Prager Misses the Point

January 17, 2013

In a NATIONAL REVIEW rebuttal of Susan Jacoby’s NEW YORK TIMES piece on the atheist response to the school shootings at Sandy Hook, right-wing pundit Dennis Prager proves that he doesn’t understand atheism nearly as well as he thinks he does.

Prager feels compelled to tip his hat to Jacoby, whom he describes (accurately) as a “well-regarded writer” before he accuses her of illustrating “the intellectual and emotional emptiness at the heart of atheism.” He dismisses the consolation Jacoby suggested — that if there is no afterlife, then bereaved parents can take at least some comfort from the knowledge that their children are not suffering.

Where to begin? First off, Prager gives no thought to the possibility that atheism might be true. If atheism is true, then Jacoby’s consolation — thin gruel as it is, admittedly, compared to the hope of eternal felicity in heaven — is the best anyone can do. If there are no souls, no eternal life, and no heaven, then the false conviction that these things exist is a cruel and empty consolation indeed. But Prager pays that no heed, simply asserting in passing that “I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i. e., God) could have created intelligence.” Sorry, Mr. Prager, if you want to engage this issue authentically you’ll need to do better than that.

Prager denies that “the dead do not suffer” offers any true consoling power. “Were these children suffering before their lives were taken?” he asks. “Would they have suffered if they had lived on?” If you live in  the real world, you know the answer is yes. Everyone suffers! Children get taunted on the playground, they fall and skin their knees. Their dogs bite them. When they get older, they’ll probably have their hearts broken a few times. Maybe they’ll lose a valued job, maybe they’ll go through a bitter divorce. Some of them will die too young of terrible diseases, whether in childhood, young adulthood, or middle age. And some will know truly terrible suffering from chronic disease, injury, or violence. That’s just life. Fortunately life also has times of happiness, and if we are fortunate we can look forward to lives with more happiness than suffering. But some suffering awaits us all; it’s a lottery of pain we have no choice but to play. The children who died at Sandy Hook were playing it too, and it’s outrageous for Prager to suggest that saying so is in any way insulting to their parents. So yes, there is some consolation in knowing that the dead are no longer taking their chances with agony.

Amazingly, Prager admits it: “This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife.” No argument. What Prager leaves unspoken is that the Christian vision of the afterlife is truly consoling only if it is true.

We should probably devote some attention to another inconvenient fact. As many Christians still view the afterlife, it isn’t all bliss. There’s supposedly that place that isn’t heaven, and more conservative believers think it’s very real. Some still believe that even young children can wind up in hell, or perhaps in some celestial holding area that spares their souls the pains of hell but denies them also the joys of heaven. (The Catholic Church no longer teaches that the souls of children younger than seven are warehoused in Limbo, but millions of Catholics around the world still believe that. And some evangelicals who set great store by adult baptism still teach that young children’s souls can wind up in that lake of fire.) So the atheist view offers an additional consolation. Not only are the dead not suffering the inescapable pains of living, they are exempt from any threat of eternal hellfire. Hmm, the atheist view is looking better!

Now Prager fires his big gun, rolling out what he considers a truly honest atheist response to the parents of Sandy Hook. “‘As atheists, we truly feel awful for you.” he writes. “‘And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten, as if we never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence are flukes. And you will never see your child again.'”

There is much in this statement that cannot be argued with. On the naturalistic view of life, when we die, that is it. Ours is a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, and on the long view every one of us — even human civilization itself — probably will vanish without a trace. I’ve written often that secular humanists and other atheists need to be far more forthright about admitting that we view reality this way. Yes, it is a colder, less satisfying view of eternity than those advanced by various religions. Yes, it is less congruent with the way we thinking, feeling mammals are wired to wish the universe was. In many ways, it is undeniable: the best thing you can say for this flinty view of life is that it is almost certainly true.

Of course, if it is true — and if all the more satisfying, glittering afterlives promised by the world’s religions are false — little more needs to be said.

What can atheists and other freethinkers say in the face of death? Yes, life is short and nowhere near as meaningful as many Americans are raised to believe. Yes, death is forever. No, the bereaved will never see their loved ones again. I wouldn’t recommend shouting these truths in anyone’s face at a funeral, but they provide the unspoken backdrop for the fact that Susan Jacoby got exactly right. If we view life and the world the way it really is — as best we can determine at our current level of knowledge — then it is the greatest consolation we can offer to observe that the dead do not suffer. It is in fact the only consolation we can offer sincerely.