Could God care less about the Newtown tragedy than he cares about the outcome of a football game?
“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able of willing? Then why call him god? – Epicurus
Epicurus, the ancient philosopher, 341-270 BC was refering to the mythical Greek gods who were later replaced by a monothiestic god of creation. Since time immemorial all gods have tended to have the same job, to explain the unexplainable, such as the concept of death.
While watching President Obama deliver his address to the nation from Newtown, CT. following the Sandy Hook school shootings I was moved by his eloquence in performing his unofficial duties as Comforter in Chief, though at times it sounded like Pastor in Chief. The president described the children as “Little angels gone home to be with their heavenly father.” He also offered prayers to the victims and their families and even quoted from the bible. For the leader of a secular nation that recognizes the importance of separation of church and state to make blanket statements about all citizens spiritual practices and needs seems bold beyond belief. The idea that some of the parents of the slain children might be nonbelievers never comes to mind during such tragedies
The need for comfort after events like Sandy Hook can force some to shut down rational thinking in place of make believe answers suited for very young minds not fully developed. Concepts like heaven, angels and praying for the victims and survivors are all rituals that the prevailing culture accepts. For nonbelievers and humanists this is not acceptable.
In his book, Good Without God, What a Billion Nonreligious People do Believe, humanist, Greg M. Epstein states; “Humanism and atheism often lose out to religion not because of anything remotely related to theological belief, or even because people need to think of themselves as better than others, but because we often cannot help but think of ourselves as a part of a valued particular group often associated with religion.”
A smaller, but growing group, nonbelievers have grown to twenty percent of the population, according to The Pew Center for the People and Press. Since these are mostly younger Americans there is a chance for them to one day be in the majority. These atheists, agnostics, humanists and others suffer the same fate as believers – the painful reality of mourning the death of a loved one. For the believer, death is thought to be a part of God’s plan, only an end of one life and the beginning of another. For the nonbeliever however death is simply the end of the road and a part of the natural order of things. Perhaps this is why those not burdened with the idea of an afterlife can focus on the short time they have above ground and not below it. For nonbelievers mourning can be a deeper hurt, knowing they will never see loved ones again and left with only memories. You could say their motto is life before death.
In a recent National Public Radio series titled: After Tragedy, Nonbelievers Find Ways to Cope, reporter Barbara Bradley Haggerty interviews people who have lost loved ones and how they mourn without the aid of a higher power. Carol Fiore’s husband, an atheist and test pilot was in a fiery plane crash and was in the hospital on life support. The Catholic hospital was informed of Eric’s wishes not to be prayed over, and still a priest repeatedly prayed for him and even administered last rites. Carol also spoke of having to endure the indignity of hearing things like “Eric is going to a better place” and “God has a plan”. What better place could there be other than being alive with his wife? And what is this great plan that could impose such intense anguish upon the survivors? For the believer these words somehow may bring comfort but for people like Carol they are only empty platitudes. For her and others they know that no words can take away the pain, only time can, and then only partly. Ms. Fiore states; “As an ecologist and scientist I believe that when you die, your energy becomes part of a system again, and in that way, I guess people can never really be gone.”
The fear and finality of death requires us all, believers and nonbelievers, to humble ourselves to a force we cannot control. When this occurs to those so young like the tragedy in Newtown, we often fall back on myths that have been indoctrinated in us from an early age for guidance.
A local resident, Jack Brizzi adds; ” We felt better saying the school children were angels in heaven. This is ok if the myth makes you feel better, but this heaven or after life is a comtemporary myth no easier to believe than Zeus on Mount Olympus or a Viking ship off the coast of Valhalla, it’s all myth, it’s just which one you choose to believe in or none.”
The thinking rational mind is what keeps us from totally reverting back to primative answers to mysteries like the meaning of death. As inhabitants of the universe, or the natural world we all will expire just as the stars do and since we are made of star stuff we can mourn the death of young stars rather than angels at Newtown.