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.

  • Ntngander

    The problem here is the overt way that preachers got to deliver their message, unchallenged and alone in a public school auditorium. The message being that large tragedies are good enough of an excuse to throw the law away. One way or another, they’re going to get their message across, and they’re going to show those heathens who’s important when real trouble comes around. Packed house, command performance, and no one complained?

  • JustSayNo

    Gawd Damn…Obama is doing his best, he can’t think of everything.

    But what vicious comments.  Atheists leaders, or Theist leaders, who rush to score internet points off this are scumbags.

    And suggesting that while kids are hiding from a gunman slaughtering their fellow they should get a little lecture on prayer is ludicrous.  That teacher had no right to denigrate, even indirectly, some little kid who was praying.

    But go on and spew, the important thing is that Atheists score points off this.  No tradgedy should go to waste for that purpose.

  • mikespeir

    Oh, good grief.  We’re way too prickly sometimes.

  • jose

    American political speeches do sound cuckoo. When I translate them for friends & family I always try to filter out all the religious paraphernalia, otherwise they freak out.

  • snicketmom

    This is one of the best posts I have seen on here, taking a very serious issue and looking from all sides with understanding and compassion. I agree with you, Hemant, about understanding Obama’s choices, but hoping for inclusion. What else can those of us who agree do to be heard aside from writing our own letters? I really like Ed Buckner’s letter.

  • coyotenose

    Considering the context of your falsely equating theist attacks on atheists over this issue with atheists defending themselves on another post, and your raging inability to grasp the definition of the word “bigot” and hardon for applying it to people who, again, are defending themselves against bigotry: Fuck off please.

    All of the above quoted writers and speakers stated the reasoning behind their positions. Your response was just a blanket dismissal of the idea that they even had reasons. You also had to lie about the teacher referenced in the post in order to have something to be offended about. Your opinions to date here have been vile, petty and deceitful, and this is no exception.

    Or maybe you just can’t read for comprehension through your ignorant hatred and are only ACCIDENTALLY posting falsehoods. Take your pick.

  • John of Indiana

    I’m not surprised. This is the same guy who gave lip service to non-believers during his first inaugural, then called on Rick Warren to throw us under the bus.

    What do you expect when we’re only 5% of the population?

  • AxeGrrl

    That teacher had no right to denigrate, even indirectly, some little kid who was praying.

    How, even indirectly, does saying  “those who believe in prayer should pray” ‘denigrate’ those who are praying?

    Seriously, how are you wringing any drop of offense out of that?

  • Baby_Raptor

    Yup. Reminding the President that Atheists are grieving too, and that maybe he should address us since he’s our president as well is totes trying to score points.

    It’s Fuckwits like you that ensure that we keep having to release statements like this. 

  • Baby_Raptor

    Because they didn’t say “Everyone pray,” thus completely ignoring the existence of people who don’t. The fact that people exist who don’t adhere to religion is what offends him.

  • Bethelj

    An interfaith service is too watered down to be of much comfort to a devout person of any one faith and would not be comforting to me as a grieving parent.  There is no tradition, no common sustaining belief.  I would also not want to be personally condoled by Obama or any other famous person who does not and will not know me.  

  • DKeane123

    I agree, does everything has to be about us?  Let President deliver a speech that best underscores his feelings on the issue.  No one is setting policy here.  If I had a relative come up to me (that didn’t know I was an atheist) and try to console me with a similar gesture, I would be thankful that they were thinking of our loss.

  • LesterBallard

    If any of the parents are atheists, I might have a problem. In this case, I don’t care much about being offended. Trust me, I understand their loss, but it’s their loss, and if believing in something that isn’t real helps them right now, and the President’s kumbaya speech helps, I’m okay with it. I don’t think it’s quite the time to tell them your six or seven year old child is just dead and you’ll never see him or her again.

  • Tainda

    I don’t feel the need to be comforted by someone I don’t know.  My family comforts me. If the Christians in the country, including the President, feel the need to pray and talk about their god making everything better, let them.

  • LVHumatheist

    If my daughter was just murdered, and the President came to my town to grandstand in front of cameras while we grieved, and recited nonsense garbage about how “god” called her home…I would blow a gasket.  Your imaginary “he”, did not take her home – rather, some psychotic with a Bushmaster stole her from me and she will never get to go home again.  

    I hope for the day when mankind stops playing with their silly fairy tales of happily-ever-after-ness, so we can get down to the business of reality and work to prevent tragedy & massacre in the first place.   Praying doesn’t do anything except make the pray-er feel better.  So, instead of invoking the name of some non-existent creationist entity – how about we have a serious grown-up conversation of mental retardation and gun control and school security funding.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

    I’m willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt, and assume two things: He was expressing a religious view point he knew to be shared by the families of the victims (who deserve primacy) and of himself. I’m also assuming that the proximity that this tragedy has to Christmas as well as the average age of its victims informed the Presidents religious affect on a human level as a father. I’d honestly prefer him to act in a genuine way during these situations, rather than in a calculated fashion. I was proud of him. His resolve on the gun issue is my primary concern.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/AMNLPDE6FXKEQQ3GVHCCSRZD54 Dave Littler

    I absolutely love this post. The idea that this teacher – by taking into consideration even for a moment the feelings of those who might not be religious and who were in as much need of comfort as those who were – was “denigrating” religious children? Amazing. Beautiful. You’re like those people who feel that straight marriages will be ruined if gay people can get married, too. Such a sincere and heartfelt expression of christian privilage… well, let me just say that I feel privilaged to be able to read it. Thank you. A perfect way to start my day.

  • Entertaining Doubts

    I voted for a Commander in Chief, not a Pastor in Chief.

    Surely the grieving religious folks have plenty of actual pastors/priests/rabbis/imams to offer them religiously based consolation, and surely there are effective ways for a public servant like the President to speak about the event in a secular way. Plus, as a Constitutional scholar, I’d expect him to have a little more respect for the Establishment Clause.

    I understand why he said things the way he did; I just don’t like that it’s become so normative for elected officials to ooze religion.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    “So, instead of invoking the name of some non-existent creationist entity – how about we have a serious grown-up conversation of mental retardation and gun control and school security funding.”

    I have heard no news reports suggesting that the shooter was “mentally retarded.” He appears to have had Asperger’s with a higher-than-average IQ. Asperger’s itself does not lead to violent behavior, as many people have already pointed out. I think (based on absolutely no psychological training whatsoever) that it’s highly likely that this young man suffered from some mental illness, but Asperger’s (or even “retardation”) doesn’t account for his actions. I’ve seen far too many people recklessly and wrongly equating Asperger’s with mental illness or intellectual disability. I’d hate to see people begin viewing Aspies with suspicion as a result of this.

    I do agree that focusing on gun control, school security, and how to better help people struggling with mental illness will probably be far more helpful in the long run than praying, though.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks for posting about this. I had been planning on blogging about this since yesterday. I’d be interested in your feedback on my own way of approaching this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/12/religious-diversity-and-alienation.html

  • Cecelia Baines

    To answer the question in the title of the entry:


  • brian zeiler

    Atheists are not only ignored by the mass media and the president amid this tragedy, but we are also being directly blamed by religious leaders who believe the root cause was the lack of prayer in schools.  To be blamed unfairly, and then ignored rather than defended by those who supposedly represent us as much as anybody else, is a real insult.

  • brian zeiler

    “Score points”?  We have been listening to religious buffoons for days about how secularists and atheists are to BLAME for this tragedy.  These religious leaders started spewing anti-secularist venom on day one, suggesting that mandatory Christian prayer rituals in school would have prevented the tragedy.  Defending ourselves isn’t “scoring points”.

  • Birdie1986

    How did what the teacher said denigrate a kid who is praying?  All she said was if you believe in prayer, pray, if you don’t, think good thoughts.  Atheists are too sensitive?  I cannot see how you could call what that teacher said denigrating.  I’m amazed she had the composure to think that maybe some of the kids didn’t believe in prayer and was able to comfort both believers and non-believers.  Kudos to her.

  • cathouseumbrella

    This incident happened in one of the least religious states in the country though. I guarantee that some of families of the victims are non-religious.

  • cathouseumbrella

    This incident happened in one of the least religious states in the country though. I guarantee that some of families of the victims are non-religious.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    The problem is that the default position is to “assume christianity”. I have seen no analysis saying that ALL of the families of the deceased believe in monotheism (a singular, not plural, god, rather than gods), nor that they ALL believe in an afternoon, or in a god who bring souls to himself after they die on earth, etc. 

    I am sure that no one has (or should have) interrupted each family’s grieving/privacy to contact each family to ask what their religious views are. 

    But the like of Mike Huckabee and so many media/politicians all ASSUME that they can impose their OWN religious views onto the deceased and the families of the deceased. 

    It is just plain WRONG and insensitive. 

  • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

    I agree that it’s not inappropriate for the president to use religious language and ideas to help console people who are, in all likelihood, themselves religious and thus will respond well to it. I also agree that it would be nice for the president to have included some more fundamental language that would appeal to religious and non-religious people alike. Everyone who grieves can relate to the notion of offering a shoulder to cry on, for instance, of basic human sympathy for the loss of a loved one. Ultimately, it would be nice to turn to these universal impulses rather than to specific theological stances. Being inclusive of every possible comforting religious idea would be cumbersome, but we could strip away the divisive stuff and appeal to our common humanity. A pipedream, I know, but you gotta have a dream sometimes.

  • Maleekwa

    I agree. I’m pretty sure the President was aware of the beliefs that the immediate family members of the victims held. If any one of them were Muslim, Hindu or Atheist, I think it would have been represented in his speech. As Chris Warren posted above, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

  • Cortex_Returns

    For me it would have been so much better if he had said, “I believe God has called them all home.” instead of stating it as if it were fact. Maybe this only matters to me because I’ve been grading so many research papers lately, but it is important, when speaking in the capacity in which he was speaking, to make clear the distinction between facts and opinions.

    For me personally (and I imagine I’m not the only one who is this way), statements like these do not simply have a null effect. I find them really distasteful, and they have never failed to make me feel worse when I have been grieving. 

  • Reason_Being

    Thanks for writing this Hemant.  I want to be clear about my thoughts on the post you linked from my blog.  I expected, and would have had no problem if President Obama made a couple of passing references to god.  I realize that some people need and want that, even if I do not.  My issue was that his speech offered little comfort to people who do not worship the god of Abraham, unless you count semi-veiled references to a conversation on gun control.

    I would have like him to speak for and to all Americans, to try and comfort all Americans, not just the majority.  This is one of those times where he could have done so in an effective manner and elected not to do so.—John

  • C Peterson

    My feeling, also, extends towards mild disappointment. I think the best choice Obama could have made would have been not to speak at this event at all. His brief speech on the night of the incident was excellent, despite the minor religious reference at its end, and I think was all that needed to be said on his part (other than policy discussions).

    One important distinction between the two talks was that in the first, his religious comment didn’t make any assumptions about the views of the victims- he merely asked his god to help heal the country. This is in contrast with his later talk, which did place a religious burden on the victims- that whole “God has called them home” obscenity, and certainly if he said that about my child, I’d be deeply offended.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)


    Since we know that statistically 20% of Americans have NO religious affiliation, and the northeast is LESS religious than the USA as a whole…

    it is LIKELY that there families of deceased victims who are having Obama, Mike Huckabee, and many other politicians/media impose their OWN religious views onto the families of the deceased! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

    I made it clear that I was making an assumption. I’m hoping that the Presidents time spent with the families, and his presumably capable staff would have gathered sufficient data to arrange what would amount to a suitably appropriate address. On the more pragmatic side of the spectrum, I can only imagine the political singularity that would have occurred had he chosen to consciously omit reference to religion whilst simultaneously courting, even hintingly, gun reform legislation. As atheists, free-thinkers, and skeptics, we like to pride ourselves on our ability to see things as they really are. We value evidence. How is it that in these instances we are unable to objectively weigh political currency with any sense of proportion? Incidentally, I’m not so obtuse that YOU have to clarify your point by capitalizing key words. Your writing should imply them.

  • LVHumatheist

    Funny how hyperbole & generalization seem to always irk the rationalist.  

    On another day, I may have taken your role to highlight the subtle distinctions between various disorders of the brain…
    …but today, right now, I’m angry about what just happened – enough to even post a comment which I rarely do.  So for me the word “retardation” is deliberately chosen.  If he was a gentle, fun loving autistic who liked to paint pretty horses instead of shooting children…then I would have maybe used the more modern, and gentle, descriptive “mental illness”.   

    …and one counter point.  I don’t see how having “a higher-than-average IQ” somehow up-qualifies someone out of a baseline disorder.   For him, the planning and implementation of how to systematically slaughter people, was just a really big rubiks cube puzzle to unlock in his twisted-up lesser brain.   The fact he tested well on an IQ exam, just shows he can put the jigsaw together.  Not that he can comprehend the image it creates.

    ..funny, sounds like most theists.    well, actually, they just imagine the puzzle and make up pieces that fit. 

  • http://twitter.com/espn_cycling ESPN Cycling News

    To be fair, the pastor who opened the interfaith vigil where Obama gave this speech included “And all of us are willing to offer and receive comfort and support from those of no faith.” I don’t know that saying “those of no faith” is the best way to describe those of us who look outside of religious traditions, dogma, and the supernatural to cope with tragic events, but it was at least an acknowledgement of the non religious.

  • amycas

    I like the message of “don’t forget about us” better than the “don’t mention superstition” message. A majority of Americans do believe in that religion (including the president) and they need to cope as well. Asking the president and the media to not forget about the rest of us is a good way to say “we acknowledge you exist, and you’re coping with it your way, please acknowledge that we exist and we have other ways of coping.” It’s sad that we have to ask for them to acknowledge us though.

  • amycas

     The teacher didn’t denigrate anybody. The whole point of this post is to ask the media and the president to not forget about the rest of us. Is that so much to ask?

  • Cortex_Returns

    Oh you’re upset? Then it’s totally fine to shit on people with intellectual disabilities! It’s not bigotry if you’re mad.

    Give your dog a good kick, while you’re at it.

  • MM

    Eh, the President is Christian and a parent, as probably are most of his speechwriters…if this was a memorial for fallen soldiers, I’d be upset if he used the same wording.  But it was an emotional, probably hastily prepared speech in reaction to a tragedy involving kids close to the same age as the President’s…so I’m not particularly upset that no one involved in the speech was screaming “but what about the atheists!!1!”  Hopefully, in retrospect he’ll realize that it was somewhat alienating, but honestly I don’t think this is the battle atheists should be trying to fight right now.

  • amycas

     While I don’t think we should go firebrand over this issue, I also don’t think there’s any problem with atheists and other nontheists to ask the media and the president to not forget about them. Why is it bad to ask that? Is this merely a tragedy that happened to religious people? They’re the only ones entitled to any type of solace or coping with the tragedy?

  • C Peterson

    I’m pretty sure the President was aware of the beliefs that the
    immediate family members of the victims held. If any one of them were
    Muslim, Hindu or Atheist, I think it would have been represented in his

    I wouldn’t count on it. Given the demographics of Newtown- high income, well educated- it’s extremely unlikely, given the number of victims, that some were not atheists, and that even more don’t fall into the “none” category.

    The way these things usually work is that special dispensation might well be made for victims who are members of non-Christian religions, but usually the non-religious are simply overlooked. Here we probably have Christians, nones, and atheists, so everybody was comfortable with a Christian-themed event.

  • amycas

    The truth of the matter is we don’t know what this man’s mental health was like. Aside from a remark from his brother (and possibly neighbors), we really don’t know. Calling him a retard or saying he has a mental illness is merely a way for some to “other” the shooter in some way. If we can find a way to make him different from us, then somehow that will make us all feel a little better. The truth is that we don’t know if he qualifies as this “other” and that by using this particular version of “other” (mental illness/retardation) we merely harm those who actually do suffer from mental illness and/or retardation by including him in that category for no reason other than that he did a terrible thing. How would you feel if every time somebody did a terrible thing, people automatically said,”oh well, they must be a humanist, or an atheist, or [insert some minority group here], because no ‘normal’ person would ever do that.” Until we actually know the mental health of this shooter, please refrain from armchair diagnoses. I don’t want to “other” the shooter. I don’t want to pretend that he’s somehow not human. He was human, he was just as human as anybody else. It saddens me that humans are capable of this, but that’s the truth.

  • Tainda

    You may need to look up the definition of mental retardation.  Having a higher than average IQ means he did not have mental retardation.  Mental illness?  Hell yes he had a mental illness.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’m trying to draw a line between what offers comfort to the bereaved  and what is an insult to non-believers.  If hearing they’re in heaven makes the parents feel better, I don’t have any kind of problem with that.  But at some point we get to an implication (or an outright statement) that this is the fault of non-belief.

  • Baritoneboy_2001

    This has to be one of the worst written articles I’ve ever read.  First of all – you said this was basically a Christian service.  Why were representatives from several NON-CHRISTIAN religions there?  Secondly, it was an interFAITH service.  Atheists reject faith so why would he address those that reject faith at a faith-based service?

  • Don

    I took it as a sign of the times. Maybe someday it won’t be necessary, but today it still is.  I will say that I started to watch the speech and had to turn it off almost right away because of the overt christianity.  Other than that though, I am not too upset.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    OK, on the pragmatic side, do you really think that your assumption is likely, i.e., that the President and his staff interrupted the privacy/grieving of 26 different families to make sure that all of them accepted the idea of monotheism (singular, not plural gods), that they all believed in an afterlife, that they all believed that “God called them home”, etc.

    These platitudes are pervasive. They assume (incorrectly) that everyone shares the same mythology. 

    It would be easy for the President and his speech writers to use *inclusive* language. (e.g., you can acknowledge that some people draw on their faith without *only* saying that, or without asserting that “we know” and then stating some religious belief.) 

    Instead he could easily say that “We know that many of us will rely on our religious beliefs or other world views to get us through this terrible time.”  or “Many of us spend time in prayer or introspection to try to make sense of this senseless tragedy.”

    See, not so hard to be inclusive. 
    Very simple, really, and doing so does not derail reform of gun laws. 

  • LesterBallard

    Of course, putting up with something like Obama’s speech would be easier if not for assholes like Fischer and Piper and Dobson and the rest and their bullshit.

  • Karl Withakay

    From this the That’s not my Penquin episode of  the now cancelled show Awake :


    Dr. Judith Evans:

    “So you had an opportunity to help this patient to see the
    truth, but you chose instead to perpetuate his denial.  Why?


    Detective Michael Briten:

    “How would he be better off thinking of his sister in the
    ground somewhere rather than thinking of her free, [pause] liberated, [pause] waiting
    for him?  Explain to me what exactly is
    so great about seeing reality for what it is.”


    Dr. Judith Evans:

    “You’ve more or less summed up the reason why every major
    religion has some version of an after life.”

  • Cheryl K

    It sure felt like he was trying to be minister-in-chief Sunday night. It was disappointing. 

    My hats off to the initial priest who worked in  nonbelievers at the end of his “prayer,” and to the council member who shied away from religious pronouncements.

  • Thegoodman

    If “god has called them home” then wasn’t the shooter doing God’s work. Shouldn’t he be sainted for leading so many innocents into the love and joy that is Jesus’s heaven?

    How about not. How about we continue to condemn this tortured disgusting murderer and the environment/society that created him. The gut reaction to survive when the going gets tough and to mourn when lives are lost are true feelings. The empty words of “god’s plan” are offensive.

  • Sergio Castro

    You lost all credibility with “tradgedy”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chriswarr78 Chris Warren

    Well, you’ve told me, haven’t you? It just seems rather.. circumspect. 

  • coyotenose

     This has to be one of the least-thought-out complaints I’ve read this morning. Let’s try your arguments in a different context. Ahem:

    “This was a pep rally for the school’s basketball team. Why were NON-BASKETBALL PLAYING students there?”


    “The U.S Military overran Afghanistan, so why would the U.S. ever address Afghani concerns?”


    On a tangent, has anyone noticed the uptick in new people making poorly-considered arguments here lately? School is about to let out. Remember how some Christian schools assign “defending the faith online” as homework over breaks?

    Of course the newest ones could just be people acting out because of Newtown, trying to make sense of things by finding scapegoats to scream at. It’s like that lady from around 1997 who pitched an absolute FIT at me because my family had a Tickle Me Elmo doll for sale for over $130. (It had changed hands at least six times since leaving the store, going up in price each time.) She screamed about “stolen black market goods” and threatened to call the police, too ignorant and desperate for a way to feel better about her failure to grasp the enormous holes in her theory. Many of these guys strike me the same way.

  • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

    My point in mentioning that the shooter had a higher-than-average IQ was, as Tainda pointed out, to indicate that he was not “retarded.” I have an autistic son. Autism is neither an intellectual disability nor a mental illness. It’s a developmental disorder.

    This doesn’t mean, of course, that he didn’t have a mental illness (though as amycas pointed out below, I really have no business speculating, as I have no solid data and no real knowledge of psychology). But my point is that you, and others, seem to be confusing autism with other conditions. 

    “So for me the word “retardation” is deliberately chosen.  If he was a gentle, fun loving autistic who liked to paint pretty horses instead of shooting children…then I would have maybe used the more modern, and gentle, descriptive “mental illness”.”

    This sentence seems to suggest you think “retardation” and mental illness are the same thing. They’re not. And autism is neither. That’s all I’m trying to point out.   

  • Miss_Beara

    The “god called them home” line is disgusting. 

  • me

    Yeah he should have also thrown in something about those who don’t believe in god. But I do think it was nice that he was being real and vulnerable up there and appealing to so many Americans. 

  • MeKo

     I don’t see why kids with cognitive disabilities should be blamed for this. As far as I know, there weren’t any involved at all.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CJCUYP57P6OT7R5NTLRNFQAVM Jon Bronson

    I was so appalled by his speech I had to turn it off. It’s like we don’t exist in his mind.

  • SeekerLancer

    The president is allowed to express his own religious views on a tragedy. Anyone insulted by this needs tone down their sensitivity.

  • Urbane_Gorilla

    A lot of people lean on religion in a time of trial. President Obama is a Baptist. He has a right to speak from his heart and to the people who lost children in a way that caters to their needs. As an atheist, I guess I’d be rolling my eyes during the speech, but it certainly doesn’t bother me any more than the 75% of our population that believes in the invisible guy that loves them so much he’d allow a kook to kill their kids. Go figure!

  • Guest

    The tragedy happened to the people who were shot, as well as their families and friends. Unless any of us here lost a loved one, it didn’t really happen to us. Yeah, it’s upsetting to read about, but it’s not really ‘our’ tragedy and so none of us are entitled to anything. It’s the victims and their families that deserve all the support available.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    He made a poignant speech befitting the moment and we cry foul because it was inconsiderate towards secularism. Please can we get over ourselves already. The presidents speech was an offering of condolence.
    Are we such a petty community that we are offended by every instance of religious rhetoric, especially those spoken by public officials. I’d like to believe we are not. I would also like to believe that we are capable of seeing the forest for the trees, that our minds are capable of recognizing the the truth and essence of a speech and not be caught up by religious traditionalism. Do we (Atheists) lack even the slightest hint of pragmatic competence. As I have pointed out, in other forum comments, our vocabulary or semantics is inherited from religious context. Not the other way around. Our history was not ten thousand years of atheistic scientific language and then religious language came about, it was quite the opposite.
    But if we cry foul upon every moment when we are ignored or forgotten then we are giving credence to the religious that we are their equal. That we allow emotion to rule our heads. Are we kin to the unreasonable, the irrational and the reactionary nature of the religious?
    When our president speaks to us (dare I say) we take it on faith that he is speaking to all of us without bias, getting hung up on quips of symbolic religious hyperbole truly shows how immature our movement is. I am often the first (in these forums) to tell a person to grow up, but in this instance our community leaders are showing how childish we truly are, please people grow the frak up.
    I we really have a problem with “implied religious endorsement” by our public officials then we should perhaps lobby for secular regulations for public speaking so that there is a clear division of what is official and what is off the record, so to speak.
    But! My fellow Atheists, we can and should make every effort to evolve our language. If we are to continue allowing the religious to define our language then we will never be free in our thoughts. In the end we will only be left with resentment.

  • comment

    If you’re looking for heartfelt, honest, non-religious, all inclusive words of comfort, I suggest watching this clip of Ellen Degengeres.


  • allein

    I think the point is that some of those family and friends are likely non-believers as well.

  • Keulan

    I think Obama could have pandered less to the Christians and been a lot more inclusive of all Americans in that speech. After all, he is the President of all Americans, not just the Christian ones.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I stand by my blog post. Thanks for the mention.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    The default really does seem to be “assume monotheism and afterlife beliefs.” I know President Obama did meet privately with each of the families, and perhaps they all expressed those beliefs to him. If so, then I don’t have a problem with it, but it does seem unlikely given their socioeconomic level and region of the country that all ~40 parents of the children believe that “God called them home.”

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    At least one family belongs to a Conservative synagogue, but they do seem to have afterlife beliefs, specifically mentioning heaven and angels. So they were probably comforted by Obama’s words. Not sure about the rest. I did read that one or two of the other children might have been from Jewish families as well.

  • sinfanti

    If none of the family members of the victims take offense at the speech than neither do I. It was for them, not me. Also, I consider the possibility that someone at the White House might have researched a tad into what religion(s) the victims were in order to tailor the speech correctly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=532665943 Leoal Nelson

    I think this is not the issue to bring this up on. I think it should be up to any non-religious members of the victims’ families. If they are bothered by it then they need to say so. It will mean more coming from them anyways. Otherwise it just looks like a bunch of easily offended nitpicky extremist atheists whining about something that doesn’t directly affect them. Frankly, it demeans other issues that are more important and less emotionally invested.

  • pagansister

    IMO, the President’s talk to attempt to comfort the families whose children were gunned down along with those who tried to save them was no problem for me, a person who doesn’t believe that any god took them anywhere. It was a speech given from the heart by a man who is not only the leader of the USA but a father. IMO the fact that he was there was what was important not the specific words he spoke. If those words helped a grieving community…so be it.