Saturday, December 22, 2012

Irrational response to irrational behaviour: The problem with turning to faith in times of tragedy

There are times when as a blogger in the atheist community you feel you just have to speak out.  In the aftermath of the slaughter of 26 in Connecticut last Friday, now is one of those times. My heart goes out to the families and friends of those who died in the face of such unimaginable horror.

Not surprisingly, the response to the massacre particularly on the internet, was to call for prayers for the families of the victims as people tried to grapple with the enormity of the tragedy and how to make sense out of the senseless. We atheists, when faced with these sudden rush of 'prayer warriors' in these awful moments find ourselves in an awkward position. Two years ago I reflected on this when I wrote about a similar type of tragedy in Barbados when six young ladies were killed as a result of the throwing of a Molotov cocktail into a clothing store. I titled that blog "When is the right time to criticize?" and I find myself asking that same question once again today.

The thing that bothers me after these tragedies is that there is an attempt by many in the faith world to shut down any view that runs counter to the idea that we all need to pray to God for comfort to the grieving. Quick dismissals of anybody who suggests that this afterlife is simply a product of wishful thinking. Just a suggestion that it might be a better approach to try to deal with the reality on reality's own terms leads to us being lambasted as being insensitive, uncaring, disrespectful and not allowing people to grieve in peace. We are often made to feel that we are not much better than the murderer ourselves, stripping mourning family members of their spiritual well being after they have already survived such a severe physical loss. We then get accused of having a personal agenda and for using this completely inappropriate time to get up on our 'soapboxes.'

In a way, I can understand these criticisms. When you are leaning on God for all you are worth, the last thing you want is to hear someone kicking over your support by saying that there is nothing other than a concept in your mind holding you up. But that is just the nature of life. Truth is truth and sometimes it is hard and cold and cruel. Trying to spruce it up in a fancy dress and coat may give you a warm feeling for a while but it doesn't change reality at its core. Ultimately you don't end up avoiding pain, you merely delay it and the deep scars can remain as open wounds for years and even decades to come.

But generally theists don't see the God belief that way, they will often tell you when it comes to things like God and the afterlife, they just NEED to believe it. It's the only way to face the darkest hours of their lives. People have admitted to me from time to time that they know that the beliefs they have are in all likelihood not true, but they just must believe them in order to get through life happy, healthy and content.

I have heard it in the media that the time to deal with the reality of having better gun control is now; the  time to deal with the reality of a mental health system that is not working is now; but the time to address the widespread irrational belief in a supernatural entity that makes people prone to embracing a delusion seems to be never.

What happened last week Friday was that an entirely irrational act was committed which led tragically to the death of 27. We can speculate as to what was behind the irrational act. In all likelihood a mental disorder of some sort or another. Whatever the cause, an irrational act is what it was and irrational acts come as a result of irrational thoughts and irrational thoughts can be traced back to irrational beliefs. No matter how we try to spin this one, it is the irrational that lies at the heart of this massacre. Somewhere along the line, something got in the way of human reasoning and lives were lost as a result. Logic suggests that the only way to deal with a problem of irrationality is to bring rationality.

Piling on the irrationality

But what do we do in times like this?  Well, we do exactly the opposite. We run headlong into the arms of anti- reason, anti-logic and anti-evidence. Meanwhile we jettison any ideas of using a method that is reality based. It's all about talk of children running about in heavenly puddles that we know are as real as the caramel rivers in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. What we are doing is piling on the irrational on top of the irrational. Somehow we believe that if we replace deadly irrational beliefs by irrational beliefs of the warm and fuzzy kind, one set will cancel out the other and we will be left with a saner and safer world. It's not going to work.

The reality is that when we keep piling up the irrational beliefs we end up digging ourselves into a deeper and deeper hole. Irrational beliefs whether in fairies, pixies, goblins, gods, angels or demons often lead to flawed reasoning and bad thinking habits. Once you get into the routine of holding something as true even if you have no evidence to support it, that behaviour can become an integral part of your life. You become sloppy in checking out facts and poor at second guessing yourself in all areas if what you believe 'feels right.' Once you make desirability of a belief one of the criteria you use for determining its truth you put yourself in trouble, if as a community or a country you actively encourage that attitude it can become thousands of times worse. You end up with a society who can be controlled and manipulated so long as you can push the right emotional buttons or sweeten the belief pot enough. This at the end of the day, is not going to give you a society that will learn to be progressive or deal with the real problems it faces head on.

Reason can be a great ally even in the most dire circumstance.  It's true that people speak of faith in the midst of stressful situations regularly, but when you listen to their stories carefully, it  becomes clear that it was their ability to put training into action and think through the steps they needed to take rationally that was often the key to survival or saving a life. These accounts tells me that rational behaviour in all situations is what we should be promoting, rather than the need to believe in the supernatural.

So, that is what scares me when I see the sprint into the arms of Jesus that I see now. I am puzzled by the notion of trying to find comfort in a God who either directly caused or passively allowed the action from which the afflicted now seek relief. If God's primary interest was the happiness of the families, the thing to do was to stop the massacre from happening in the first place, not just sit on the sidelines watching and then run out at the end with a heavenly tissue to wipe away a tear. It's a case of too little too late for God. Like having your star striker in a football (soccer) match scoring a wonder goal in the 89th minute that takes the team from being 6-0 down to 6-1. In those occasions celebrations of the losing team are muted. I don't see why God's supporters should be upset when I am not cheering about what he is desperately trying to do now, deep into injury time.

What I see in times like this is irrationality being advertised like the latest brand of iPhone. Everyone in or around the tragedy feels obliged to do the godvertising and get in on the magical thinking marketing. Grieving relatives, fortunate survivors, brave first responders, counsellors, news reporters and presidents all feel obliged to speak about faith in some form. Thoughts and prayers being offered up, spirits of dead ones looking down, snowflakes as signs from them that everything is alright 'up there.' I know that many of these people are probably nominally religious if religious at all. For them it's just like taking part in a ritual. Saying the things that you say in tragedies, just because that's the custom and culturally we are perhaps primed to find comfort in such empty platitudes.

Faith becomes part of thinking routine

For some people the harm may be minimal. When they go back to 'normal' life they'll forget about these heavenly sentiments and embrace the rational life fully once more. The same President Obama that mentioned last week that he knows that Jesus 'called the children home' and that they are safe in a heaven for which no evidence exists, will be asking in the months ahead for strong empirical evidence to support the assertion of those that are arguing that fire arms in the hands of teachers would make kindergarten schools safe. Politicians like Obama may be able to turn on and off their faith switch to suit differing situations, but the masses in the country don't have regulators in their minds that work quite as well. Many will remember these faith messages long after Adam Lanza is a forgotten name.

The message that will stick with them is that faith is something we all need and should all strive to have, particularly in times of tragedy. They will become convinced that there are many times in life when faith in the unseen should be valued above evidence and logic. Once they buy into this way of thinking can we really blame them if they choose to follow their faith which says that the world is 6000 years old and give it greater weight than the evidence that is readily available and tells us that the correct number is in the billions? It's easy to slip faith in at these opportune times, but once it gets out their in the water you can't just filter it out.

People who are better at keeping scientific thought separate from faith ideas may fare better, but a lot of them will reach back for faith when they have a personal 'Sandy Hook' to deal with in life. They'll remember all the heroes in that tragedy that held on to their bibles and beliefs and consider that they'll need to do the same thing if they are to get through as well. When the next national or global disaster  comes a calling, memories will be evoked of sacred memorials and make shift crosses from last time and everyone will turn back to God. This is the cycle. The house of logic and reason becomes like a sand castle on a Caribbean beach, beautifully made, constructed painstakingly with intricate detail when the tide is out and things are calm,  but the whole edifice gets swept away in seconds as soon as an emotional wave crashes ashore.

People are turning away from deities in their numbers, churches are becoming emptier and more and more people are declaring openly that they are atheists or have no religious affiliation.The last bastion of the religious is the 'mass tragedy.' It is the one time that priests and pastors hold the limelight. The time when they are given liberty to say almost whatever they want, because in the eyes of the influential people in society, there is no such thing as too much faith in the wake of a disaster.

Still, there are glimpses of  little changes.  At least it was refreshing to see religious leaders being called out for making the ludicrous argument that God didn't save six year olds because we had the gall to expel him from the classroom.  So, maybe things are looking up.

I am encouraged to see the  progress we are making in getting people to discover the new dawn that can come in the light of reason, but our advance will continue to be stifled if those same people don't have enough faith in the ability of reason to give guidance through the dark and desperate nights as well.


  1. Why do atheists jump for joy at the FACT that people are leaving (apostate) churches in great numbers and this tide isn't letting up. Uh, throughout Scripture the ongoing theme is that the Faithful are few - have always been, always will be, up until the Lord returns.

  2. We are happy with the exodus from churches because it is an indication that more people are turning to reason and leaving the ancient superstitions that tend to keep us in ignorance behind.

    It's typical for Christians to make the negative seem like a positive by revealing that whatever they are facing was predicted in the bible. You know you are fighting a losing battle and when you lose you use it as evidence that you are winning, because god told you this loss would happen before the big transformation. This is Christian spinning at its best.

    It all rings hollow. Reason is winning and society will be the better for it. You are free to wait until the Lord returns but you have already been waiting of an eternity and all signs suggests that there is an eternity of waiting left to come.

    Let's stop waiting! Time to get off our knees and try to make a real difference in this world!