I have already written about the crayon tribute and the angel memorials in Newtown. I ended by saying that, although my heart goes out to the grieving parents, I have no prayers to offer in comfort. That is a great disadvantage of not believing… you feel helpless, unable to intervene. Even when prayers prove futile, the believer can seek consolation by saying that she tried, that the outcome must be part of God’s plan.
But it must be difficult also to accept that prayers go unanswered by the God we are taught is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and so on. Was I misremembering this dogma? No, I looked it up again this afternoon in both the Baltimore Catechism that was used in my childhood instruction, and in the Catholic Encyclopedia. Read it and weep!
For someone who no longer believes these teachings, though, there are some advantages. You no longer have to reconcile the coexistence of incredible evil with your religious beliefs. And free of that cognitive dissonance and the confusion and double think it entails, you can attempt to look at the world unblinkered, to think logically, and to act decisively.
Susan Jacoby explained it very well in the article in The New York Times last week. I have quoted only very short passages: click on the title to access the whole article… it is worth your attention!
By SUSAN JACOBY
Published: January 5, 2013
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.”
… 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.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
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…
… In his speech at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, President Obama observed that “the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning?” He could easily have amended that to “the world’s religions and secular philosophies.” He could have said something like, “Whether you are religious or non- religious, may you find solace in the knowledge that the suffering is ours, but that those we love suffer no more.”
Here is Obama’s full speech, brilliant as usual , compassionate and inspiring. But I do agree with Jacoby’s criticism. She concludes:
Somewhere in that audience, and in the larger national audience, there were mourners who would have been comforted by the acknowledgment that their lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life, but “only perfect rest.”