The President’s Remarks and the Grief of Atheists

December 18, 2012


President Obama gave a moving speech at the Newtown memorial service Sunday night. His remarks contained several explicitly religious references. I don’t care.

I also don’t care that President Obama appeared to endorse belief in heaven and eternal life. (I say “appeared” because there was some ambiguity in his remarks.) I don’t care even though I regard such beliefs as unwarranted and largely a product of wishful thinking.

Being an atheist does not oblige one to be insensitive or churlish. We atheists should be open and truthful about our beliefs, but that does not imply that we must object or protest every time someone, even a government official, makes a statement with which we disagree. Blunt statements about reality are not always appropriate.

If I have a friend who is suffering through a divorce, it would be both pointless and malicious for me to tell him “Well, she never loved you anyway,” even if I know such a statement to be true.

Likewise, if a religious friend who has suffered a tragic loss of a child believes his child is in heaven, it would be pointless and malicious for me to tell him, “You’re deluding yourself, so stop talking about heaven. Your child is no more.”

Some people console themselves with stories about God and a heaven. They find the strength to go on in such stories. And that’s fine. It was perfectly fine for the President to reference such beliefs in his remarks not only because they (presumably) are sincere expressions of his own views but because they resonated with much of his audience.

That said, not everyone in the United States is religious or a believer in heaven. And unless Newtown is a statistical aberration, it is highly likely there are some nonreligious individuals in this community, perhaps even among the relatives of the victims.

Atheists cry too. Atheists grieve too. As with our fellow humans, we seek solace, but we find it in different ways. For us, love and happiness do not lose their meaning because they do not last forever. Losing a child is tragic, but that tragic loss should be recognized and not obscured. In recognizing the depth of this loss we also recognize the inestimable worth and value of the child, his or her uniqueness as an individual—not as a small part of some vast, cosmic, incomprehensible plan.

We have a diverse nation and that diversity is reflected in the sources of our consolation. It was not inappropriate for President Obama to offer consolation as he did. And, in the wake of this tragedy, we certainly have more important things to do than to analyze the religious contents of his remarks. In the future though (and, sadly, there are likely to be similar events in the future), it would be welcome if the President were to acknowledge the grief experienced by nonbelievers at the same time that he acknowledges the grief experienced by believers.