Do Sandy Hook victims have the ‘blessing’ of atheism?


Family members grieve near the Sandy Hook Elementary school tragedy

In a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, Susan Jacoby, a pronounced atheist, attempted to comfort the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting – she told them their children would suffer no more in the “perfect rest” of death.

In other words she said that these children, who have suffered so much, have the blessing of blissful nothingness as their consciousness is erased from existence.

During her article Jacoby quotes “The Great Agnostic” Robert Green Ingersoll who died in 1899. He often gave eulogies at funerals and said this while speaking at the service for the death of a friend’s small child:

“They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer.”

I have tried, and failed, to find the comfort in this train of thought. Jacoby’s article responds to a coworker who told her that atheism didn’t have much to offer during times of great tragedy. However, her attempt to defend her belief looks more like an attempt to grasp at straws than a deep look at what atheism really offers, in contrast to what belief in an afterlife offers.

Throughout the world today, and in years past, it has been customary to forget about God when times are good, or to rave about Man’s ability to take care of itself. But, as if on cue,  when the hard times come He is dragged back into the courtroom of our injustice and asked to come to account for the evil he has let run free on the world. Often it is times like these when Christians, or others of faith, are asked to explain His “lack of interest” in the hardship of Man.

Jacoby picks up on this beautifully, without skipping a beat she provides the answer to the question that so many people of religion struggle with giving. Where is God? She says, God does not exist:

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.

I found an interesting response to Jacoby’s article inDenise Prager’s column, The Atheist Response to Sandy Hook. Prager shows how Jacoby’s compelling picture of atheistic belief actually “confirms her colleague’s assessment,” rather than disproving it. His piece astutely pinpoints the hole in atheism’s attempt to comfort those left behind in a depraved world.

Members of Trinity Episcopal Church mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Members of Trinity Episcopal Church mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting

“The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife — to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn’t suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance. And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared to the religious message that we humans are not just matter but possess eternal souls.

 Jacoby implies that since atheists have the blessing of “perfect rest,” others who believe in an afterlife cannot also have that perfect rest. If she really believes that then she is wrong.  I too can say with absolute certainty that upon my death I will have perfect rest. But I also have the blessing of leaping past where Jacoby is forced to end her monologue. I have the hope of reunion not only with my loved ones from this life, but also with God, my Creator. This is something that atheism cannot offer, and it is why Jacoby’s argument is ultimately unsatisfying to most victims of horrible tragedy.
(Note: I do not often apply so much of my personal beliefs into a post, but I believe this particular one warranted some personal reflection to contrast with Jacoby’s opinion. However  I always strive to give balance to both sides of the argument.)  

4 thoughts on “Do Sandy Hook victims have the ‘blessing’ of atheism?

  1. Hi Anne, thanks for your reply to my earlier comment. I have read this blogpost and I can see where you’re coming from. Even though I generally like what Jacoby writes, I do agree that ‘perfect rest’ is not what a parent of such a young, healthy child would ever look for. I can’t see how that would be any consolation. However, I am an atheist myself and I just don’t feel that these children have gone to a better place. I simply cannot believe it. To me, it has often been something of a comfort when confronted with seriously ill people, for instance, to think that there is no meaning to this suffering. No bigger picture. Just bad luck. A person I really liked has died last week and he felt the same. And he went very peacefully. As long as we can remember him, it feels as if he’s still there, even if we don’t imagine a certain place where he is, right now. Does that make any sense?

    • Thanks for the comment, and I am so sorry to hear about your friend. I do understand what you mean, and I know many people who would agree with you. I too cannot say for sure if these children have found eternal rest, or eternal damnation – it is impossible to say either way. But, contrary to your perception, I cannot believe that they simply stop existing. And additionally, it is more comforting for me to know that what happened at Sandy Hook did not happen without a reason. Their deaths were not meaningless. Even if I will never know the meaning, it still comforts me to know that God is in control and we are not at the whim of fate and chance. I have found my peace in God, and while his existence is impossible to prove with hard facts, I have no doubt that he is real. So when my loved ones die who also believe in God, I am then able accept that they have found rest in eternal life with God, and I will see them again someday. This is how I find peace in situations like these. I hope that makes sense, but I also know that a belief in God does not always make sense to everyone.

      • Thank you for your comment. What you say certainly makes sense. And it’s good to hear you’re finding comfort in it. In the blogpost I’ve just written I describe how I think beliefs work. That would make them an ‘awareness’ rather than the end result of a rational process. And that is why I think we could never convince another person on matters of belief. But I think it’s good to try and empathise with one another.

  2. Pingback: Boston memorial, atheists feel left out | Got Nones?

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