Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Why Do Atheists Let Bad Things Happen?

If you have grown weary of rational thinking, the antidote can be found in a blog entry by Dinesh D'Souza titled, "Where Is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?" In it, D'Souza points to the recent and horrific shooting at Virginia Tech (in which 32 individuals died), and wonders why atheists have been so poorly represented in public ceremonies commemorating the tragedy. Because Richard Dawkins hasn't been flown in to give a talk to the grieving families (in typical form for believers lacking arguments, D'Souza attacks the eminent British zoologist, in this particular case with a straw man representation of Dawkins' moral foundations), society needs something more than what science has to offer. Of course, this is in no way an argument for the truth claims of religion (though I wonder if D'Souza even realizes this), let alone a specific religion. But it is interesting that D'Souza attempts to foist religion's problem of theodicy (why does a good God allow evil things to happen, especially to innocent people?) upon atheists.

A proper and qualified response has already been written by a professor at the school, "An Atheist at Virginia Tech", and I recommend that you read it. I'd like to add a few thoughts of my own:

The reason believers flood into churches after disasters like school shootings, September 11th, or the 2004 tsunami, is that they want to be reminded why God is good. The reason they need to be reminded is that God does not seem particularly real or good at such times. God is a lot easier to believe in when everything is going well (or when we are able to ignore misery elsewhere in the world), but when grief comes rushing into our lives, believers fight to hold onto their notion of God all the more. The ministers tell them that we live in a world of physical laws, and that these laws cannot be abrogated all the time (God is only credited for intervening when particularly good things happen or when disaster is avoided). But surely an omnipotent God could have foiled the killer's plan in the first place, or turned Cho Seung-Hui's life around before he became homicidal, or enabled someone on campus to stop the act, or even cause the bullets to miss or the guns to jam. If any of these things had happened to prevent the violence (sometimes murder plots are foiled), God would have been given ample praise. There are even some ministers who, in the aftermath of tragic events, play the blame game and try to figure out who sinned, as the terrible event must be punishment from that same loving God. That is another way to reconcile a "good" God with reality, but a particularly unsavory one in my estimation.

Atheists do not waste time with these imaginary problems. Nor do we answer senseless brutality like that committed by Cho Seung-Hui with senseless explanations and speculation. Instead, we focus on real ways to comfort and explain. We comfort the grieving in whatever way we can, with long hugs, letters of consolation, and expressions of sympathy. We try to explain by looking for clues in the psychology and environment of the killer, and construct ways to prevent such horrible loss in the future. We remember how fragile life is, and we are reminded to cherish the ones we love who are still living. We commemorate the dead, share stories about why we loved them, and do what we can to carry on their legacies. We don't try to make sense of their loss, because it was a senseless act that caused it.

At the same time, we realize that the other 90% of the population does believe in a God, and we do not interrupt their prayers or sermons. There is a time for discussion and debate, and another person's period of intense personal grief is not that time. (Thanks to Wendy for the links.)

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