This is a guest post by Tracey L. Melody. Tracey is a longtime atheist with a degree and background in communications who lives with her family in Maine.
As the parent of a young daughter, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has hit my family hard. It is impossible to think of the tragedy without projecting the face of my own child onto the young victims, or trying to identify with the agony and anguish of their families, especially the parents.
Because of this I cannot help but view people’s responses through the lens of how they would be received if seen or heard by one of those grieving mothers or fathers. It is also a challenge because as an atheist (or, as I prefer, a Humanist), I cannot escape the avalanche of directives to pray and proffering of religious explanations for the carnage.
Some of these, such as former President of Focus on the Family James Dobson blaming abortion and gay marriage, border on the absurd, and as such are easily dismissed as fringe. The one I have seen the most, though, is the one that has gnawed at me the most, given that I am hearing it even from people I had formerly considered reasonable Christians: God did not protect the children at Sandy Hook because, to use Bryan Fischer’s words, he is “not welcome” in public schools.
Once I choke down the insensitivity of the remark and look at it more objectively, it presents something of a conundrum for those who would make such an argument. I wonder whether these individuals could reasonably answer the following questions without any inconsistencies in order to reconcile this claim with the basic Christian tenet of a kind, gentle Jesus Christ.
- If any of the victims were pious, faithful, moral people living as Jesus taught — and since the majority of them were hardly more than babies, it is a safe assumption that they were mostly free of sin — why does that get ignored because they happened to be in a public building? The Supreme Court has upheld the right of students to pray in public schools; the prohibition is only against school personnel leading or enforcing prayer. Would God have protected non-pious individuals in a church or on private property where separation of church & state do not apply? Is where you are physically located in a crisis the determinant of God’s protection or abandonment, or must you be both pious and not in a public building?
- What about mass shootings that have occurred in places not subject to separation of church & state, such as malls, theaters, or restaurants? What about the ones at religious schools or churches (such as occurred at the Sikh temple, Wedgewood Baptist Church, or the Living Church of God)? Indeed, these occurred in God’s own house where one can only assume He is “welcome.”
- If God loves His children, why let His children’s children be slaughtered simply because they are in a place where they cannot worship publicly? If He gave us free will and we used it to create rules that keep government and religion separate, does it seem fair to condemn people who follow those rules in an attempt to be good citizens to execution by armed gunmen?
- If God really could have protected those children but chose not to as a means of teaching us a lesson because we dared to keep institutional prayer out of public schools, what about that is worth worship? Is an omnipotent deity that opts not to intervene to save innocent children from violent, painful, terrifying death truly a God of love and forgiveness, or is He a God of wrath? And if the latter, what reason other than fear of reprisal is there to worship?
- If God does not have the ability to intervene and couldn’t have stopped the massacre even if He wanted to, then what does it matter that He is “not welcome” in public schools? If He cannot intervene, then welcome or not, prayer or not, their fate was in the shooter’s hands, not God’s, wasn’t it?
- Simply by virtue of offering an explanation for why God permitted this atrocity, are people not presuming to know God’s mind and intent? If He is angered by human arrogance in the separation of church & state, would He not also be angered by the arrogance of this presumption?
I have no quarrel with people who seek refuge in prayer to cope with this or any tragedy; we all must grieve and attempt to make sense of things in our own way, and if God serves that purpose for some, then who am I to argue? However, when fundamentalists begin laying blame for such events at the feet of secular laws and assert that their God could do better, it is fair to require them to demonstrate how, precisely, He would do so. Subjecting their proposals to the scrutiny of critical thought, starting with answers to these questions, seems both reasonable and right. In a world where six- and seven-year-olds are shot to death for no reason, a little more reason and rightness seem in order.