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.
“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.