Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings? Atheists are nowhere to be found.It only gets worse from there. Really.
As it turns out, there is at least one atheist to be found among the grieving, among the consoling:
It is hardly surprising that Dinesh D’Souza is once again not only profoundly mistaken but also deeply offensive. But I thought it worthwhile to say something in response, not because most people would put the point in the same morally reptilian manner as D’Souza, but because there is at least some vague sense amongst people that we atheists don’t quite grasp the enormity of Monday’s events, that we tend towards a cold-hearted manner of thinking, that we condescend to expressions of community, meaning, or bereavement.
So I will tell you, Mr D’Souza, what I grasp and where I am to be found.
I understand why my wife was frantic on Monday morning, trying to contact me through jammed phone lines. I can still feel the tenor of her voice resonating in my veins when she got through to me, how she shook with relief and tears. I remember how my mother looked the last time she thought she might have lost a son, so I have a vivid image of her and a thousand other mothers that hasn’t quite left my mind yet.
I am to be found in Lane Stadium, looking out over a sea of maroon and orange, trying not to break down when someone mentions the inviolability of the classroom and the bond between a teacher and his students. That is my classroom, Mr D’Souza, my students, my chosen responsibility in this godless life, my small office in the care of humanity and its youth.
I know that brutal death can come unannounced into any life, but that we should aspire to look at our approaching death with equanimity, with a sense that it completes a well-walked trail, that it is a privilege to have our stories run through to their proper end. I don’t need to live forever to live once and to live completely. It is precisely because I don’t believe there is an afterlife that I am so horrified by the stabbing and slashing and tattering of so many lives around me this week, the despoliation and ruination of the only thing each of us will ever have.
We atheists do not believe in gods, or angels, or demons, or souls that endure, or a meeting place after all is said and done where more can be said and done and the point of it all revealed. We don’t believe in the possibility of redemption after our lives, but the necessity of compassion in our lives. We believe in people, in their joys and pains, in their good ideas and their wit and wisdom. We believe in human rights and dignity, and we know what it is for those to be trampled on by brutes and vandals. We may believe that the universe is pitilessly indifferent but we know that friends and strangers alike most certainly are not. We despise atrocity, not because a god tells us that it is wrong, but because if not massacre then nothing could be wrong.
I am to be found on the drillfield with a candle in my hand. “Amazing Grace” is a beautiful song, and I can sing it for its beauty and its peacefulness. I don’t believe in any god, but I do believe in those people who have struggled through pain and found beauty and peace in their religion. I am not at odds with them any more than I am at odds with Americans when we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” just because I am not American. I can sing “Lean on Me” and chant for the Hokies in just the same way and for just the same reason....
You think we atheists have difficulty with the concept of evil. Quite the contrary. We can accept a description of this man as evil. We just don’t think that is an explanation. That is why we are exasperated at your mindless demonology.
I feel humbled by the sense of composure of a family who lost someone on Monday. I will not insult that dignity by pretending there is sense to be made of this senselessness, or that there is some greater consolation to be found in the loss of a husband and son.
I know my students are now more than students.
You can find us next week in the bloodied classrooms of a violated campus, trying to piece our thoughts and lives and studies back together.
With or without a belief in a god, with or without your asinine bigotry, we will make progress, we will breathe life back into our university, I will succeed in explaining this or that point, slowly, eventually, in a ham-handed way, at risk of tears half-way through, my students will come to feel comfortable again in a classroom with no windows or escape route, and hell yes we will prevail.
You see Mr D’Souza, I am an atheist professor at Virginia Tech and a man of great faith. Not faith in your god. Faith in my people.
D'Souza, apparently surprised that atheists were upset by his defamation, wrote another article, which is worse:
My point was that atheism has nothing to offer in the face of tragedy except C'est la vie. Deal with it. Get over it. This is why the ceremonies were suffused with religious rhetoric. Only the language of religion seems appropriate to the magnitude of tragedy. Only God seems to have the power to heal hearts in such circumstances...
Okay, pal, here's the Virginia Tech situation. Go create some meaning and share it with the rest of us. Give us that atheist sermon with you in the pulpit of the campus chapel. I'm not being facetious here. I really want to hear what the atheist would tell the grieving mothers.
The professor responds:
We think the pain is complete and absolute. We know it is.
We think that nothing can heal these hearts, that time can only take the sharpness off the agony, that only in time can beauty be wholeheartedly seen again or laughter felt deep inside.
We insist there is no sense or meaning to be made of this massacre. There was only sense and meaning to be created within the lives of each person gunned down. That is why we are horrified by it. That is precisely why it is so horrific.
We don't believe these people have died for anything: God's plan, as a beacon to the rest of us, to be a vivid memento mori for all. We just believe they have died, brutally and without mercy. We refuse to lie to grieving mothers out of some patronising sense that a pleasant myth is more respectful than a terrible truth.
Those of us with the slightest shred of deceny do not tell widows to deal with it, to get over it. That the world can be callous is no reason to be so myself. I know that no family could ever get over this loss, that no family should ever be expected to get over this loss -- either by themselves, by religious rhetoricians bearing false platitudes, or by inane political pundits -- but that not getting over the loss does not preclude some other kind of happiness, some other source of joy, at some other time. Not now, not in this moment, not when they have moved on, but only when it comes to them one day, like light dawning slowly.
We know the world is cold, and that only people can make it warmer. We believe we can live in this imperfection, like a child can live without fulfilling her desperate wish for wings. We rail against injustice and tragedy, not the absence of deeper guarantees.
Some of us are those grieving mothers and wives and friends and colleagues. Some of us are inconsolable, but dignified for all that.
There is no language appropriate to the magnitude of the tragedy. Not stories about a poor man nailed to a cross, not fine words about a time for healing and a time for dying, not even the lines of the poet who, in the midst of his own horror, struggles to ask:
How can I embellish this carnival of slaughter,
How decorate the massacre?
But it is that same poet who also writes of death:
I have certainly
no faith in miracles, yet I long
that when death come to take me
from this great song
of a world, it permits me to return
to your door and knock
and call out: "If you need someone
to share your anguish, your simplest pain,
then let me be the one.
If not, let me again
embark, this time never
to return, in that final direction,
Spring has come to Virginia. Monday morning was the last snow we will have this season. All those who have come to Blacksburg this week have told us how beautiful our countryside is. They're right, of course, there is all this terrible, unforgiving beauty here.