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January 9th, 2013
Freethought San Marcos: The failure of religion-based public grief

Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS

When President Obama spoke at the memorial service for the children, teachers, and administrators murdered in Newtown, Connecticut, I was overwhelmed by dissonance.  His remarks assumed that a Christian perspective was applicable to everyone who mourned as he spoke about “eternal glory” and quoted bible verses:  “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

I empathize with Obama’s reliance on scripture and belief in a supernatural world with a heaven above and prayers heard by a god who presumably cares.  With such tragedy, it is difficult to know what to say without relying on that which is familiar and may comfort the speaker and at least some of the listeners.  What to say confounds Christians and non-Christians alike.  But my dissonance came from the very words Obama spoke and quoted because for me they are empty and inconsequential in the face of such tragedy.

If there were a god who cared, who answered prayers, the deaths of these 26 people and the killer’s mother would not have happened.  We might disagree about the lives of the adults who were killed, but it is hard to ignore the essential innocence of the twenty children whose lives were snuffed out.  Unless a person believes in the Old Testament practice of child sacrifice, there can be no justification for a culture that makes it easy to end so many young lives so quickly.

I have no reason to doubt, as Obama said, that Newtown is a community “full of good and decent people.”  And the survivors of December 16 were not alone in their grief, though it is hard to imagine that any of us felt grief in the same way those families did.  In spite of Obama’s best intentions, there is no way that any of us can fully comprehend the burdens felt and experienced by the families of those dead children and their public school caretakers.  And Obama was right to point out the selflessness of those caretakers.

Obama’s acknowledgement of the importance of our care and support for one another was a fitting reminder that we are all in this together:  “As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other. You’ve cared for one another. And you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered, and with time and God’s grace, that love will see you through.”

But Obama’s reliance on his personal theology added nothing but dissonance to his valuable reminder of our togetherness and the need to find solutions to gun violence as communities and as a nation:  “. . . [W]e come to realize that we bear responsibility for every child, because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours, that we’re all parents, that they are all our children.  . . . Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm? . . . I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

Obama then recounted the four mass shootings that have occurred since he became President, as well as other recent mass killings and deadly shooting incidents: Tucson, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, Columbine, Blacksburg.  He continued:

“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.  . . . We can’t accept events like this as routine.”

This appeal to political action to stop such senseless violence should have resonated with everyone.  Especially so now that we know, thanks to Slate.com, that 18 people are killed each day in the US by gun violence.  Stated another way, every 36 hours, we experience the number of gun deaths that occurred in Newtown on December 16.

After making his appeal to find answers to the useless violence caused by people with powerful killing machines, and discussing the human condition briefly, Obama returned to his Christian message, quoting scripture which suggests that the deaths of these 27 people were a part of his God’s “heavenly plan,” as well as the plan of Jesus, which we will not be able to understand.  Even as Obama said that “God has called them all home,” he failed to explain why they had to suffer murder by Bushwacker in the process.

But Obama failed to note the contradiction in his call for political action for gun control.  If the deaths of these 27 people in Connecticut were God’s plan, who are we to interfere in that plan?  How can we interfere with an act of the Almighty?  And making his “God’s will” argument is a strange comfort to those who lost their young children to the actions of a mentally unstable individual who had access to an assault rifle.  It is a cold and callous god who would will the deaths of 20 young children, as well as the adults who tried to protect them.

And, of course, Obama felt the need to end his eulogy by once again invoking his religious views:  “May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort, and may He bless and watch over this community and the United States of America.”  By implication, God has not kept up His responsibility to watch over us all.

Newtown includes not just Christians of many stripes (mainly Catholic, but also Mormons, mainline Protestant Christians, Pentecostals, and others), along with Jews, Muslims, followers of Eastern religions, nonbelievers, and the religiously unaffiliated.  Faced with speaking to such a diverse group, it is not appropriate to assume that they will all find comfort and blessings in any particular version of Christian theology and belief.

But those from the political class regularly mouth the platitudes and beliefs of Christianity because it is the dominant religion in the US.  References to Christian doctrine are the politically safe route to curry favor with that majority, many of whom also believe in astrology, reincarnation, ghosts, witches, and other superstitions not consonant with Christian doctrine.  Even as a Christian, I did not believe in heaven, hell, miracles, the virgin birth, transubstantiation, and other mythologies that are clearly impossible or beyond reason.

As a humanist, I derive no comfort, holy or otherwise, in being told that the killing of these 27 people was all a part of God’s plan, that all the innocent children are with Jesus in Heaven, and that God has called them home.  Their actual homes are bereft of their presence, missing their laughter, joy, and sorrow, and filled with people whose grief seems almost unbearable. No Bible verses or supernatural ideas or superstitions can change that for most people.  For those who are comforted by such beliefs, Obama’s words may have been appropriate, but for the rest, they likely seemed insensitive, unreasoning, and obsequious.

Obama’s task was daunting.  Much of it he did well, but pushing his theology on others was unnecessary, unhelpful, and potentially offensive to those from other lifestances, as well as many Christians who don’t hold to such doctrine.  Christians in public life need to end their self-centeredness and realize that they represent only about one-third of the world’s people, though they are a majority in the US.  And none of them know, any more than I do, what happens after we die.  About death, as we have been reminded by the great 19th century orator Robert Ingersoll, ignorance is equal among all people.

No matter who is in the majority when it comes to religion or non-religion, we should all learn how to speak a common language of comfort, care, compassion, and grief without resorting to the shibboleths of personal religious belief.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos


LAMAR W. HANKINS is a former San Marcos city attorney.

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9 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: The failure of religion-based public grief

  1. Lol babies first epistemology.

    “It is a cold and callous god who would will the deaths of 20 young children”

    The problem of evil, we’ve got a deep thinker here. If only this had been discussed at all in the past 2000 years.

    “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”

    As to whatever Obama said, have you considered the fact that he actually believes it and that he feels no need to cloak his theological beliefs in a politically correct veneer? Did you know that blacks, who overwhelmingly voted for him and make up a major part of his constituency, are largely evangelical and baptist Christians? Did you know that hispanics, who overwhelmingly voted for him and make up a major part of his constituency, are largely evangelical and catholic Christians? Did you ever stop to think that he doesn’t need to pander to humanists because they are usually whites who compose an increasingly irrelevant and dying demographic?

  2. To James Brown:

    I’m not asking for pandering, as you suggest. I am asking for honesty, rationality, and compassion that will resonate with almost everyone, whatever their belief system.

  3. Whose honesty, rationality, and compassion? Both of you have claimed
    God willed or somehow was so incapable or callus as to not be able,
    or not to care about this evil, or to ‘will the deaths’. That leaves no room for constructive dialogue. If I don’t agree with you then I am automatically dishonest, irrational, and dis-compassionate.

    “We have an impasse between the strengthening forces of doubt and belief-in this case, and this won’t be solved simply by calling names or a reduction in civility. Arguments depend on having commonly held reference points that both sides can hold each other to. When fundamental understandings of reality conflict, it is hard to find anything to which to appeal.”

    Unless I totally missed what you’ve said, there is not a good starting point with the assertions made as they are.

  4. Thank goodness they didn’t ask you to talk, Lamar. Instead of words of life, you seem to prefer reinforcing the limits of what you can reason — making yourself and your reason the God it seems. I thought the President showed the compassion of a father at a time when we needed a father in the White House, and I heard what seemed an authentic expression of his faith. You were offended because he didn’t worship your reason, but you knew it was a faith service for the families, right? I guess you were no longer offended enough at government functions, so you went to a church service to find offense. Bitter again, but there is always hope.

  5. Lamar what you said doesn’t mean anything. Was Obama being dishonest at any point? Rationality? I’d say this is pretty subjective. I’d also say ‘rationality’ has little importance in, what was ultimately, an emotional sop for grieving families. Compassion? ‘Your children are in the Lords arms now’ is a lot more compassionate than ‘Your children were killed by a careless, imaginary sky-wizard God and are now rotting in the ground. deal with it’

  6. I think you’re doing a huge disservice to ‘humanists’ by raising such a petty and pointless complaint. I challenge your self aggrandizing moniker of freethinker, because you appear to adhere fully to atheist orthodoxy. The title seems pretty ironic all things considered.

  7. Lamar, I agree with you that “we should all learn how to speak a common language of comfort, care, compassion, and grief” — one that is void of religious references or assumption that invoking God’s name will ease anyone’s pain. When dealing with the deaths of those I’ve loved, I have found it excruciating to hear such words as “they’re in a better place now.” There can be no God who would have allowed those young children to die so horribly.

    I did not get the sense that Obama was pressing his beliefs on anyone, but rather he was just saying the words that are commonly used to provide comfort. I do agree with your premise — that it would be helpful to replace those overly relied upon words with ones that could produce the same effect without referencing any religious ideology.

  8. “I have found it excruciating to hear such words as “they’re in a better place now.”

    Is this supposed to be hyperbole? An excruciating experience? You sound deranged. Certainly not rational or logical behavior.

  9. To James Brown:

    You can challenge the name freethinker all you want, but you don’t give any clue that you have an idea about what a freethinker is. One of the best definitions that I have used is a freethinker is “a person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief.”

    If you mean something different, please enlighten us.

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