Dinesh D’Souza takes the opportunity of the Virginia Tech massacre to write his odd and badly-reasoned screed, “Where is Atheism When Bad Things Happen?” He opens thusly:
Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found. Every time there is a public gathering there is talk of God and divine mercy and spiritual healing.
Yes, Dinesh, I notice that atheists are not prominently featured on the news in the aftermath of this horrible tragedy. I also notice they aren’t featured when things are going well, either. Perhaps you’re shocked that public gatherings after a tragedy take a godly tone – perhaps you’ve never seen a tragedy unfold before. This is quite normal. He continues:
To no one’s surprise, [Richard] Dawkins has not been invited to speak to the grieving Virginia Tech community. What this tells me is that if it’s difficult to know where God is when bad things happen, it is even more difficult for atheism to deal with the problem of evil.
No, atheism deals just as badly with the problem of evil as any group of believers. What Dawkins’ lack of an invitation to speak at Virginia Tech tells me is A) grieving people tend to look for some spiritual answer for their loss and hurt, and atheists don’t pretend to give them those, B) Dawkins is British, and would have no reason to be invited to VT even if he was a godly man, and C) the people of Virginia Tech, unlike you, see no reason to inject a religious debate into an already difficult time.
Is this seriously what you’ve taken away from this? That a community in which 80% (at a minimum!) of the people can be expected to embrace a god of some sort wouldn’t take their most painful time to put atheists out in front to help them deal with the situation? This is, what, some sort of sign that atheists feel nothing when something like this happens?
People who attack atheists in this way have a blind spot that makes me sad. This belief that atheists just sit around having no moral code, stealing, killing, doing whatever they want but feeling nothing one way or the other about what happens is, frankly, juvenile. If Dinesh D’Souza honestly believes this, he has no business writing a column that people with an IQ above 50 might read.
Apparently D’Souza updated his blog post, energized by all the atheists he’s irritated. He continues:
One clever writer informs me that atheists don’t deny meaning, they simply insist that meaning is not inherent in the universe, it is created by us. Okay, pal, here’s the Virginia Tech situation. Go create some meaning and share it with the rest of us Give us that atheist sermon with you in the pulpit of the campus chapel. I’m not being facetious here. I really want to hear what the atheist would tell the grieving mothers.
So you think that since atheists won’t refer to a god, they can’t comfort people? You know, I lost someone in my family recently. Others in the family were significantly closer to this person than I was, and they’re suffering unbelievable grief as a result of the loss. And, atheists all of us, we’ve managed to comfort one another with love and understanding – as any humans should be able to do. Sure, it’d be nice to say “he’s in a better place,” or “God has a plan for him,” but it wouldn’t be true, and it wouldn’t make them feel better. The person they love is still gone.
D’Souza’s line of reasoning not only fails to understand atheists and atheism to an astonishing degree, but it shows a shocking failure to understand grief. These grieving parents, siblings, friends, and lovers aren’t looking for God – they’re just looking for comfort. Those who are religious will undoubtedly turn to their faith for comfort, and it’s good that they do. To suggest that no atheists were lost this week, or that no atheists lost someone at VT, is statistically nonsense. Those people, too, want and will receive comfort, but in different ways. When helping those who are suffering this burden this week, one would do just as well to hold them and say “There, there. There, there.” The grieving aren’t listening to your words of “comfort”…they just need the contact. I think between atheists and D’Souza, the unfeeling one seems to be D’Souza – because no one who legitimately feels, in their heart and soul, the pain of this tragedy would actually write what he decided to write yesterday.
Luckily, I don’t have to defend atheism (’cause I’m a crappy writer and don’t do it well) in this case, because an actual professor at Virginia Tech has done so, and in the process wrote one of the most beautiful and moving explanations of the atheist understanding of life I’ve ever seen. Rather than bother with any more of my nonsense, I’ll leave you with some choice quotes – please read the whole thing.
I am to be found in Lane Stadium, looking out over a sea of maroon and orange, trying not to break down when someone mentions the inviolability of the classroom and the bond between a teacher and his students. That is my classroom, Mr D’Souza, my students, my chosen responsibility in this godless life, my small office in the care of humanity and its youth.
I know that brutal death can come unannounced into any life, but that we should aspire to look at our approaching death with equanimity, with a sense that it completes a well-walked trail, that it is a privilege to have our stories run through to their proper end. I don’t need to live forever to live once and to live completely. It is precisely because I don’t believe there is an afterlife that I am so horrified by the stabbing and slashing and tattering of so many lives around me this week, the despoliation and ruination of the only thing each of us will ever have.
We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.
I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand. “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion. I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American.
That is why we have science, and novels, and friendships, and poetry, and practical jokes, and photography, and a sense of awe at the immensity of time and the planet’s natural history, and walks with loved ones along the Huckleberry Trail, and atheist friends who keep kosher because, well just because, and passionate reverence for both those heroes who believed and those who did not, and have all this without needing a god to stitch together the tapestry of life.
Those of us with the slightest shred of deceny do not tell widows to deal with it, to get over it. That the world can be callous is no reason to be so myself. I know that no family could ever get over this loss, that no family should ever be expected to get over this loss — either by themselves, by religious rhetoricians bearing false platitudes, or by inane political pundits — but that not getting over the loss does not preclude some other kind of happiness, some other source of joy, at some other time. Not now, not in this moment, not when they have moved on, but only when it comes to them one day, like light dawning slowly.