Monday, December 17, 2012

The Atheist Response to Tragedy

Oh, how I've cried. I've thought about the terror those little kids must have felt in their final moments, the trauma the surviving kids will always feel, the teachers and school administrators who must have felt desperate and shocked as gunshots cut them down, the police and firefighters who had to see those dead children and adults and work with families going through an extreme grief that seems deep and endless. And when I think of that, and see the news coverage, I have wept.

That's empathy. That's what most humans feel during a crisis like this - including Atheists and Secular Humanists. Empathy is not an exclusive trait of people who believe in an invisible, magical friend. Empathy is, to me, what creates and sustains caring people and societies. It is our empathy that guides us in decisions and actions at times like this.

Atheists / Secular Humanists have moments of despair and moments of hope, just like any other human. We seek comfort in the arms of loved ones, in holding our pets closer, in being kinder in little ways throughout the day. We seek reassurance of overall human goodness and signs of normalcy - we look at a woman coo'ing with her baby at a bus stop, a parent patiently talking to a child in a store about why he can't have THAT toy, an elderly couple holding hands, a teen ager opening a door for someone, and we see life and kindness going on, continuing - unstoppable. We see a choir singing, an out-of-shape person jogging, a neighbor wearing his cowboy riding duds because he's just been off somewhere riding a horse, and we are comforted. We remember times of profound human horror that we have studied - the Holocaust of WWII, the mass slaughter of various people in different times, slavery - and we see the amazing resilience of humans in the face of such, again and again. And we are comforted. 

We also try to offer comfort. We cook meals. We hold hands. We send cards. We say, "I love you. I care about you." We ask, "How can I help you?" We mow someone's lawn and buy groceries for a grieving family, without fanfare. We contribute to a college fund. Those things feel good to do. We have been on the receiving end of those acts in our own time of crisis, and we remember how it made us feel. We feel love for other humans, even humans we've never met, and we want to be a part of the kindness extended to them.

We wonder why the media interviews only religious leaders about how to handle this tragedy - why they ignore secular ethicists that have so much to offer in this time as well. Some of the most caring statements I've seen on Facebook and Twitter after this tragedy are by people I know are Atheists. By ignoring those that can speak about comfort and hope from a non-religious perspective, the media ignores the needs of Atheists in this tragedy - and, being humans, we need words of comfort and hope and acknowledgement just like anyone. 

Atheists are not burdened by questions of destiny, of why a supposedly omnipresent being was so NOT present to protect people from this horror, about any bigger "plan" for humanity that required this carnage, because we don't believe in such. That lack of burden is definitely a comfort in times like this. And instead of praying for the victims, we try to think of ways to prevent this from happening again - we look for things to actually *do*. We look at countries like the U.K., Germany, France, Australia, Spain and other places, where the number of homicides per capita, as well as the number of gun-related deaths, are so dramatically lower than here in the USA. We think about the psychology of the murderer, and what we can learn about that person's thought processes in order to prevent this from happening again. We wonder how to get better access to mental health services, and better awareness of mental health issues, for everyone - for the survivors, for the first responders, for parents of mentally-disturbed children, for EVERYONE. Also instead of praying, we may find solace in volunteering in our communities, to feel a stronger connection to neighbors, to feel a stronger connection to humanity, to all life on Earth, and to feel like we do have control over much of our lives. 

Atheists/secular humanists don't think poorly or unkindly of people who do find comfort in a belief in an invisible, magical friend. But many of us do cringe at people saying, "We survived because God was looking out for us," thinking about just how much that statement hurts parents who lost a child - they've just been told God wasn't looking out for their little one. We also cringe at the statement, "God called them home" or "this is part of God's plan," knowing there will be children now terrified because of those statements, fearing that same God will "call them home" soon, that his plan is for them to go through such a horrific experience. Those statements are tough for Atheists to hear, as we know just how much fear and pain they cause so many people.

We feel anger at statements like, "This happened because God/prayer was taken out of schools." This kind of misinformation creates hatred against Atheists - as well as those who are in a religious minority in a community. These statements are designed to create hate, and such are reprehensible at any time - but particularly now. It is absolutely legal for children to pray in public schools. There is no law whatsoever preventing anyone from praying in a public school. We are appalled that many religious people will use an event like this to demonize Atheists and spread this misinformation. We worry at the fallout that will come as a result, how many unkind statements Atheists and Secular Humanists and those in minority religions can expect to hear as a result in the days to come.

We're here, and we're grieving too. We are a part of the world, full members of the human family. Please don't forget about us. Please don't ignore us. Please don't demonize us. Let's all grieve and learn and help others together.

ADDENDUM: for parents seeking help in talking to children, see Parenting Beyond Belief.

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