Tag Archives: atheism

These six superpowers are why atheists are #winning

Atheism is #winning

To be free from superstition or the belief in the supernatural is a rarity in the history of our species. It’s so rare in fact that it’s a stretch to include it in the description of what it is to be human. It is only through generations of evidence-based knowledge about the world that we have recently found ourselves in an environment hospitable to modern atheistic and skeptical world views. This niche we find ourselves in has been so out of reach to humans until so recently that the ability to experience such a detachment from gods and superstition might even be fairly described as superhuman.

There’s evidence that the origin of supernatural thinking dates as far back as 300,000 years ago when Paleolithic humans began burying their dead. If you consider that we’ve only had access to enough evidence-based ammunition to smother the absurdity of faith-based and superstitious thinking since the dawn of the scientific revolution 300 years ago, you realize that only 0.1% of our species’ existence since the Paleolithic era has been marked by the potential to be a modern atheist or skeptic.

So it can be argued that to be an atheist or skeptic in the modern world makes you superhuman. As an atheist (or future atheist) you might ask, “what’s the point of being superhuman if it doesn’t come with superpowers?” Well it does, take a look:

Superpower #1: Freedom of Thought

We have the freedom to think about anything we want without thinking someone else is listening. While our religious friends are fearful to imagine for even a second that there might not be a god because they might be damned to eternal hell-fire, we’re free to explore all ideas. The ability to entertain all ideas without the fear of a supernatural eavesdropper allows us to make sound judgments about the validity of some ideas over the absurdity of others. We’re #winning because our freedom of thought gives us the freedom to be ourselves.

Superpower #2: Wisdom

We live at a time when we have access to an unimaginable breadth of knowledge that helps us not only better understand our past, but more presciently plan for our future. Theists have to square any new knowledge they gain with the views held in their ancient doctrines. When there’s a conflict, they’ll choose the obsolete doctrine over new evidence leading them to surrender their potential wisdom to utter ignorance about the world around them. We’re #winning because our wisdom is built on the shoulders of giants.

Superpower #3: Imagination

With the unimaginable amount of knowledge we’ve garnered on the inner workings of the universe, our imaginations are given boundless range for exploration. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a theist who understands enough cosmology (see Superpower #2) to dream about, say, someday terraforming a planet, or to realistically contemplate the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, or to make a great discovery in string theory. We’re #winning because we have a “spaceship of the imagination” that runs on logic and evidence and so is limitless in range.

Superpower #4: Honesty

Understanding the world based on facts and evidence allows an honesty in our thinking. Theists have to hold in their minds competing ideas about how the world works as becomes apparent when they have to defend a belief. For example, watch what happens when you ask your Christian friend how, when Noah’s ark landed, the kangaroos made it back to Australia? Your friend will have to ignore the entire fossil record and invent a response. We’re #winning because we don’t have to make stuff up to make sense of the world.

Superpower #5: Stewardship

Our ability to consume and synthesize facts and evidence in the absence of religious doctrine allows us to make decisions that will benefit the future of our species. As is all too common in the US, Christians are the first to ignore scientific evidence in favor of faith, submitting control of the future of our planet to their imaginary friend. An atheist understands there are no gods to solve our problems and will therefore work to solve them rather than ignore them or try to pray them away. We’re #winning because our thoughts and actions are positively correlated to the survival of our species.

Superpower #6: An Evolved Morality

Our morality like everything else is subject to evidence and research and as such is able to evolve as our understanding of human nature evolves. We don’t rely on an ancient, static doctrine to mandate fixed moral codes that aren’t open to criticism as we learn more about ourselves and what it means to live in societies. A static view of morality results in a narrow understanding of what it is to be human and by extension what it is to be humane. We’re #winning because our morality is adaptable to knowledge and therefore promises to work to reduce the suffering of as many fellow human beings as possible.

We’re #winning because we possess superpowers that were out of reach for our species until very recently. If you’re a fellow atheist or future atheist, enjoy these powers, don’t squander them, and use them wisely.

Rocking the boat: interfaith gatherings and the silence of atheists

Interfaith symbolMonday was an odd day for everyone, which is putting it mildly. I spent most of it in bed, laid up with the flu. At one point I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the world, and was intrigued to see that #prayersforboston was trending. Curious, I tweeted: “What happened in Boston, and why are the Christians praying?” It didn’t take long to figure out what had happened, or to see retweets of virtually live pictures of the bloody carnage from the scene.

I was also intrigued by the social media skirmishes that sprang up between atheists and Christians, some started with tweets like this one:

https://twitter.com/SpacePlankton/status/323898630270504961We could argue the appropriateness of such sentiments after a tragedy, but doesn’t that also call into question the appropriateness of offering overtly religious sentiments? It’s appropriate to offer condolences when an eight-year-old boy is blown up while waiting for his father to cross the finish line at a race. But is it responsible to say to his parents that this is part of God’s mysterious plan? That he is now in heaven with Jesus? Aside from the Westboro Baptist gang or unless we’re talking about a serial killer, ever notice that we never hear anyone say that someone is probably burning in hell?

Which brings us to the interfaith memorial service held this afternoon in Boston. Early this morning, Hement Mehta posted on The Friendly Atheist that, despite efforts from atheist and humanist leaders to be included on the program, there would be no non-religious representation at the service. Leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and Muslim faiths gave brief reflections, as did Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Governor Deval Patrick, and President Obama. But no atheist or humanist voices were to be heard from the platform.

President Obama began his speech by saying, “Scripture tells us to run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1), and that “we come together to pray and mourn and measure our loss.” Then later: “Our prayers are with the injured,” he said later. And towards the end: “Scripture teaches us God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).

He closed with: “may God hold close those who’ve been taken from us too soon, may he comfort their families and may he continue to watch over these United States of America.”

Of course, when people offer sentiments like these, they may not literally believe that there is a heaven, or that God is watching over us. The more devout certainly do, but I think what most people try to say by using religious language like this is: you’re not alone, we’re here for you. It’s still socially acceptable, and in lieu of any actual, tangible explanation for an inexplicable act of terror, to hear about the love of God is comforting for most people. It’s better for them than facing the horrifying void of uncertainty and loss.

However, aside from President Obama quoting Bible verses, what’s most troubling about the exclusion of non-religious voices from gatherings like these is the message being sent to atheists: that we have nothing of value to say to victims; that unless we offer platitudes or promises of an afterlife that we are unqualified to comfort others or mourn with them.

That message is driven deeper by religious backlash against atheists. Greg Epstein wrote this morning on the CNN Belief blog:

As one young woman in our [atheist] community said to me, “It’s hard enough to deal with senseless grief, but when people write things like ‘Why do people have to be so godless to want to kill innocent people?’ it makes me feel like I’m not safe either, like we’re being singled out for prejudice.”

Another way of phrasing that message would be: Atheists Not Wanted Here.

“Here” being the United States.

I’m reminded again of what writer Sarah Vowell wrote about an interfaith service after 9/11: “I will say that, in September [of 2001], atheism was a lonely creed. Not because atheists have no god to turn to, but because everyone else forgot about us… I waited in vain for someone like me to stand up and say that the only thing those of us who don’t believe in god have to believe in is other people.”

At the service in Boston today, I’m sure there were quite a few atheists and humanists in attendance. I suspect many of the speakers are even closeted atheists. So why do we stand respectfully to the side, complicit in our own marginalization by letting religious voices do the talking? Well, partly because we’re still being blamed for Boston, Newtown, Aurora, and basically any attack carried out these days. Partly because of the murderous looks cast our way if we don’t follow the crowd and give dutiful lip service to religion.

We’ve learned in the fight for marriage equality and LGBT rights that nothing is gained by staying silent and letting others act. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for others at first, but that’s how we grow as human beings, as societies — and as adults. We’re robbed of the opportunity to participate in the healing and grieving process by being shamed into not sharing with others what’s truly in our hearts.

Greg Epstein wrote in his piece, “Secular people place our faith in the human ability to value life over death. We believe in committing ourselves to love and care and help as indiscriminately as possible, because that is what makes our lives worthwhile. We try our best, despite our doubt, to ensure that the good will that comes from tragedy will ultimately exceed the bad.”

As gay atheists, we’re poised to break this silence; to speak words of kindness and healing to a resistant (and even hostile) audience; and to raise the consciousness of those around us that, just as you don’t need to be straight to be married, you don’t need to be religious to be compassionate.

“Not Just Because I’m Gay” Talking With Parents about Atheism and Spirituality

Talking with parents can be enlightening, for both parties
Talking with parents can be enlightening, for both parties

Homosexual, atheist young men, and religious older parents don’t mix well. I’m very fortunate that my parents are aware of my sexuality and are fully supportive and accepting. The one thing we can’t seem to agree on, however, is religion. I was brought up a devout Catholic Christian, and would’ve had an entirely Catholic education were it not for unrelated medical issues. Everything, from movies, to music, to even books and magazines, were censored. Topics such as sex, sexuality, and other religions were never brought up, let alone discussed in full. (I’m still waiting for the sex talk, by the way). Everything I know about LGBT health, risks, and real-world issues I had to learn entirely on my own.

Spirituality and religion are everyone’s own decisions. But should you throw away everything you’ve ever believed in, everything you’ve ever known, all because of one specific disagreement? There are really only seven passages in the Bible that directly deal with the topic of homosexuality and believe it or not, none of them have to do with Jesus. One thing that really gets under my skin is when people bandwagon on popular gay culture without having a real understanding of what they’re doing. For me, it actually wasn’t the anti-gay agenda of the church and conservative politicians, but rather the Bible’s self-contradictions, the hypocrisy of the clergy, and a seemingly-endless stream of personal and familial hardships, not to mention an increasingly large amount of evidence in favor or various scientific concepts,

When I’m not at school, I live at home with my parents, and whenever I’m there, I attend church. Not because I want to, but rather out of respect for the two people that raised me. However, I make no attempt to conceal my distaste and unimpressed mentality, whenever I have the chance. Recently my mother and I had a quite lengthy conversation about the topics mentioned above, as well as a plethora of other christian subjects, including, but not limited to, suicide, the dinosaurs, and abortion.

It was really the first time we had ever discussed any of these things, and I’d be lying if I said things weren’t tense at times. But It was important and necessary. I needed to show them that my skeptical viewpoint was not just because of what I’d seen in the media, but rather the result of years of weariness, thought-out questions with no easy answers, and an unwillingness to accept certain doctrines that I just was not happy with.

I applaud my mother. She tackled my questions head on, with as much knowledge and faith as she could muster, which, to be honest, at times was not enough for me. I had done my research and the information i had pertaining to certain subjects,passages, and biblical figures far exceeded her own. My father, having been raised Presbyterian, and having converted to marry my mother, did not get himself involved. Smart man.

Several of the topics we touched upon were quite personal to one or both of us, and it enlightened me to the fact that she is not a strict religious missionary, but rather uses it as a way of comfort and strength in times of difficulty, as we are going through right now, all the whole maintaining a strong faith. She does not believe in everything the clergy says, nor does she interpret it literally. She believes gay people are born; that it is not a choice. That suicides, if they led a good life, will receive salvation. She even admitted that everyone, the priests, the Pope, and her, could be wrong, and that Catholics have been wrong many times throughout history. Can I fault her for that? Should I force her to throw away the last great hope she has. No. I cannot. If I did, then how would I be any better than the zealots who continuously insist that the and they alone know God’s mission. She has her beliefs. I have mine. They may not coincide, but we’re still family.

I may be a legal adult, but my mind and body are still developing, and will continue to do so for a number of years. The time has come for me to ask myself, “Is this what I truly believe? Or simply simply what was chosen for me at an age where I had no cognitive mind?” Simplified answers and being told to just have faith are simply not enough anymore. I am not a child, and I cannot continue to blindly accept whatever I’m told. My family andy I have been though and continue to go through many tough times and situations, stemming from physical illness, mental illness, and death. Sometimes I have to wonder that if God is real, why would he do this? Love, a test, a plan? I don’t know. Despite what the priests and scientists say, they don’t really know either. No one truly knows, and that’s what scares me the most.

I will continue to live my life, making decisions that feel right for me, as will my parents. We’ve been through various hardships, as we still are an no doubt will continue to do so in the future. We are family. We support and love each other. They’ve made their decision, as have I. Neither of us can force the other to adhere to their spirituality. All we can do is respect each other. Again, I feel very fortunate, lucky, and yes, blessed, to live in family and community where I can freely express my views and thoughts without persecution and prejudice. Not everyone may agree, and indeed, there will never be a time where everyone truly agrees, but we can still display the dignity and respect that even without religion, would still be expected and appreciated.

Arizona Republicans: Swear An Oath to God to Graduate High School

Graduate high school for God and country!As reported on Monday in the Phoenix New Times, a proposed Arizona state law would require students to swear an oath to God (we can assume the Judeo-Christian god) to defend the United States Constitution in order to graduate from high school.

Swear. An oath. To God. To graduate. From high school.

No, it’s not an Onion article. You can read the text of HB 2467 on the Arizona State Legislature website:

Before a pupil is allowed to graduate from a public high school in this state, the principal or head teacher of the school shall verify in writing that the pupil has recited the following oath:

“I, _________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge these duties; so help me God.”

Nothing like being required to “take this obligation freely.”

Students aren’t being asked to serve two compulsory years in the country’s military or defend people in court. They’re graduating high school, which, as blogger Kevin Bondelli points out, “is the culmination of an education that up until that point was compulsory.” It’s the bare minimum requirement for admission to most colleges and universities, and to getting a job that pays more than minimum wage.

This law is aimed directly at public school students, whose ranks include Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and atheists, to name a few. But I guess if you can’t be a good little American and pretend like you believe in the [Judeo-Christian] God like the rest of this God fearing nation, no one else is to blame but you if you don’t get a high school diploma…

Bondelli points out: “I am fairly certain requiring a public high school student to swear an oath to God to graduate would violate the First Amendment of the Constitution that they are trying to force these students to swear to support and defend. This paradoxically means that in order to actually support and defend the Constitution, you have to refuse to take this oath to support and defend the Constitution.”

But the Constitution doesn’t really matter, right? Not when it’s trumped by the Bible. Because the Founders used the Bible as their primary source for writing the Constitution, don’t you know? Or did you miss the Amendments about selling your daughter into slavery and killing anyone who works on the Sabbath or converts from Christianity?

So the people who want to make it impossible for non-Christians to graduate high school in Arizona (at least without lying under oath) are the same ones who believe that the Earth is no more than 10,000 years old, that a woman can’t get pregnant if she was raped, and that gays are directly responsible for hurricanes? (I exaggerate a little on that last one.)

Yeah. No disconnect there.

The tactical atheist: On the motivations behind engaging with theists

Not a tactical atheist.A guest post on the Friendly Atheist blog today posed “Six questions for Christians following the Newtown massacre.” Two weeks ago I offered some thoughts of my own about prayer during tragedies, and the author delves further into the implications of “directives to pray and [proffer] religious explanations for the carnage.”

(A quick word about the Friendly Atheist blog. In case you’re not familiar, it was started by atheist activist Hement Mehta in June of 2006. The Freedom From Religion Foundation and separation of church and state violations get a fair amount of coverage, so if you’re wondering what’s happening in atheist activism, this is a good place to go. In addition to himself, Mehta now has 25 regular contributors to the blog, so the RSS feed can be a bit much to keep up with at times.)

Watchdog atheist activism

In her post, Tracey Melody follows what many Christian leaders have said about the “causes” of the tragedy to the logical conclusions. 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? These and others are uncomfortable but fair questions — ones that “God’s ways are mysterious” can’t wipe away so easily.

However, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, what’s the purpose of even posing questions like these? Melody wrote in conclusion:

I have no quarrel with people who seek refuge in prayer to cope with this or any tragedy . . . 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.

We’re right to hold people like James Dobson and Bryan Fischer who have a wide audience and influence accountable for their words. They represent a dwindling portion of the population desperate to hold on to the power and influence that religious leaders have enjoyed for over two thousand years. For too long they’ve been able to work unopposed.

However, we still might ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish by asking these questions, and what our aims ought to be in engaging with theists in the first place.

Ideological trench warfare

A few days ago I was reading comments on a Facebook page for an online community I also contribute to (www.thepeopleproject.com). The post was an image of a Carl Sagan quote, part of which read: “Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mine that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.” It didn’t take long for theists to start trolling, the first one stating that if anything, atheism is “the lack of knowledge.”

This went back and forth over the next few days, with a doubtlessly sincere teenage girl inevitably asking, “How do you think the world was made?” (i.e., “If God didn’t create the universe, where did it all come from? Checkmate, atheists!”) A handful of atheists attempted to reason with (or repel) the invaders, not-so-tactfully pointing out obvious flaws in their arguments or the snags in their moral formulation.

After World War I, trench warfare became a symbol of the futility of war. Both sides dug themselves in, creating sprawling networks of tunnels and bunkers to protect soldiers from enemy bullets. (This wasn’t much use against artillery shells or poison gas though). This meant that engagements could easily drag on for weeks or even months.

The current religious “conversation” seems little more than ideological trench warfare. The atheist and the theist lob attacks at each other from their respective ideological positions, the intent to obliterate the other’s belief. There appears to be little motivation to listen or understand. The atheist is convinced that the theist is blind to reason, while the theist is convinced that the atheist is blind to faith.

Theological armistice

Given this situation, what exactly is Tracey Melody trying to accomplish by posing her six questions to Christians? Is anyone going to be suddenly convinced that prayer is futile and give up belief in God entirely? Will an atheist realize that Jesus has been the answer all along because of the emptiness of believing that the shooting happened for no reason? To both of these, probably not.

So this leads me to wonder — what might a theological armistice look like? Is such a thing even possible? As a former Christian (and a fundamentalist one at that), I understand their arguments and theology better even than some who claim to be Christian. This leads to the larger question of the origin of belief, and what makes some people more likely to not believe in the supernatural. But it should also make us wonder about our tactics.

The gross casualties in World War I are largely attributed to commanding officers who failed to adapt to the new conditions of trench and mechanized warfare. Greater numbers and superior morale meant nothing against the machine gun and mustard gas. The phrase “lions led by donkeys” came to represent this failure to evolve.

Similarly, we as nontheists need to adapt and think outside the conversation box if we are to get past the immature squabbling that “debates” between atheists and theists often turn into. We can do that by not just claiming to be “Good Without God,” but focus on actually doing good as atheists. We can stop wasting words by not taking up every challenge that confrontational theists bring, and instead focus on building community with people who have similar values, for whom theistic belief is an expression of those values rather than an agenda for global domination. If we hear religious extremism as the last desperate gasps of a dying civilization, it might be easier to hear those who actually want to talk.

Again, I’m playing devil’s advocate, and the questions posed in Melody’s article are important. But the question I’ve been asking myself lately is, “Does it need to be Us vs. Them all the time?”

Evolve already! The long, slow death of religious conservatism

Too late to evolve?It took some time for President Obama’s views on marriage equality to evolve. Now Newt Gingrich, champion of the Defense of Marriage Act himself, has done a political triple Salchow and publicly come out in favor of same-sex marriage. Or at least that he’s accepted its inevitability.

After puffing that he “probably would have done better against Obama” than Romney, Gingrich told the Huffington Post that “the momentum is clearly now in the direction in finding some way to accommodate and deal with reality. And the reality is going to be that in a number of American states — and it will be more after 2014 — gay relationships will be legal, period.”

Who cares?

On December 8, Maureen Dowd wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that the world is coming to an end in 2012 — at least as “the G.O.P. universe of arrogant, uptight, entitled, bossy, retrogressive white guys” is concerned.

She failed to mention “heterosexual” in that laundry list of adjectives.

Gingrich is correct. The momentum is clearly moving in the direction of marriage equality in the United States. Four key wins in November spelled four crushing defeats for the party that for the last few decades has been doing everything it can to halt progress, and not even Karl Rove with his special math can ignore the proverbial handwriting on the wall.

So the question is — who cares?

Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin

ThingThat phrase, “writing on the wall,” is particularly appropriate. It comes from the Hebrew book of Daniel, in a scene where the Babylonian King Belshazzar is having a drunken party with the holy golden and silver vessels taken from the Jewish temple. In the midst of the orgy, a disembodied hand appears and writes the above words on the palace wall. Daniel interprets their meaning for Belshazzar:

And this is the writing that was inscribed: mina, mina, shekel, half-mina. This is the interpretation of the matter: mina, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; shekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; half-mina, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.
— Daniel 5:25-28

Dowd wrote in her article: “Outside the Republican walled kingdom of denial and delusion, everyone else could see that the once clever and ruthless party was behaving in an obtuse and outmoded way that spelled doom.” So it’s hard not to see this move as a last gasp from the political party that brought us Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, the two Ricks (Perry and Santorum), Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Sarah Palin and Richard Mourrdok — to name just a few.

End of an era

Things have not been going well for the Republican Party since we started realizing that maybe electing George W. Bush for a second term was the equivalent of having your ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed in large letters on your arm. Sure, there was the upset in the 2010 election that gave them the 193/242 majority in the House of Representatives, but one mishap and misstatement after another has induced enough eye-rolling to bring on a bout of vertigo. Between comments about “legitimate rape,” obstinate G.O.P. lockstep opposition to marriage equality, healthcare reform and immigration, and refusing to budge on taxes, it’s incredible that the American people didn’t oust them all out of office this year.

Traditionally, the Republican Party has had the solid support of conservative, evangelical (Caucasian) Christians. And if we look at the numbers from the Pew Forum from this election, it appears that held true again. Fifty-seven percent of Protestants voted for Romney, as supposed to forty-two percent who voted for Obama. The Catholic vote was close (50/48), but it was the non-Christians who voted overwhelmingly Democratic this year. It’s the religiously unaffiliated “nones” (which includes atheists and agnostics) who are the fastest growing “religious” group in the United States.

So what does this mean? It means that the support base the Republican Party has relied upon for decades to get their candidates elected is eroding — and quickly.

Evolve… or die

As Bob Dylan crooned in 1964, “the times, they are a-changin’.” The voting demographic is getting progressively younger as more conservative Baby Boomers age, retire and start to die off. This generation doesn’t have the same moral qualms about marriage equality that their elders do. And Republicans know that. As R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, was quoted in the New York Times last month:

Republicans in Congress “will tell me behind closed doors that this is the direction we need to go as a party . . . but publicly they’re not doing that.”

So what are we to make of Newt’s evolution on marriage equality? Is it anything more than a desperate attempt to seem less out of touch with reality? And will we gradually see more Republicans “evolve” on this issue between now and 2014 to avoid being seen as arrogant, uptight, entitled, bossy, retrogressive white guys? Maybe, but probably not in droves. The sway of the conservative Evangelical lobby still holds strong in the G.O.P.

As gay atheists, we need to flex our powers of critical thinking now more than ever. There may be a few Republican politicians who don’t agree with their party’s stance on marriage equality who will be emboldened to speak up in support of LGBT Americans. However, we only have to look at public statements and voting records to see if the move is a genuine one. These are crocodile tears shed by a species facing its now-inevitable demise due to its failure to truly evolve.

Prayer may offer comfort, but it doesn’t save lives

As of writing this, there are at last count 27 dead in Newtown, CT. And 20 of them are children.

I can still remember sitting in class in high school on April 20, 1999 and hearing the awful news about the shootings at Columbine High School. It was a Tuesday, and the following evening at my church’s youth group we had prayer for the victims and the victim’s families. A few of the really Christian kids even prayed for the families of the shooters. We found comfort together in the belief that God somehow had a plan in allowing the tragedy to happen.

Since then I’ve lost track of how many school shootings there have been. Including the incident today, there have been four other incidents of school violence this year alone: February 27: Chardon, OH; August 27: Baltimore, MD; September 26: Stillwater, OK; November 30: Casper, WY. (The latter was a bizarre and lethal case involving a high-powered bow and arrow.)

One of the constants throughout all of these cases has been the turning to prayer in the aftermath to attempt to find meaning and comfort. A quick perusal of my Facebook news feed is a veritable grief fest. Most of the messages are asking how and why this could have happened, but many have religious undertones:

“My thoughts and prayers are with all the children, teachers, their families and loved ones on this tragic day,” wrote Senator (D-MN) Amy Klobuchar on her page.

Even international coffee chain Starbucks had condolences to offer: “Our hearts and prayers are with the community and the nation.”

Not all of the messages have been positive, though. Conservative radio host Bryan Fischer delivered a message on his show today, virtually blaming the victims by saying that “God is not going to go where he is not wanted.”

The unsaid common denominator in all of these messages is the implication that God allowed this tragedy to happen. It reminds me of the Biblical story of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18): “Cry aloud, for he is a god! Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

This is another aspect of the sadomasochism of religion. People often turn to prayer in times of tragedy for comfort or to make sense out of senselessness, but they are either unable or unwilling to see the cognitive dissonance implicit in this. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE) summed this up best in his famous paradox:

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 nor willing? Then why call him God?

There’s nothing wrong with seeking comfort or solace, but we do a serious disservice to the victims by offering empty platitudes. It holds people back from grieving and truly moving on by teaching them to believe that their loved ones aren’t really dead — that their spirits live on in a better place, and they’ll all be reunited someday in that Sweet By-and-By. While it’s nice to think that, it doesn’t make it true.