Did President Obama Alienate Atheists With His Speech in Newtown?

On Sunday night, President Obama spoke at what was called an “interfaith” vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings. And, as it usually does, “interfaith” was basically just a code word for “Christian,” given all the religious references in it:

[Quoting scripture:] “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

That’s what we can be sure of, and that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison, God has called them all home.

For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort, and may He bless and watch over this community and the United States of America.

Part of me doesn’t really care. One thing Obama knows how to do really well is give an effective speech, and he found a way to connect emotionally with the families of the victims and the surrounding community, not to mention the millions of people watching across the country. It’s not a church/state separation issue; he was just speaking from his heart, and since most Americans are religious, it makes sense that he would invoke religious terms, references, and imagery.

But another part wonders why he couldn’t do what he did during his Inauguration speech four years ago. Why couldn’t he at least make a passing reference to those of us who don’t believe in God? We grieve, too. We want to help the people who are suffering (and we are). There’s no doubt in my mind that non-religious people live in Newtown — why not acknowledge that they, too, are finding ways to get through the tragedy without resorting to prayer or church?

PZ Myers found the speech insulting:

If I were an atheist parent of a murdered child, I’d consider it a slap in the face… and it was all unneccesary for it’s general message of consolation.

John Richards at Reason Being was just disappointed by the President:

You know what President Obama… I can almost guarantee that there are secular people in that community who are hurting as much as anyone, who need comforting as much as anyone, who are trying to come to grips with this tragedy. Your words did nothing for those people. And yet, you are supposed to represent those people as well.

Vjack at Atheist Revolution agrees:

Why speak only to the god-believers, and why squander the opportunity to unite a nation by endorsing superstition and magical thinking?

Staks Rosch took offense to the phrase “God has called them all home”:

It is surprising that [Obama] would push his religion so forcefully on the nation at a time when people are emotionally vulnerable. Twenty kids and six adults were just murdered and the President is talking about how God is lonely and wants some company.

Like me, Ron Lindsay of the Center For Inquiry wasn’t upset by the Christian references. He understands why the President used such rhetoric:

Blunt statements about reality are not always appropriate.

Some people console themselves with stories about God and a heaven. They find the strength to go on in such stories. And that’s fine. It was perfectly fine for the President to reference such beliefs in his remarks not only because they (presumably) are sincere expressions of his own views but because they resonated with much of his audience.

That said, not everyone in the United States is religious or a believer in heaven. And unless Newtown is a statistical aberration, it is highly likely there are some nonreligious individuals in this community, perhaps even among the relatives of the victims.

Atheists cry too. Atheists grieve too. As with our fellow humans, we seek solace, but we find it in different ways. For us, love and happiness do not lose their meaning because they do not last forever. Losing a child is tragic, but that tragic loss should be recognized and not obscured. In recognizing the depth of this loss we also recognize the inestimable worth and value of the child, his or her uniqueness as an individual — not as a small part of some vast, cosmic, incomprehensible plan.

Ed Buckner, former president of American Atheists, and AA’s current managing director Amanda Knief wrote an open letter to the President and the media urging them not to forget that non-religious people are affected by this tragedy as well (emphases mine):

During the past five days, a nation has struggled to deal with the loss and grief of 20 children and six adults — all gunned down for unknown reasons. American Atheists recognizes that many in this country will turn to their Christian beliefs and leaders for guidance and comfort. However, millions in this country look elsewhere for comfort, solace, and guidance. Some turn to minority faiths and some turn to non-religious life philosophies. Yet, we have not seen the media or our national leaders acknowledge the diversity of coping methods.

American Atheists and its members want media representatives — reporters, newsreaders, commentators — to understand that their role is to investigate and report facts, not to air their own religious assumptions. If a particular religious leader is newsworthy in a community, we understand his or her words or actions being reported. However, this should not limit the news media from recognizing that there are diverse religious and non-religious leaders to be found in every community.

When reporters describe the victims of a mass shooting and their families in desperate need of comforting, they should not assume that everyone in an affected community is Christian or even theistic. One surviving teacher in Newtown reported telling her students hiding during the massacre that those who believed in prayer should pray and those who did not should think good thoughts. That teacher, unlike most of the media, understood that it is unreasonable to assume religious belief. Newtown and other communities victimized by violence are often flooded with counselors, but the focus is exclusively on the religious aspects of heaven and angels. The media should recognize and interview non-religious counselors, who are also available for those who wish to use their services.

Newtown hosted an interfaith ceremony on Sunday, December 16. However, as is so often the case, no non-religious leader or representative was included as a speaker. We can offer words of solace and comfort to our fellow citizens as well as any religious leader. President Obama gave a moving speech at that ceremony. As a citizen he has the right to invoke his own beliefs, but as president we were disheartened when he said that god had called the child victims home to heaven. This is not a belief shared by all U.S. citizens and though many may find it a comforting idea, it made others uncomfortable and disenfranchised. We want — we must have — political leaders who understand that this is a secular nation, full of citizens with all sorts of conflicting religious beliefs and with none.

When the media jumps on stories by religious leaders, such as Mike Huckabee, Bryan Fischer, William Murray, crying that the lack of their god in schools is to blame for the deaths in Connecticut, we demand that the media be objective and present data that dispels these ridiculous claims — or at the very least allow those of us who defend secular public schools to offer rebuttal.

Religion often gets a pass and a free ride in the media. We are calling out the media and political leaders to stop it. No idea — even religious ones — are exempt from scrutiny and criticism. Those without any religious affiliation are the fastest and largest growing “religious” group in this nation. We will be heard, we will be counted, and we will be part of the conversations about all events in this country.

Just to be clear, these people aren’t saying the President shouldn’t console religious survivors or family members by speaking their language. They’re just saying don’t forget about us. We’re affected by the events, we’re looking for answers, and we shouldn’t be ignored in the midst of all this heartbreak.

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.