay away from it in my official capacity.’”

Of couse, Flynn also sympathized with Obama (“I can understand… why [he] might have felt really moved to bend the rules this time, but you really can’t”), but seriously, no one’s going to see the sympathy. They’re just going to see that, in the wake of a tragedy, an atheist group criticized the president for asking people to keep the victims’ families in their prayers.

It’s not that you’re wrong; it’s just an awful PR move.

When a reporter asks you how you feel about the President’s comments, the right answer is this: “My heart also goes out to the victims. If religion and prayer brings comfort to their families, I wish them well. The families will be in my thoughts.”

Or, you know, you could say, “No comment.”

***Edit***: Even though the Examiner article doesn’t make this clear, Flynn was speaking on his own and not on behalf of his organization.

***Update***: The Center for Inquiry has released an official statement here.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/runawayuniverse runawayuniverse

    I didn’t have have a problem with that Obama said compared to Mitt bringing up the Apostle Paul and other religious nonsense.

  • 3lemenope


    It’s not that you’re wrong; it’s just an awful PR move.

    No, I’d go so far as to say that he’s wrong. Obama is president of a nation that includes believers. Many believers. He’s one himself. He was elected in part by them and represents them as a democratically elected leader. When he talks about his hopes and prayers, that isn’t a material breach of the separation of church and state, and when he uses religious language to talk about a shared experience of an event, he isn’t tearing down that wall brick by brick. 

    • Ronlawhouston

       Excellent comment.  How you feel and express yourself is vastly different than how you govern.

    • newavocation

      Obama can say what he wants he is the president anyway. It’s unfortunate that it takes a ‘made for tv’ tragedy to bring out the president’s and the public’s concerns. 

      What if Obama used this approach for our other on going tragedies?  “I hope all of you will keep the people losing their jobs, homes and health insurance in your hearts and minds today. May the lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come,”. Prayers are such a waste of time and just makes the person praying feel like they have done something when they have done nothing or accomplished anything concrete.   

    • Bigevil

      Flynn put out a press release yesterday about the secretary of ag calling for prayer as a solution to drought.  Are you going to condemn him for that also?  If not, when is it appropriate for a government official to call for supernatural interference?

      Note:  Flynn did not put out a press release in response to the Obama call for prayer.  He was contacted by the Washington Examiner who questioned him in context to the previous press release on the prayer for rain. 

      • 3lemenope

        I’d say there are a few areas where a comment can trip a warning wire. 

        Most obviously, a politician speaking of policy suggestions in terms of faith would be problematic, for reasons that Obama himself has articulated in the past: the policy debates of a society must be secular in nature because the terms and definitions of those debates must be sensible and accessible to the whole polity, which necessarily includes non-believers. This would also include suggestions seriously made in lieu of actual policy solutions, like praying for rain rather than beefing up irrigation architecture.

        Also problematic is when the faith language or categories are intended to exclude or divide the polity directly. You know, one of those “…times when invoking the name of god is really a not-so-subtle middle finger thrown in the direction of Secular Americans.” Such as George Bush the Elder’s infamous comment about the patriotism of atheists.

        Still problematic but significantly messier are those times when politicians indicate that their political choices themselves are inspired by religious belief or activity, such as for example when a politician indicates that their belief that abortion should be outlawed, or gay partnerships unrecognized, has a religious basis. On the one hand people (and politicians are indeed people) make decisions even on very important matters for all sorts of reasons, and some of those reasons are going to intersect with one’s metaphysical opinions about God(s) and all that; it does no good to have politicians hide their reasoning, if that is their reasoning, as it gives people a distorted sense of just how their politicians are making choices on their behalf if they do. On the other hand, resorting to personal religious beliefs to make decisions on behalf of people who do not share those beliefs does tend to indicate a serious lack of respect for the role of an elected people towards representing all of their constituents and their concerns, rather than the limited swath that happens to agree with their personal religious opinions.

        • Bigevil

          Unfortunately, I have to go to work so cannot comment on this as I would want to.  But I don’t see anything in here that I disagree with.

          But in short, I think it is unrealistic to expect politicians to refrain from expressioning religious preference from their positions.  However, this doesn’t make it right.  Certainly some expressions are worst than others.

          Flynn’s comments were a manufactured controversy.  The Washington Examiner sought out Flynn’s opinion in context with his previous press release and then printed an article making it seem as if Flynn was going out of his way to exploit the tragedy when it was actually the reporter for the Examiner that was doing so.

  • CoreyG

    Thanks for making non-believers look like unsympathetic ass-hats, Flynn.

  • Alex

    Obama may be a president, but — surprise — he’s also a human. And happens to be one that believes in god. Give the guy a break, we are the first in line to denounce fundies for screaming about how so-and-so never mentioned god in their speech. Don’t be like them.

    In other words, what Hemant said.

    • Jenntrogers

      I totally agree. In times of tragedy we go to what comforts us most. For the President, he went to prayer. I can’t blame him for that. I took comfort in his words because I know how he feels. So let’s all take a step back, let this unfold and not use it as a political soap box.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AIKUZCDLNUXFK5GWY2JJ324UHA AlexH

    I absolutely agree. It’s an opportunistic move at best.  It really does come across as trying to make this tragedy about him (Flynn). Those among the victims who are believers belief in “the lord” will probably bring them some comfort. So what?
    At funeral visitations when talking with the family of the departed I could respond to them with’Actually your loved one’s not an angel looking down at you right now.’ But what would that serve?  Aside from making me look like an asshole with no internal filter?
    Now, when the nutcases start preaching about how this is another one of God’s punishments, saying they’re wrong is fair game imo.
    I appreciate this post very much Hemant.

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      “Those among the victims who are believers belief in “the lord” will probably bring them some comfort. So what?”

      So what about any victims or families that aren’t believers? Wouldn’t it be nice to recognise them too?

    • Bigevil

      Who is making this tragedy about Flynn?  Flynn or the Washington Examiner?

  • Ibis3

    I’m ambivalent. On the one hand, saying “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” is  a shorthand sentiment of sympathy almost devoid of much sincere religious feeling. It’s like saying “bless you” or “gesundheit” when people sneeze is pretty much devoid of superstitious stuff about someone’s spirit sneaking out or demons sneaking in. It’s the expected manner of expressing condolence with victims of tragedy. On the surface it’s fine. The sentiment of solidarity is beneficial and wanted.

    On the other hand, it really does reinforce the idea that only the religious can show empathy in an accepted  form. And what of families who aren’t praying because they don’t believe it was all part of god’s plan–is the elected leader not just assuming that prayers are welcome? Moreover, it’s part of that cluster of platitudes that display, in truth, a total lack of moral worth in religion and the gods worshipped therein. What good are prayers when you’re praying to a monster that supposedly allowed the tragedy to occur in the first place? Or didn’t miraculously protect the victims from being injured at all? Prayer in gratitude for survivors is just another facet of crapping on the people who weren’t so fortunate, and so on. And when is the time to call out people for this since people only say it when something bad happens?

    • Amandatheatheist

       Just for the record, gesundheit means “health”. As far as I know, English is one of very few languages in which anything like “Bless you” is said when you sneeze.

      • Ibis3

         But calling out “health” when someone sneezes is at root a  superstitious warding off of disease. It’s like knocking on wood (or saying “knock on wood”) when you say you’re hoping something good will happen to avoid a jinx.

    • Onamission5

      I read it like this–

      “I hope all of you will keep the people of Aurora in your hearts and minds today.” 

      That is his request to the american public.

       “May the lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come,”

      That is his personal statement, regarding his personal beliefs.

      I may be reading it completely differently than it was meant, but that’s my take on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aaron-Scoggin/100000044792747 Aaron Scoggin

    Who cares how he says things right now? 12 people died, and 59 were injured, for no reason at all. I don’t care who he prays to or how he says it, because now is not the time to worry about stupid shit like that. 

  • http://LosingMyReligion.ca Chad Kettner

    Amen! ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/laden.greg Greg Laden

    I don’t have much of a problem with what Obama said, but I also don’t have much of a problem with what Tom said. I agree that he might have waited a day, but I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing to have people regularly and promptly pointing out when the secretary of ag prays for rain or the president says something that seems to assume that everybody is religious.  

    • debbiedoesreality

       I agree. O course I’m far more upset that some crazy bastard can think it’s a good idea to carry out such a horrid act than I am that the POTUS publicly invoked “the lord” for comfort. However, I will rejoice when religious speak is not the standard, and is just supposed to be accepted and/or ignored by all who do not recognize “the lord” as a source of comfort. It’s one thing if your neighbor says such things to you, it’s entirely another when government officials speak in such terms, regardless of circumstance.
      Anyone with a brain and a sense of compassion understands how and why such language is used in horrible times when there’s not much to say that will help, but in my opinion it will be a fine day when it is not normal to hear such religious talk from government officials.

    • Bigevil

      In addition, its unclear whether Flynn made the comment unsolicited or not.  From the article it appears that the comments were solicited by the Washington Examiner.  The organization that Flynn represents had put out a press release earlier about the secretary of ag praying for rain.  The comments about the president were not put out by a press release.  I assume this was the Examiner checking to see if Flynn was going to be consistent in his criticisms.  He was.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    In this situation Obama is speaking as a fellow American and neighbor.  Not as commander in chief.  I am okay with him expressing his beliefs in this way.  I am sure he intends to support these families with more than empty words, which is more than many.   I’ve sat around thinking all day what can I do for these people who live 2000 miles away from me?  Not praying to something in the sky.  

    The answer I came up with is just to be as kind as I can to everyone I come across today since we have no idea what the future holds.  Try to give a little extra help to anyone who may need it.  And to maybe contact some old friends I haven’t spoken to in awhile.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IKVVNPKPMBDXQJDAIREAS5IQLM Mike

    I wonder if Obama isn’t really one of us. In lots  of pictures when he’s in a group up on a stage and the  others are in “praying” attitudes, he’s just standing looking straight ahead. Which is exactly what I would do in the same situation.

    • Linnie

      I’ve always believed Obama’s religiosity is just for show. He’s a very well-educated man who grew up without religion. How on earth does such a person come to embrace Christianity?

      I’m not angry with him at all. This country is absolutely drunk with Jesus. In order to be  elected to public office, most candidates have to prove they have a relationship with a higher power.

      Obama’s smart. His religion is “politics.”

  • http://gadlaw.com gadlaw

     These are the decisions we make everyday in life as to when to stand forth and say ‘no’ I’m not acknowledging your religion or your religious beliefs. Now isn’t the time to stand on your soapbox and tell people about their imaginary friend. Religious people and society in general is already making room for the rest of us when they say things about prayers and thoughts. We’re the ‘thoughts’ part of that – they’ve already acknowledged that some don’t fancy prayer as anything more than acting like you’re doing something positive in response to a tragedy when they aren’t actually doing anything. Now is the time to be sad and angry and upset with everyone because this happened to everyone.

     When it’s something else like asking for prayers for some far away tragedy I say no thanks, actually I’ve sent a donation to the Red Cross – actually doing something rather than an telling your imaginary friend that I am also sad about what happened.

  • Bigevil
  • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

    I don’t understand the problem with what he said. He didn’t ask anyone to pray, suggest that we should pray or anything of the sort. He asked us to keep them in our hearts and minds. I can do that without a god.

    The part about “May the lord bring them comfort…” seems kind of like an irrelevant, personal comment tacked on the end. I don’t care if he wants to personally wish magic comforting on survivors of a tragedy. I’d do it too, if I thought it would work.

  • Bob Becker

    Yup. Exactly right.   Mr. Flynn came across as a horses ass. 

  • http://twitter.com/TominousTone Thomas Lawson

    Well, I’d like to think of it as “whack-a-mole.” Whenever you find a government official stroking the ego of the Religious Right, no matter how small, it is a must to whack that mole down! But I’m glad that it’s Tom holding the mallet. ; )

  • Tom Saviola

    “It’s not that you’re wrong; it’s just an awful PR move.”

    No. You are wrong. Sad to know there are Westboro atheists as well.

    • mobathome

       A troll by any other name should still not be fed.

    • debbiedoesreality

      Wow, really? He didn’t say anything so hateful and idiotic as “atheists hate shooting victims”, he simply said that our president should not use religious terms because they exclude the non-religious.

  • TiltedHorizon

    I don’t watch the news, this thread was the first I’ve heard of the shooting, I am therefore ripe with emotion over this horrible act. My primary though is of the families, my heart goes out to them. My thoughts also include the officers who are risking their lives trying to breach the shooter’s booby trapped apartment. I’m also lost in confusion as to how a ‘seemingly’ sane person could commit such atrocities.

    Loss is loss, regardless of belief, this is a time to show our humanity and not a time for nitpicking over belief. 

  • Dee Michael Van Horn

    Franklin Graham says that God may not cause everything, Like Katrina, but God allows it to happen.  Then people “pray to this God and give thanks for sparing some.  Why would this be a God.

  • debbiedoesreality

    I just don’t see Flynn’s comments as being out-of-line. He was not asked about the tragedy that occurred, he was asked his opinion on the president invoking “the lord” and he gave his opinion. There wasn’t anything apathetic, belligerent, or hateful in his answer, as opposed to what we so often see from the staunchly religious.
    Government officials overtly wading in to the religious pool is either wrong all the time, or not at all. I happen to think it is wrong all the time, even in the aftermath of such a horrendous tragedy.

    • Bigevil

      Its a bit of a manufactured controversy.  The article is written in such a way that it appears that Flynn went out of his way to attack Obama’s comments. 

  • Melody

    This is what President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, Ronald Lindsay, said about the matter. This is all that needed to be said. 

    Statement on the Events in Aurora, Colorado: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/newsroom/statement_on_the_events_in_aurora_colorado//statement_on_the_events_in_aurora_colorado

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Ummm… technically, “No comment” IS a comment.

  • http://profiles.google.com/fader2011 Alex Harman

    Or, as my favorite Christian, Patheos blogger Fred Clark (Slacktivist) would say, “Mourn with those who mourn.”

  • Randy

    The religious do not own the government response to tragic events.  And yet, time and again, that’s what appears to happen.  We are wrong to avoid stepping on toes at this time, when it’s most important to step on them.

    It is absolutely right to criticize those who give these predators their undeserved power.

    If real, the god(s) these people promote created this tragedy, and allowed it to proceed.  These people ought to be held accountable for supporting (or claiming to support) such an entity.

  • http://twitter.com/DoctorE0 DoctorE DoctorE

    Tragedy = The main marketing-tool for religions. Even  graves have magic book X ad’s. It’s the ultimate spam.

  • http://twitter.com/EllenBethWachs EllenBeth Wachs

    I just read an article in Free Inquiry titled, “Taking
    Care of Our Own.”  It talks of “eager activists being subjected
    to such vilification [they] could end up leaving the movement
    altogether.”  It further states, “why bother with activism when
    your best efforts aren’t supported by the people who are supposed to be on your
    side?”

    I have been relating similar sentiments for months and feel
    disgusted and dismayed with many people for, not just the lack of support, but
    the outright backstabbing and undermining that occurs within groups.

    We shouldn’t get to pick and choose the activism we think is
    appropriate. Whether someone is an accomodationist or a confrontationalist, we
    need to support that activist and NOT tell them to STFU or demand their head on
    a silver platter or call them the most idiotic atheist in the movement or state
    that what they have done is an awful PR move.  That is most certainly not supportive of best
    efforts.
     

  • https://twitter.com/#!/OffensivAtheist bismarket

    I disagree, this tragedy will be used by the religious to promote themselves & their God, we need to be respectful of the victims & their families, but IN NO WAY should we allow the religious a free pass here. Just look at Rick Warren’s disgusting use of this event to hammer evolution & (by association) Atheism. Hemant, sometimes you can be a little too friendly.☮

  • Istj04

    Keep in mind what YEAR this is, and what will be happening in November! Obama CANNOT “come out of the closet” as an atheist THIS year of all years! Of COURSE he is going to “pander to the religionists”, and ingratiate himself with EVERY THEISTIC VOTER he can come into contact with. Unfortunately, there continues to be more of “them” (the theists!), then us atheists! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=515175900 Andrew F. Moncrieff

    Nicely put Hemant.


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