What Can Atheists Do When Horrible Things Happen?

When horrible, seemingly unpredictable, chaotic things happen, what can atheists do about it to help?

We can’t pray. We can only do. But what actions can we take?

General Guidelines

  • Be thoughtful. What’s the greatest need? What are you capable of doing? What action will make the most impact? Ex. Sending flowers may not be as helpful to a family who’s lost a loved one as going over and cooking meals for them while they grieve or starting a collection fund to help them through financial problems they may now be facing.
  • Be compassionate. Offer words and acts of comfort as best you can. Sometimes that does means sending flowers. Sometimes it means giving hugs. Sometimes just giving someone the space they need to grieve is what’s best. Greta Christina offers excellent advice on how to comfort those who are grieving.
  • Give what you can; do what you can. Don’t think you have to take on and fix all of the world’s problems.  Do your part with the skills and resources you have. Over extending yourself will lead to burn out and will make you much less able to help in the future. And remember, you’re not alone in your desire to help out.
  • Find the source of the problem. I know, easier said than done. It’s easy to become bogged down with symptom management and while that’s still important, only applying your energy to the symptoms won’t prevent issues in the future.
  • Take care of yourself, too. You can’t help others if you’ve run yourself into the ground. That means taking care of your own needs (food, water, sleep, emotional taxation, etc.) Lean on others you trust and listen to them when they remind you to take care of yourself.
  • Take time to reflect on what is important to you and what values you hold dear. Remind others around you to do the same. When the world doesn’t make sense and crazy things happen for no good reason, the act of reflecting over what you care about is a powerful tool to center yourself and bring you back down to earth. It can also protect you from superstition thinking.

Specific Actions

  • Donate blood. Our hospitals are always in need of blood to save lives. You can donate as often as every other month.
  • Take a First Aid & CPR class. Knowing how to preform CPR and other life saving techniques will be useful regardless of what kind of crisis you’re facing.
  • Donate. Giving to organizations that specialize in crisis situations is the best way to increase the impact of your donation.
  • Support mental health services. Whether preventing mentally unstable people from doing harm or helping people through trauma, mental health services are vital. Most people take their mental health for granted but we really can’t.

Where to Send Money

  • American Red Cross is a powerhouse of good work. They respond quickly to all kinds of disasters, natural or human-caused. They provide help with the basics to survive (medical care, food, water, & shelter) and with the emotional needs of those suffering through trauma. They also provide classes on life saving techniques.  Give without hesitation to this wonderful secular organization.
  • Mental Health America is an advocacy organization devoted to increasing access to mental health services and providing education to the public about mental illness and behavioral health.
  • MercyCorps responds to crisis situations but also focuses on long term recovery efforts around the globe.
  • Doctors Without Borders sends experienced doctors to places around the world to crisis and epidemic situations.


About Ericka M. Johnson

As a lover of science and reason, Ericka M. Johnson has an affinity for evolutionary biology and is the president of Seattle Atheists. She revels in any opportunity for a thoughtful debate on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything (especially over a pint.) Follow her on twitter @ErickaMJohnson

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    maybe this won’t  be the popular answer, but mine has been “spend your surfing time (which i do try to limit) smacking down Dumb Arguments and False Claims.”

    now is the time that the gun nutz can’t really assert themselves, except in their little corners of “www.deadkidzarefreedum.com” and the like. at least in the US, it’s time for progressives and peace lovers and anti-death types to shout, speak up, and otherwise make our arguments known. 

    we may not all agree. we may not all interpret the Constitution the same. but for at least a little while, and believe me when i say the media are digging thru comments looking for something to say, our voices can be heard. 

    tell people why you don’t worship a gun. tell people why you feel safe without one in your home. tell people why you don’t find gun ownership “sexy” or “cool.” tell people why you don’t want america to descend down the dark ladder that will lead us to the places where child armies and ruling gangs are the ‘norm.’ 

    civilization means making some hard choices. and more than just signing a petition. remember this day, and what the politicians you support did about it, before you next vote. for your part, you can do the really easy thing: stop buying movies and TV channels that worship violence. your dollar is your weapon, as one of the little people. invest the next 20-spot you were going to spend on a movie about killing people with guns instead on a charity that gives medical aid to children in countries where landmines are so common they kill children daily.  or, just dismantle the gun in your life. i did, and it felt very good.

  • C Peterson

    I own guns. I like them. I believe that people should be able to own them if they can demonstrate the ability to do so safely. Above all, I don’t see any evidence that the gun violence problems in the U.S. (outside of gangs, perhaps) is all that closely linked to the firearms themselves. I don’t see any evidence to suggest that restricting access to firearms (in any practically achievable way) would reduce the incidence of events like that which occurred yesterday.

    I absolutely agree with you that a good way for any thinking, moral person to respond to that sort of violence is by “smacking down Dumb Arguments and False Claims”. For myself, I’d put gun control options right near the top of the list, only just below things like “God allowed it because some of the children had atheist parents).

    Knocking down stupid arguments is useful. But only to a degree. Far more useful is to seek answers about why this happened in the first place (and it pretty obviously had nothing to do with the availability of guns). We need to ask why other countries where firearms are readily available have far lower gun violence rates. We need to ask why so many Americans don’t just enjoy firearms, but love them and obsess over them. We need to ask why so many feel that firearms are necessary for their protection, as opposed to simply being useful tools or pleasurable belongings. We need to ask what it is about American society in particular that seems to engender these awful bouts of mass killing. We need to listen to reasoned, expert voices and decide how we should proceed. Knee-jerk reactions and bandaid solutions are rarely useful.

  • C Peterson

    Oops… posted in the wrong place. That was intended as a response to chicago dyke.

  • C Peterson

    Find the source of the problem. I know, easier said than done. It’s easy to become bogged down with symptom management and while that’s still important, only applying your energy to the symptoms won’t prevent issues in the future.

    So important. It’s what I’d place at the top of the list. And so difficult. We’re such a reactive species. How often, when something is broken, do we actually try to find out why it is broken, as opposed to applying the most convenient, politically acceptable bandaid? Truly fixing the problem requires not just critical thinking- which may be available- but a society-wide willingness to apply it, which apparently is lacking.

  • Drew M.

    She wouldn’t have read it anyhow.

  • nakedanthropologist

    Good post Ericka!

  • the moother

    Sound advice, as usual, from EMJ.

  • the moother

    It’s amazing how a discussion about gun control can make normally intelligent people say irrelevant and stupid things.

    Kinda like how religion makes otherwise morally sound people say and do disgusting things.

    C Peterson, you will henceforth be taken with a large pinch of salt.

  • C Peterson

    Perhaps you could be more helpful here, and let me know what I said that is either irrelevant or stupid (keeping in mind that I was responding to another comment). I’ve been known to change my opinions about things given good arguments, but I can’t even consider that without a little more information.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Rocky-Morrison/100001552602936 Rocky Morrison

    No sympathy for the victims, just a rush to make points by atheists and theists here.

    You are all scumbags.

    I, for one, would never submit to rule by any of you should you gain poltical power.

  • John

     How the hell did you get that impression from this post?  And as usual, xkcd has something to say on the subject http://xkcd.com/774/

  • Baal

     It’s ok Rocky, good ole bigotry will keep atheists out of office for a long while.  Did you read the OP?  It was all about how to help and not be a total jackass. Go read the Huckabee or other recent threads.  Notice how it’s a christian being awful and usually also political that in spuring a responce.  I don’t see the JREF or AA putting out fliers calling for god to be removed from churches as a response to this tragedty.  I don’t see Dawkins trying to spin the tragedy on CNN.  I don’t see the athesists leveraging the event.  I do see xtian leaders trying to score anti-secularism points and I see atheist rightly horrified.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/LE2HY6WZWCRT6IHXURP7QXBITQ Andy

    Great post Ericka!  Everyone’s feeling so angry and like they want to do something, but this is the first article about the tragedy that I’ve seen that has actionable items.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Thank you Ericka, for a positive, uplifting, wise,  and very practical set of suggestions. I do all those four specific actions you listed, but I’m behind schedule with my blood donations. Tonight I’ll schedule one.  

  • Drew M.

    The irony burns.

  • kullervo

    I joined the Red Cross. Spent most of November in New York. I can’t pray for some magical being to make everything all right; I have to get off the couch and actually do something.

  • BlazeL

    Lots of good recommendations.

    But they have nothing to do with atheism.

    After all, when if was pointed out how many mass murders atheists had commited, it was claimed that it had nothing to do with atheism.

    Likewise, all these good deeds…assuming you believe in such a thing as “good” and are not a Moral Relativist…have nothing to do with atheism.

    Now…someone can invoke The Atheist Double Standard and have it both ways.

  • BlazeL

    Of course none of these great things have a thing to do with atheism.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    This – Rational, normal person answer.