Can Religion Provide Answers in Time of Tragedy?

December 15, 2012


As the mother of two and grandmother of seven, I can identify with the parents and grandparents of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. My grandchildren are kindergarten, second grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, ninth grade, and twelfth grade. They are in five different schools. The two youngest are near the age of the children who were killed.

If I heard of a shooting at any of their schools as the parents in Newtown did, I would have been beside myself with fear and apprehension. The many parents who rushed to the school and waited for their children to come out to them were no doubt panic stricken. For the parents whose children never came out, the grief has to be overwhelming. Psychologists say that the hardest death for anyone to cope with is the death of a child. As a parent, I can see how that would be true. Now that I am a grandparent, to lose one of my grandchildren would be at least equal.

In the children I was seeing on TV leaving that school and in the picture of the little girl who was killed, I could see my youngest grandchildren. I also spent 37 years in public education as a teacher and then a guidance counselor. I always worked with teenagers at a high school. After the shooting at Columbine, security was increased at the school where I worked. We had crisis training and a crisis team setup. I was a member of the crisis team. As a guidance counselor, my role would have been to work with students, parents, staff-anyone who needed someone to talk with. Fortunately, we were never called into action except in isolated incidents such as the death of a student.

I could identify with the teachers in that school and how they tried to protect their students. Teachers have been vilified and denigrated in recent years. I hope that the examples of the selfless caring of the teachers in this tragedy will cause people to have more appreciation for what teachers do. My soon-to-be 18-year-old grandson is considering becoming a teacher and is doing cadet teaching with a third grade class during his senior year.

When a tragedy happens, the religious clergy seem to descend on it. Most of this is very well meaning and well intentioned. Churches and other religious facilities many times are the largest places available for people to meet together. Most of the clergy are there to console and support the grieving.

However, the religious overtones of the vigils may not be what everyone wants. What about the people who are not religious? Is there anyone there to support them? Being in this religiously charged atmosphere can be very upsetting to someone who is not religious.

At the time of a tragedy and when people are hurt and grieving is not the time to challenge or criticize a person’s faith if they are religious. However, what real answers does religion have for them? I heard one woman say that there were 20 new angels now watching over the town. While this might comfort her and others, is it psychologically good in the long run to believe in a fantasy rather than face reality?

Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t he protect those little children? Why didn’t he help the person who did the shooting with his problems so that this did not happen? Religious clergy will come up with all kinds of rationalizations but none that will satisfy us secular people.

Being a Secular Humanist takes away all of that need to try to figure out these answers about why God did or didn’t do something. What was the meaning in this and why (from a religious viewpoint) did that happen. It is enough of a quandary to try to understand it from a realistic viewpoint without trying to understand God and his/her motives.

As a Secular Humanist, we want to try to understand what caused the young man who did the shooting to commit this horrible act. What could have been done to prevent it? Etc. We want to lend human support and caring based in reality. What religions do best is provide community and support for people.  We need to make it a high priority to develop secular communities in as many local locations as possible in order to provide this support to secular people.

I really don’t think that religion provides viable answers in the time of tragedy. Religious leaders promote a belief in fantasy at best and lay blame on the wrong people and wrong circumstances at worst.