Faithless Recovery and Where the Atheists Are
An anonymous commenter inspired me to write this post. Their comment was:
If you have no faith - how do you cope at such a time of loss.. And if you have faith what a test it must be to hold on to it and find reason and forgiveness...I'm from NY and no matter how many years go by,or how tight I close my eyes, 9/11 never goes away- my daughter and my life has forever changed since that day..the forgiving is slow and complicated and we will never forget.
Apparently, Dinesh D'Souza criticized atheists for not appearing at the memorial for the Virginia Tech students. D'Souza takes this as an indication that god exists (?), and that atheists globally are heartless.
Obviously, this is false.
Atheists experience the grief of loss of life quite as intensely as anyone else. Some may argue that atheists have a more final sense of loss, as many do not believe in an afterlife for the same reasons they do not believe in gods. And, unlike the contention of theists, most atheists attach value to people, valuing the lives we currently have over hypothetical future lives. Chances are, atheists are right with the others grieving, they're simply being courteous enough not to be outright insulting by gainsaying their beliefs at the time. I know well what that's like.
On September 11th, 2001, I was at my desk working at a respected, close-knit firm on one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, Tower 2. That was at 8:43 am. A short time later, I'd lost over a third of my colleagues and friends.
The company sponsored a memorial service for the victims at a large church shortly afterward, which I attended both out of respect and the desire to see my remaining colleagues. Many were not immediately coming back to work, some never came back, and the company had found scattered workspots for each department so that even those who were working often saw no one outside of their close co-workers.
The memorial service was religious in nature. Listening to the eulogy was like being punched in the stomach over and over and over, to the point where I felt sick and numb at the same time. Those trying to be comforting extended the punishment.
"They're in a better place now"
"God decided it was their time"
"You should thank God you're safe"
The service and reception afterward was tortuous and traumatic. I'd never wanted to push my beliefs on others, and was thus a fairly quiet atheist. It simply wasn't a time I could bring it up with my coworkers; it would only have made them feel the same deep chasm that I felt between us. Possibly, they would recoil with revulsion at the idea that I could not imagine the victims with their dead relatives or continuing to watch over their living relatives as ghosts. I felt deeply alone and isolated from my coworkers.
Initially I simply worked to help the company recover. Remarkably, it did. Comfort came slowly, in dribs and drabs, mostly as I read less religious eulogies printed in newspapers and online. These simply celebrated the lives of the people -- describing, in pleasant terms, their personalities and idiosyncracies. In comments to the posts, I could see the outpouring of fond remembrances and the impact these people, even though many were young, had made in their lives. One could see what that impact had done, and the continuing impact it would have in the future both in their effects on others and in their children. It helped, and little by little the pain subsided. Passage of time itself helps, whether one's an atheist or theist.
Forgiveness is slightly more complex. After all, forgiving the 19 terrorists of that day, or Osama bin Laden, it largely irrelevant for them. It's not like forgiving your wife for cheating on you, or your best friend for crashing your car. I will not be in the position to have the terrorists answer to me. The only reason "forgiveness" is necessary is to keep me from personally obsessing over it. It's rather easy for an atheist not to obsess over 19 dead people who he never cared about in the first place. They're gone. It's only a slightly greater stretch not to obsess about OBL, who may be dead or alive, but either way I'm unlikely to ever meet him.