Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Saturday, April 21, 2007

When Christians wonder why atheists aren't more like Christians.

It's been awhile, but I think I'm back. It seems like everyone has to weigh in on the VaTech tragedy, and inevitably that means that some people are going to say some silly things. Dinesh D'Souza is one such , opining shortly after the shooting that atheism is worthless in dealing with the emotional fallout from tragedies of this sort. There are many things to disagree with in his post, such as his assumption that statements made by one atheistic scientist are representative of atheists in general (nothing against the estimable Mr. Dawkins, but atheists were originally called "freethinkers" for a reason) and his egregious oversimplification of atheist responses to the problems surrounding human meaning and purpose in the universe, which are by no means unique to atheism.

However, I'm willing to agree with him that it would be crass for an atheist to respond to human tragedy by attempting to convince theists of atheism. After all, atheists generally claim that we should try to arrive at our beliefs about the existence of a deity on the basis of reasoned argument. It is difficult in the immediate aftermath of such tragedies to sufficiently distance ourselves from our emotional responses to fairly deal with the evidence of the case.

This shows the silliness of D'Souza's post. He claims the VaTech shooting is an example of a "problem of evil" for the atheist--that they are unable to provide comfort in the aftermath of tragedy. But the obvious reason for this so-called inability is that most people in the U.S. are not atheists. Of course a theist is not going to want to deal with rejecting a core belief after losing a friend, classmate, or child. Of course they will look for comfort in the system of belief they already accept. But this says nothing about atheism. After all, we also generally don't invite Hindu monks or Muslim imams to speak at these events. But yet they are not (usually) atheists. We don't do this for the simple reason that most people in the U.S. are neither Muslim nor Hindu. So there is nothing unique in atheism not having representatives at VaTech to comfort the community. This no more shows the inability of atheism to comfort the grieving victims of a tragedy than it shows the inability of, say, Zen Buddhism. What it really going on here is our tendency to look for comfort in the familiar--which for most Americans is Christianity, but could as easily be Jewish, or existentialist, or Jainist depending on where you live.

As further evidence against D'Souza's claim, and I suspect this is true for most atheists, I find it annoying when a theist tries to comfort me by talking about God or by telling me that he will pray for me. I would rather talk to Dawkins than Dobson about the real meaning of human tragedy. I can forgive them this as I know they are generally well-meaning and this is often the only way they know how to communicate their sympathy for my plight. But it still seems crass and manipulative when someone takes advantage of a painful episode in my life to preach at me.

It seems that D'Souza is unable to find atheism when these awful things happen because atheists have a quality that he should consider emulating: respect for other people's beliefs in times of tragedy.

Update: Fixed the broken link.

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