Tragedy sans God

Prior to last week I had never been to a funeral for a friend.

I’ve been to funerals of course;  when the parents of one of my friends died and they needed my support, or when an inlaw died in support of my wife.  This was the first time since I was probably 8 years old that someone that I called a friend, or someone I cared about directly died.

It feels different, emptier, and it makes me think about the brevity of my own life.

I’ve been mulling this over a great deal since it happened.

Then, today – December 14, 2012 – something like 20 elementary school kids get killed in a school shooting in Connecticut.

and I see explanations like this pop up on Facebook from my Christian friends:

David Holt's explanation

David is a pastor at Watkinsville Baptist Church in Watkinsville, GA.

Despite how angry this makes me, how silly and offensive I find these notions, suddenly I find myself envious of people with some form of a god to comfort them and answer their questions, even if those answers are shallow and ignorant, because I am simply without any answers that can even begin to make sense of this. Answers like this seem almost blissful.

Suddenly I’m envious of those with an easy scapegoat to blame all this on, because I can’t say it was sin that caused these events but instead I know that there have to be very difficult answers to increasingly painful questions.

I’m envious of the simplicity, the black and white of it all.

“Jesus is coming back soon!”, I’ve heard.

But no, this is our mess to clean up. It’s our tragedy.

Things are easier with someone or something to point at and say, “There, that’s the whole cause of all that is bad in the world.”

Sometimes I long for something to fault.

Things are easier when you can pray and immediately feel better about things.

Sometimes I long for prayer.

God is an incredibly good distraction sometimes.

Sometimes I long for God.

Only recently have I realized how bad I am at this. 

I can’t force myself to say to my friends who just lost their parents, “don’t worry, they are in a better place now.”  I can’t be that disingenuous to people I love, but I can’t really imagine any other words that seem to make anything any better either. So, usually, I just ask if there is anything I can do – anything at all – to help….and no one ever says they need anything so I just back off and wait to see if a need does arise that I can fulfill.

I never feel like I’ve helped, or like I’ve said the right words.  I’m not sure the right words even exist. I wish I was better at providing comfort when my friends hurt.

I feel that way with my friends when they’ve lost loved ones, I feel that way with myself now that I’ve lost a good friend, and I feel that way now that our nation is hurting from the loss of these young lives.

God seems to make this easier for people, it gives them some way to excuse or explain it and to comfort them.

I’ve got nothing that can really handle this sort of thing. No magic words, no scriptures that make it all better, and no promise of a meeting place in heaven like I used to. Other than empathy,  concern for people, and a willingness to help if someone asks I’m just as lost in the mire as everyone else.

Maybe that’s enough, I hope so. Right now it’s all I’ve got.

  • You’ve got a good heart that is willing to help, Matt and that is really what this world needs most, I think…not magical answers or promises.

    • John Smith

      A good heart. Don’t worry, I am confused. And angry.

  • Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I think I prefer the “Come Lord Jesus, come.” responses to Holt’s responses. Any answer beyond “this happened because of a sick individual” smacks of agenda, and I’m not in the mood for that. I know that he is probably answering in desperation as well, so I try to feel what it’s like to be in his shoes, but I’m much more impressed with the pastors who are as wordless as the rest of us, because, what other logical answer is there for 20 children under the age of 11 were shot today?

    Huckabee and others act like prayer is some sort of formula, that if followed correctly, will prevent such things from happening. Yeah, that doesn’t work in the real world, and you have to ignore a lot in the Bible to glean that message. We all know plenty of devout individuals who live their faith daily who experience as much strife as the rest of us.

  • masterdingo

    I usually just say, we all came from stars, and one day we will all return to stars. We’re billions of atoms that have taken a human form for a short time, and then we will disperse back into billions of other things over time. Just embrace the memories that you still have, as it’s your duty to keep that memory alive.

  • Dan Silverman

    I think what you may be experiencing is a result of your having been in the faith. As a result, you still have some residual thought processes from that time. You can still enter into that mindset if you need to. You can latch on to the concept of there is a god and he can provide a better place for those that die, will come in the future and right all wrongs, etc. But for people who have never been involved in religion, for those that have never believed in an afterlife or a god that is looking down upon us, they don’t necessarily long for these concepts. They cannot enter into the mindset that you and I can because, frankly, they have never been there. As a result, they will not struggle with the same issues. Someone dies and it is simply the way of things. All things come to an end. Life ends and, sometimes, abruptly. This does not mean there are no tears, no longings. But the motivations become different.

    For example, for the firm believer in an afterlife, they have faith in a “better place” and reassure themselves (and others) with that thought. But for those who do not accept the concepts of a “hereafter” they strive to prolong life all the more. They see the horror that is death and strive to improve the quality of life … here and now, not in some mythical heaven. Realizing that this life is all any of us gets, many will strive to live the best life they can today and look for ways to ensure that future generations will not have to suffer as we have.

  • Matt,

    These platitudes angered me yesterday and I was glad I wasn’t uttering them. The only appropriate responses to yesterday’s events are a wailing, a beating of the chest, a stunned and mournful silence, groaning – as my friend said. In other words – the only appropriate responses to what happened yesterday are EMOTIONAL responses. Not mental ones, not rational ones, not magical ones, not responses that keep us from feeling or experiencing something.

    We ask why, with so many proclaimed religious people in the world, things are so shitty when most of these religious people’s doctrines demand that they go out and make the world a better place and to me, these platitudes and an attitude of having it all figured out before the shit even hits the fan are the answer to that question for me. And I say this as someone who once followed that path.

    I am not innocent of this crime.

    Apparently I’m writing my blog post here in your comments section. But I feel really strongly about this, it seems.

    As long as we keep wrapping things up in neat little packages with pretty little bows, we will continue to experience suffering. The suffering will continue to come until we truly face it and ourselves. This is my belief. This is my platitude.

  • I’m not sure what’s different for me, Matt. When I lost my grandfather in October I was sad, but there was this peace that I had about everything. I found comfort in knowing that I had made every effort to spend time with him and let him know how much I loved him (even before he got sick with cancer). I was still sad that he was gone, but I didn’t have any fear or uneasiness about his afterlife. I think that may be it. There is something different about death when you accept it for simply being part of life. While I am still sad at times, and I miss him terribly, I don’t worry about salvation or any of that and it gives me peace.

    Also, as someone who has been on the receiving end of the condolences, anything you say helps with those who are processing their grief. I graciously thanked those who said they were praying for me, though I don’t believe in prayer anymore and I accepted kind words from people who quoted Dr. Seuss or just told me they didn’t know what to say. Just knowing that people care, even if they are speechless, is comforting.

  • C.L. Bolt

    “In which my words are belittled by fundamentalists, attempting to take advantage of grief in the name of evangelism:”

    1. I did not belittle your words. I quoted them, and pointed out that by your own admission, atheism is not capable of handling tragedy.

    2. I am not a fundamentalist.

    3. I have not received any “advantage” from that post.

    4. Were you taking advantage of grief in the name of atheism?

    • Mike aka MonolithTMA

      C.L. Bolt I found your post to be mainly an attack on Matt, you didn’t address the main point of his post, and you painted one of many typical straw men that too many Christians paint of atheists. I would have commented there, but you have comments disabled on that post.

      • C.L. Bolt

        Where did I attack Matt in my post? Let me answer that for you. I didn’t.

        It is incredible to me that an atheist like Matt can call Christian beliefs “silly,” “offensive,” “shallow,” and “ignorant” and when a Christian like me responds without using those sort of terms, I’m the meanie. Instead of responding to my post with anything of substance, Matt played the martyr and you fell for it.

        What was the main point of Matt’s post? I quoted him extensively to the effect that because of his atheism, he has no answers to real evil in the world. If you have a problem with that take it up with Matt, because he wrote it, not me. I was also zeroing in on one aspect of Matt’s post, whether you consider it the “main point” or not.

        Where did I misrepresent atheism? Again, I quoted Matt regarding much of his position. When I set atheism alongside of the Christian worldview I did so in light of years of experience interacting with atheism. I’m not ignorant of the position. You may have some disagreements about what atheism entails. I’m happy to talk about them, but just claiming that I misrepresented atheism without citing where I did so strikes me as a rather empty charge.

    • Chris, I’m sorry I’ve not had time to properly deal with this in the last couple of days. I’ll try to do so now.

      1: I think that the fact that your post even exists is a testament to arrogance and an unwillingness to understand the viewpoint of another. I’m not making confessions in my post, I’m detailing my emotions – I’m talking about the inadequacies of being merely human without divinity to stand on and you find that this is a time and an opportunity to pounce on my words to show the weakness of my position, as if yours provides any meaningful answers outside of grande delusion. My post is about much more than atheism, it’s about humanity – to the claim that we are incapable of handling tragedy is asinine and insane, as we do…we simply do so without the crutch of god. I’m only talking about how much easier THAT crutch makes things like this..

      You say, “Note that Matt is angry at the application of Christian tenets to tragic events. As I mentioned in my debate with Matt, unbelievers hate the things of God,” when in truth what I’m angry at is that you and your ilk are satisfied with simplistic answers and that you’d preach them from the mountain tops as gospel truths when people are aching from loss. I’m angry because reasonable and rational people use an easy out at the first sign of trouble so that they can avoid having a real discussion about repairing a problem. I”m not surprised that you and those like you have on rose colored glasses, I’m just saddened that you think your answers are good enough for anything and I think it requires such arrogance that it putrefies me.

      2. For all intents and purposes, a person whom believes in the fundamentals of the Christian faith – be it a reformed version or not, is a fundamentalist.

      3: You have when you use it to point out the frailty of atheism, as if somehow the fact that humanity has a difficult time explaining bad situations makes your position any more true and mine any less. You have when you think that you’ve somehow strengthened your position in any way other than an emotional one, which folks like myself try to avoid because those positions crumble the fastest.

      4: I was simply expressing my thoughts, I was being honest about how I felt…I’ve received nothing and I didn’t use it as an attack on anyone – just an exploration of my thoughts and how the reaction of others are making me think and feel.

      • C.L. Bolt

        Ah, now I’m arrogant and bigoted too. How much more do you need to poison the well before you deal with the actual substance of my post? Or perhaps your goal is to just sit back and attack me rather than my argument. That runs counter to the façade of reasonable discussion you use around here.

        I realize that you are detailing your emotions in your post. I realize that you are talking about the inadequacies of being merely human without divinity to stand on. Nothing in my post indicated anything different. I quoted you extensively.

        But you can’t at the same time claim your, “post is about much more than atheism, it’s about humanity.” It’s not about humanity. You just wrote that. It’s about humanity sans God in the face of tragedy. I’m quite capable of and willing to understand that. Again I’m amazed at the sort of rhetoric you throw around. I took the opportunity to “pounce” on your words? What were you doing with the words of that Christian you quoted?

        One moment atheists mock allegedly feeble minded believers like me for needing a “crutch” in God. The next moment they whine about how dreadful the idea of hell is. I do not believe in God because of the comfort He provides in times of tragedy. But even if I did, that would not show that the belief is any less rational. The implication of the “crutch” argument is a genetic fallacy.

        Note my claim that unbelievers hate the things of God. You respond, “in truth what I’m angry at is that you and your ilk are satisfied with simplistic answers and that you’d preach them from the mountain tops as gospel truths when people are aching from loss.” Yes! The fact that we preach, and the things we would preach from the mountain tops as gospel truths are the things of God. I understand that you hate that. Thank you for conceding the point.

        Are the answers simplistic? Not at all. Your idea that they are simplistic could be owing more to your lack of knowledge in the area of theology than in the ideas themselves. But I don’t know. You would have to be more clear about what you think is “simplistic.” Simple answers are not always false answers. So your anger seems a bit misguided.

        You write, “I’m angry because reasonable and rational people use an easy out at the first sign of trouble so that they can avoid having a real discussion about repairing a problem.” What “easy out”? The Christian faith? How do you know it’s easy? You gave up! But note that you are complaining we cannot have a “real discussion,” when just a moment ago you were writing about how arrogant and closed minded I am merely in virtue of having written a post in response to your own. If you were a bit more self-critical you could avoid some of these more glaring inconsistencies. I say that to be helpful.

        The “rose colored glasses” comment is just pure rhetoric, and in all honesty it’s not very good rhetoric. I could just as easily dismiss everything you write while claiming that you are arrogant and close-minded and wearing rose colored glasses. It might sound good, but it wouldn’t get to the heart of what you are feeling and arguing. I’ve spent a lot of time placing myself in the religious and philosophical positions of those with whom I disagree. Years. You are not in a position to make some of the charges against me that you have here.

        The word “fundamentalist” has become a derogatory term. If you say that it just means “Christian,” then call me a Christian. I suspected you knew “fundamentalist” would bolster the persuasiveness of your initial tweet about me, but I will give you the benefit of a doubt.

        According to you I have taken “advantage” of this situation. How? By using it to “point out the frailty of atheism.” Okay. Then you initially took advantage of the situation by using it to point out that Christianity is “silly,” “offensive,” “shallow,” and “ignorant.” I’ve pointed this out several times already. You are either mistaken about it being wrong for me to write a post in response to yours in light of a tragedy (and you are), or you are special pleading. Christianity didn’t get any more “true” when I posted. Nor was it “strengthened” emotionally. Christianity is both true and strong apart from my post. But my post highlights that.

        Atheism, on the other hand, is woefully inadequate in terms of truth and emotions when it comes to dealing with tragedy. That’s something I’ve known for many years now, and I’d be a jerk not to point it out. That is especially the case when it comes to hurting people. I find it odd that you claim Christianity “crumbles the fastest” when you are the one who described your emotional and intellectual inadequacy when it came to dealing with this tragedy.

        I’m fine, of course, with you expressing your thoughts and emotions honestly. And I think there was some honesty there. But you did denigrate Christianity in your post. And you did open yourself up for the type of response I wrote. But if you’re as willing and ready to have an open exchange about ideas as what you relate in your material, then that should not be a problem.

        I still don’t think you’ve dealt with what I was writing about in my post. But that’s okay, I don’t expect you to. Thank you for the response. I hope you will give some thought to what I’ve written.

  • C.L. Bolt

    Thought I’d provide my take on a few of the comments over on Facebook:

    “Yes, because Christianity, The sovereignty of God, being a member of God’s chosen people, and practically every ‘moral’ idea in Leviticus goes without consequence.”

    I never stated or implied that such ideas go without consequence. Of course those ideas have consequences. Not sure you grasped the point.

    “The argument could be made that the Bible lays the foundation for genocide and mass killing.”
    “(Not to mention child abuse, rape, slavery..)”

    Well let’s see it.

    “There’s all sorts of fodder in this, but I gotta say the argument that ‘You should believe because it’s easier’ is rather weak and uninspired, especially for them.”

    Of course, I never made that argument, so I’m not terribly concerned.

    “Their take on what atheism is, well, interesting.”

    Not really, if you have any familiarity with atheism.

    “I think it’s pretty clear that they are proud to misrepresent my statements though, and are cheaply taking advantage of a situation.”

    Which statements did I misrepresent? None. I quoted Matt and provided my own take on some of the things he said. As far as the “cheaply taking advantage of a situation” thing, see my reply in the comments above. If I am cheaply taking advantage, then Matt did so too, and he did so before I did! But no, I haven’t gotten any “advantage” by making a blog post.

    I notice that no one has actually provided a single example of where I misrepresented Matt or atheism. No one is obligated to respond to the substance of my post of course, but the silence is deafening. Atheism is a poor worldview for making sense of the sort of evil we saw in CT.

    • tana

      I’m the one who said that your views on atheism are interesting. I’m quite familiar with atheism.

      It seems that you have a choice here: you can either stop and consider that multiple people read your comments regarding Matt’s post as an intent to misrepresent Matt’s ideas and just sit with that, considering your tone and how it came across to a subsection of readers and then let it go…


      You can keep on this ridiculous defensiveness which will, in the end, get us where exactly?

      20 children died Friday. That’s really the ONLY thing in the whole wide world that matters. People are experiencing it and processing it differently. Can we give each other some grace, look at each other with kind eyes and allow each other our faulty language and expressions?

      I’m so tired of this bickering, it makes me sick.

      • C.L. Bolt

        I notice you still have not explained why my views on atheism are “interesting.”

        Of course I am not going to “sit with that,” because not one of you has cited a specific instance yet where I “misrepresented Matt’s ideas.” You see, you all keep asserting that I misrepresented Matt, ascribing some alleged wrongdoing to me, but when I ask you to back those assertions up, you remain silent. And as for “tone,” it is not always very easy to discern that from text.

        There is no “ridiculous defensiveness” here. Rather, I am pointing out that Matt has played the martyr and accused me of some wrongdoing without substantiating his claims. You all have followed him in charging me with this or that fault without providing any specific examples from my post. The reason I do what I do is because I care deeply about the truth. I have not seen the same concern for truth in the unsubstantiated assertions from Twitter and Facebook with regard to my post.

        Nothing in my post took away from the tragic nature of the deaths of children last week. If anything, my post provided a context wherein those deaths might have some meaning. Compare it to Dan Silverman’s comment above where he states, “Someone dies and it is simply the way of things.” Atheism is insufficient for dealing with the type of evil we saw last week, and Matt’s post is indicative of that.

        You imply that I have been graceless and unkind in my post and comments. As with all of the other insulting assertions you all have hurled my way, you have not cited a single instance of this alleged lack of grace and kindness on my part. Moreover, I have already called you all on the free pass everyone has given Matt in calling a Christian’s response to the tragedy “silly,” “offensive,” “shallow,” and “ignorant.”

        You close with, “I’m so tired of this bickering, it makes me sick.” First off, this isn’t bickering. I raised what I thought were some valuable points in my post. Then I sought to correct some of the cheap shots Matt has been taking at me on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been accused of misrepresenting him, belittling his words, misrepresenting atheism, taking advantage of grief, and the like. None of that is true, and I am not doing anything wrong in pointing as much out. Second, no you’re not tired of it. I’ve called you on your naked assertion about my allegedly misrepresenting atheism, and since you don’t want to answer me, you are pretending to take the moral high road and back out of the argument. Nobody forced your hand in commenting on Facebook or here. If you can’t take the heat then get out of the kitchen. But don’t imply that I have misrepresented atheism and expect no reply.

        • tana

          *sigh* Okay. Whatever.

    • Mike aka MonolithTMA

      Did you unlock comments on your post yet? Again, I would have commented there, but comments were locked.

      • C.L. Bolt

        I’m not sure what that has to do with the three questions I asked you in my previous comment. The comments here aren’t locked, and I await your responses.

        It doesn’t bode well for atheists when their beliefs are challenged and the overall response is to attack the person making the argument rather than the argument itself.

        • Mike aka MonolithTMA

          Please forgive my old school blogger etiquette, but your comments here are referring to your post on your blog and not to the post here. I will gladly comment on your post on your blog. Not sure why you would write a post directed at someone and lock the comments, but that is your business.

          • C.L. Bolt

            Because I don’t have time to approve and respond to the comments I receive, and then people whine about their comments never being approved. Also, because Matt has a blog where he could write a response if he wanted to.

            Now then, I asked you questions about your comment here – It was in reference to my post, yes, but it was your comment. I get the feeling you like to make assertions and then run when you’re asked to back them up, but I hope I’m wrong!

    • Chris,

      ““The argument could be made that the Bible lays the foundation for genocide and mass killing.”
      “(Not to mention child abuse, rape, slavery..)”

      Well let’s see it.”

      I think you know the Bible and you are familiar enough with my body of work that you know well what I’m referring to. You know I’m referring to the genocide perpretrated by God’s chosen people in the Bible and endorsed or even commanded by YHVH himself (according to the text). If this book is the foundation of truth, if it is the source by which we learn and find the divine then it very well should be considered the foundation for evil. Evil endorsed by god is still evil.

      Where do you misrepesent atheism?

      “Consider atheism. The way life began is a mystery. There are no rights. Kill or be killed. Murder is a meaningless moral category. It is just the way things are. People are physically determined to behave the way they do, and cannot be held responsible for their actions.”

      Here. Broadly. Atheism has no doctrines about the beginning of life, rights, or morality. Atheism does not exist to tell you what is or is not true, it’s simply the lack of belief and you are ascribing far more to it than it deserves. Atheism is “I don’t believe in god”. It is nothing more. It is nothing less. The rest of these questions require great turmoil and strife as one searches for clarity and truth. Truth which one’s theology won’t begin to touch because it simply isn’t as easy as what you read in your holy book.

      • C.L. Bolt

        “You know I’m referring to the genocide perpretrated by God’s chosen people in the Bible and endorsed or even commanded by YHVH himself (according to the text).”


        “If this book is the foundation of truth, if it is the source by which we learn and find the divine then it very well should be considered the foundation for evil.”

        Not sure what you’re trying to say here.

        “Evil endorsed by god is still evil.”

        What exactly is “evil” to you?

        “Consider atheism. The way life began is a mystery. There are no rights. Kill or be killed. Murder is a meaningless moral category. It is just the way things are. People are physically determined to behave the way they do, and cannot be held responsible for their actions.”

        “Atheism has no doctrines about the beginning of life, rights, or morality.”

        You misunderstand the point. Atheism entails particular doctrines about the beginning of life, rights, and morality. There may be a variety of options to choose from as an atheist, but there is still a limit to the options one may choose. Atheists still have to answer all of the same questions that everybody else has to answer. I’ve watched them try. Again, I don’t think you’re in a position to tell me things like, “The rest of these questions require great turmoil and strife as one searches for clarity and truth…Truth which one’s theology won’t begin to touch because it simply isn’t as easy as what you read in your holy book.” Do you?

  • HandsomeRob

    Hello Matt and the rest following this post on the tragedy last Friday. I just finished watching your YouTube video regarding these comments, and was ignorant until I took the time to read all of them. Two things I commend you on in your video are, emotions can get in the way of our beliefs, and love is essential.

    First, emotion can sometimes be a dangerous source to validate a spiritual position. As a Christian, do I believe God wanted his beloved children to base their spirituality on emotions and awesome “experiences” at church camp as youth? No, because emotions and experiences do not last. It’s the faith and trust and the genuine relationship between a supernatural God and a natural being that endures. And, that alone is sufficient for a simple-minded individual like myself.

    The second is love. Without quoting scripture to backup my point, we can all agree that there is a lack of love in this world. Public shootings and bombings, fathers abandoning their children before they’re even born, war, bullying, suicide, etc. All of these are too commonly heard on the evening news. However, we can all find common ground with the demand for love. Everyone wants it. Everyone needs it. So, why is there such a lack of it? Because. We as humans have evolved (no, I’m not an evolutionist) into selfish and covetous creatures, instead of the opposite. Yet, we can still find hope in this world with acts of kindness and selfLESSness. Going back to the tragedy on Friday, a perfect example of love is the heroic teacher who hid as many of her students as possible in the cabinets of her classroom. Her life was taken, along with seven (?) of her students. However, the eight little lives in the cabinets were spared. Did this teacher do this act out of fear that she may lose her job? Do you think she thought of a way she too could fit in the cabinets, abandoning some of her students? Absolutely not. It was out of the love in her heart for these helpless children that saved their young lives.

    Love is a powerful thing that this world needs more of. Even though our beliefs and theology may make us view certain situations differently doesn’t mean we lose the means to love one another.

    May God bless you all, whether you think He’s capable or not.

  • Matt,

    I’ve just discovered your blog, and I’m very impressed. It’s rare to find people who face such painful situations without contriving some higher lesson or purpose to it all. The universe is indifferent to our situation. Like you said, “It’s our tragedy.”

    I look forward to reading more.

  • C. L. Bolt, I was going to comment on your post but it seems commenting has been disabled there.

    I will say that your arguments seem to rely on the foundation that only good answers can be right answers. Matt here states honestly that atheism’s answers aren’t as comforting as Christianity’s. Is comfort a qualifier for truth?

  • Gary D

    Sorry to hear of the loss of your friend.