Dealing With Tragedy as an Atheist
Unless I’m guilty of a particularly morbid form of confirmation bias, it seems like there have been quite a few high-profile tragic events across the world recently. The Sandy Hook shooting, the Boston bombing, the events on the island of Utøya in Norway, and now the terrible scenes of destruction across Oklahoma City. These incidents, and others like them, have been splashed across the media to the point where they are almost literally impossible to avoid. Events like these can scar whole groups of people, whole populations, and often the ones who are the most intensely affected are the youngest amongst us.
Anyone who’s worked in education when a tragedy occurs will have seen the effects that such things can have on young people. Schools and colleges are more than just places where classes are taught; they are social hubs, gathering areas where students meet and interact and socialise. When something awful has happened and emotions are raw, they can be the very best or the very worst environments to be in. There’s a risk, especially in schools with younger students, that emotional echo chambers can form. People who are already devastated get together with others in the same state, see their own feelings reflected back at them and magnified, and things build and build until everyone’s in an even worse condition than they were before.
I’ve seen this happen first hand with a fairly innocuous (in the grand scheme of things) event as a catalyst. A couple of years ago, a twelve year old boy was hit by a car outside my school. He wasn’t badly injured but he was knocked to the ground and he had a very visible cut to his head. The event, along with the arrival and departure of the ambulance, was witnessed by several of his friends. It happened at lunch time, and by the time the next period started there was near-hysteria throughout much of the student body. Stories had been told and retold, those who had witnessed the accident and who had been justifiably shocked had been seen by others who hadn’t been there, and it hadn’t taken long for feelings and panic to spread. We eventually had to call the younger classes down to special assemblies in the afternoon in order to restore some degree of calm.
This was one event with one injured student. When something on a much larger scale happens, perhaps a scale too horrific to properly comprehend, those of us who work as educators often find ourselves in the position of having to help scared and confused young people to make sense of their feelings. Some will react in the way that many did at my school, with extreme and visible emotion. Others might withdraw into shocked silence.
It’s here, when faced with such horror, that accusations can sometimes be levied against atheist teachers.
How can you comfort a child in their time of need if you don’t believe in God? If you can’t offer them spiritual solace and prayer? How can you explain this disaster or this person’s actions when you just view the world as a collection of random events with no design, no purpose? Are you really going to tell them that these people died for nothing because the universe doesn’t care?
It seems like there’s sometimes a perception that those of us without religion simply don’t have the tools to be able to offer support and comfort when it’s needed. Or maybe that anything we can offer will be bleak and barren, a product of our own godless views. Ideas like this are nonsense of course, but it is worth considering how people with our world views might make a positive contribution when the young people in our care are suffering – particularly if those young people are religious themselves.
It’s true that there are certain things that I cannot do or say to help my students in the aftermath of a tragedy. I cannot pray with them. I cannot ask God why this happened or beg Him for an explanation. I cannot believe that the innocent victims are in Heaven or that their deaths were part of God’s plan. That is the kind of solace that I cannot ever offer. What I can do, however, is be there as a fellow human being to offer kindness and care in a time of need. I don’t need to have God on my side to be able to sit with someone and talk to them. I don’t need to share prayers with the students in my care when they’re struggling to cope; I just need to let them know that I’m there for them. There’s nothing magical about it.
An atheist teacher is, I’d argue, even better placed to help young people to deal with events like these than someone with a deeply religious worldview. We see the world the way it is. We know that there’s nothing out there guiding us, that terrible event like these are not part of some grand “plan”. We know that the only comfort we have is each other and that it’s our responsibility alone to look after those more vulnerable than ourselves. The stark and unfeeling picture that some people paint of atheists could not be further from the truth.
If someone has just walked into an elementary school with a loaded firearm, I’m not going to sit a terrified student down and explain that sometimes these things just happen because the world includes people who will do terrible things for reasons we can’t understand and that it could happen again tomorrow. I’m going to listen to that student, try to talk them through what they’re experiencing, and try to connect with them as one human being to another. If part of that involves them wanting to pray or to turn to their faith then I am going to encourage that as much as I would anything else that might ease their pain. Just because I can’t join them doesn’t mean that I can’t guide them towards whatever method of coping they might need.
And there’s the other thing. I firmly believe that we cannot ever, ever use raw tragedy as a tool to discuss or promote atheism itself. The aftermath of horror is no time to bring up questions of why God would allow such things to happen or why it’s silly to turn to fiction for comfort. I can think of no better way of alienating and upsetting those people who might already be suspicious of our ability to provide support. There are no points to be scored here.
As atheists, we understand that pain and suffering are human things that can be caused by and cured by other humans. There’s no God. There’s no higher power. There’s no magical way of making the pain go away. There’s just one-to-one human compassion. That is what we can offer.
Featured Image Credit: Wally Gobetz