Following on from the school shootings in America recently, a woman named Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times. As I am not a reader of the NY Times, I became aware of this article through a friend who is now an atheist but used to be a Christian.
What is on display in the article is the total lack of compelling arguments, genuine empathy and the presence of utter confusion. You can read the whole article here. I will quote some of it now with a little commentary thrown in.
“IN a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.””
Her colleague is right!
Contradiction and confusion show up nearly right away though. If this is genuinely our only life and there is no afterlife then why should we grieve when someone dies? As an atheist, Ms. Jacoby must subscribe to evolution as an explanation of how people came to be here. Evolution, taken logically, does not make a lot of time for grief. Rather than grieving, the survivors should get on with making more babies in order to ensure the passage of their DNA onwards. Skip the funeral and go get in the bed! That is more true to the logic of evolution and is much closer to what can be observed in animals.
Why do atheists worry about finding solace? Because it is precisely here that atheism rings most hollow. When parents lose a child the most unthinkable thought is that the child is totally gone, forever. Parents, and other people, naturally think the child must live on in some way. Happily, this is indeed the case! Ms. Jacoby feels the frustration of the atheistic viewpoint right here because this is its weakest point. Empathy with human emotions and feelings is not found in atheism because atheism relies on evolution. Evolution is blind to the wants and needs of any individual’s feelings.
“Now when students ask how I came to believe what I believe, I tell them that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio. In 1952, a 9-year-old friend was stricken by the disease and clinging to life in an iron lung. After visiting him in the hospital, I asked my mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” She sighed in a way that telegraphed her lack of conviction and said: “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.””
Hopefully the priest could do far, far better than her mother! If someone’s rejection of God springs only from the bitterness of suffering then their understanding of the Christian worldview and message has been severely limited. Of course, at age seven, Ms. Jacoby can be forgiven for not understanding the bigger story of sin, death, redemption and restoration. Surely her mother could have done better though?
If you struggle with this question, have a look at these articles for some answers:
“IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.”
Here is were atheists lose their empathy. You see, in the face of all of these kinds of tragedies, one can naively say “I don’t care why and I’m glad I don’t even have to ask the question.” However, what you will find is this is the question people want to have answered. People are desperate to know why things happen – especially tragic things.
As part of our church’s outreach we meet people on the street and invite them to ask us a question they would ask God. Roughly one in three questions we receive is some variation of “Why is there suffering?” For Ms. Jacoby to insist that she is truly empathetic while ignoring such a fundamental and common question is either blindly naive or intentionally deceptive.
“The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”
Can you see the next blaring contradiction? If someone is an atheist then the fate of this world is a known thing and it cannot be altered. Everyone will die, no one will live forever and eventually the whole planet will be obliterated in some catastrophe or swallowed up by the Sun. To speak of the fate of the world is to talk as if the world has a purpose and a goal towards which it is moving. Yet this is nonsense within the atheistic worldview.
The final sentence is also a poorly constructed contradiction. In what possible way could the absence of an afterlife – and thus a moment of ultimate judgement by a totally Just and Fair Judge – lend a greater moral importance to our actions on earth?
What do we make of the shooter who killed twenty children, six adults – including his own mother – and wounded two more people? At some level, he was doing what he wanted to do, strange though that sounds to the rest of us. If he is now dead and totally gone then how can any of these families feel any sense of justice for what has happened to their loved ones? Why should any person, given atheism, not feel as if they could do a similar thing?
Within the Christian view, justice for Adam Lanza will come when he stands before God. Without presuming upon God’s judgement, I think the punishment for Adam Lanza will be the justice for his crimes.
The atheist has no such concept of justice and judgement. Rather, their morality is based solely upon how an individual determines what is right and what is wrong. Sure, some will argue that society determines this. However, relative morality is not acceptable to most people and is not livable by anyone. This is where the atheist runs into confusion, contradiction and loses any real chance at empathy.
I should wrap up before I write my own book. Ms. Jacoby undoubtedly means well. Yet her worldview does not allow her to offer cogent answers to the questions people really want to ask. She cannot explain why someone like Adam Lanza commits such a horrible crime. She cannot offer the families any genuine hope for something better. At best all she can offer is a replacement for their lost child, mother, sister, brother, father, son or friend.
What would I say at a funeral? Have a look: