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.


#1 Greg Laden (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 2:48pm

I had the same reaction.  I do spend a certain amount of effort expressing my displeasure with the whole “god bless america” add-on rhetoric in political speeches, directly and privately to the politicians.  This is not a point in time at which anyone should try to hijack the events of the day to make a political point unless, of course, it is about things relevant to the event itself (school safety, guns, spree killings, etc. as problems).

#2 Ian Oliver Martin (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 2:51pm

Though the word “God” can indeed be a meaningless association of letters for those of us who prefer cosmology and neuroscience to the creative theologies of the multiple creeds exant in the world, there is a certain comfort that even I feel at an appeal to more encompasing concept.  I would, possibly use a mystical invocation such as a plea to the Cosmos itself for a respite from so much destruction.  Some use the word GOD for the COSMOS such as do the Panetheists an Pantheist.  Mr. Obama could have restructed his delivery into a less theological tone, or word, but most people are at least minimally more conforted by beliefs in a higher power, or master of the universe, that in the darkness of the night.  I believe Mr. Obama did very well!  He could have sung amazing grace and I would have been emotionally pleased!  It may be simply what we need!  A confirmation that there is meaning, and love, and life, and that as much pain as there is, things should be corrected, made more beautiful, and kindness increased.  What if the pain of the parents, and children!  Some love is due, and Mr. Obama, gave that love, with his own words for which I am thankful!  Thank you Mr. Obama!

#3 Laurie Mann (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 3:09pm

I have no objection to Bible-quoting, references to God et.c., at times like these.


The only thing that I objected to, and objected to it so strongly that I wrote to Obama to complain, was the line “God has called them home” line, in reference to the people who were murdered.

I know, you don’t want to say, “And your people were gunned down in cold blood” in the context of a memorial service.  But, when someone says, “God has called X home,” when X was murdered, it abbrogates responsibility of the murderer completely.

The speech would have been absolutely fine without that line.

Every one of those people murdered on December 14 would still be alive today, if not for a disaffected white boy with semiautomatic weapons.

#4 Alex Entelis (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 4:12pm

I felt relieved reading this. I am a happy Human, Humanist, atheist or whatever you call someone who wakes up one day to the obvious truth.. but I am kinda alone at times, surrounded by believers for friends, and at times i am a bit insensitive, i guess its my way to retaliate because i am so alone in my believe, while the rest of them have each other…having said that, I agree about letting those (who find solace in religions to grief) alone.. go ahead, pray, let it give you strength.. its all you know, (that is how far you evolved) i understand.. I’ll be here for you, I’ll love you, no mater what…

#5 copychief on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 4:12pm

Speaking of cheap flourishes ... “disaffected white boy” is relevant how?

#6 Ian Oliver Martin (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 4:14pm

I did not hear that ludicrous unthoughtful comment!  That is utterly unconscionable! Not even I would stand “The Cosmos Has Called Them Home!”  Better with the full brunt of bitterness and condemnation!  “An end to the Killer!”  This is as cruel as telling a Jewish holocaust survivor, that Hashem has called the murdered Jews home!  Thank you for your comment Laurie Mann!  I certainly appreciate it!

#7 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 5:00pm

Well there’s a difference between not caring and not getting in people’s faces about it.

I do care. I’m not going to get in anyone’s face about it, but that’s not because I don’t care.

Eric MacDonald has an excellent post on the “called home” trope, and what it implies.

“What a reassuring word that is: home! Just think what he was saying! Instead of acknowledging that they will never go home again, that they would no longer brighten their parents lives, would no longer play happily at their childish games, Obama said that they had gone to their real home. They did not belong here! I’m sure he said it with the greatest respect, and intended to be comforting, but it’s a strange world in which a child’s home is not with his or her family, but somewhere we know not where. They’re dead, and yet they are said to have been called home! You must hate your life in this world!”

#8 moshe2538 (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 5:04pm

nice !

#9 josiah vanvliet (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 6:20pm

Well, and bravely stated. There is a time for confrontation and that time is not always.

#10 Randy (Guest) on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 9:37pm

I disagree with much of what you said.

“And that’s fine.”

No, it is not.  It’s dangerous.  This is where much religious power comes from, tying itself to memories of loved ones, and daring anyone to say differently.  The consequences of religious belief harm other people.  If we shrink at stressful times like this, it shows that skeptics and secularists and atheists don’t hold the positions we pretend to hold.  This idea that we should just cede the floor to nonsense, particularly from elected officials, is wrong.

Why is it that the president doubled down on Christianity in his recent speech?  Maybe he really believes.  But it’s also certainly because when the Republicans oppose his gun control proposals in Congress, he’s going to hit them back with the overwhelming power of “God” (plus the 20 names he read) like a magic spell, and most will have no choice but to back down.  That might be great now, but it won’t always be gun control.  Have we forgotten W so soon?

#11 Griff on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 11:00pm

Nope, no need to grandstand when doing so will backfire.  Wait for a more opportune moment.

Where I reside, football is worshiped.  Lives are lived for its sake and honor.  It’s our local religion.  I’m not a sports fan, let alone a football fanatic—consequently, I have opted out of participating in the culture thereof.  I’ve done so with the full, mature realization that I can therefore expect none of the benefits of participation.  I’ve never complained about not enjoying the rewards of football fanship when, after all, I am neither a football fan nor someone who goes through the motions of being one.  Nor, for that matter, do I crow about being a non-fan.

By contrast, you complain about being excluded from a cultural ritual that you loudly and proudly refrain from participating in.  That’s both irrational and, frankly, quite egoistic.

#12 Serge on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 11:48pm

I just read the President’s remarks and I am puzzled. I don’t understand the need for a prayer vigil. What we need from this president and others is action. We need some positive steps to help prevent future senseless tragedies like this one and the ones before.

When some screwball lights his shoe on fire in an airplane, the collective panic is enough to force millions of people to be humiliated daily in airports nationwide. The action, perhaps overreaction, is swift and almost automatic. Yet, when the same screwball uses high power weapons to mass murder innocents, the only reaction is a prayer vigil.

This is beyond common sense and is despicable on some level. I am disappointed by the President’s remarks, whom I admire otherwise.

#13 Benjamin Radford on Tuesday December 18, 2012 at 11:52pm

Interesting post; reminds me of when otherwise humanist and atheist-minded folk commented on the death of Hitchens by saying or writing “R.I.P.” or “Rest in Peace,” knowing full well Hitch was not “resting” nor at “peace” but simply dead.

#14 Brian Wood (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 4:08am

Who would stomp on a parent’s grief?  We atheists aren’t monsters; we just love humans more than we love “god”™ Thomas Hardy: “The death of a child is never really to be regretted, considering how much he has escaped.” Quite true: extinction is better than continuing this vile life. But, oh, the poor parents. What did the PARENTS do to deserve this? What benefit (even of heaven were there such a thing) do they get? We must let them console themselves as best they can.

#15 Greg Laden (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 8:02am

Ben: I think that is what RIP means to a lot of atheists.  The body, previously active is now at rest.  I thought many regarded it as an appropriate reference, but I could be wrong.

Perhaps we need an official poll on Facebook or Twitter!

#16 Ian Oliver Martin (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 12:55pm

Feelings!  The abrupt end of life is terminal. How psychologically best to surround the intense grief, and stop it from disabling the survivor?  I cannot entirely relinquish my father’s memory, and at times, even now after 20 plus years break out in sponatneous weeping.  These family’s have fresh painful wounds! Yes the President played preacher and as an orator of ideas he may have thought this to be a good approach to be present with the families.  If I were President, what could I possibly say to effect solace.  As a emotional man, Mr. Obama, too feels, and weeps, and despairs as I do, I am sure, even if not exactly in the same WAY I would!  Alas, the President presided as best he could conjure!  It was metaphysical witchcraft, and may have been need!  How would I react to the situation!  I would, knowing myself, begin weeping uncontrollably, in front of the microphone.  I would tremble, and feel my legs colapse beneath me as I understood the deaths of the young and old and sense them to be MY kin and beloved.  I would ask someone else to write a speach, and then deliver it as written, for I could never accept my own writings or speech as final! There! Death is Terrible!  It is something ALL of us must endure!  It is Terrible!  Someone write me a better script for Mr. Obama, if you have the heart to!

#17 Serge on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 2:27pm

Nice to see the President finally move decisively on gun control. Here is hoping for some positive change.

#18 Griff on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 2:54pm

It’s nice to see him move decisively on anything, though I won’t believe it until I see it.

So, let me get this straight—when people are dead, they’re dead?  Being a theist, I can’t take that in.  Dead=dead.  Hm.  Fascinating.  Does it follow, then, than live people are alive?  Until they are no longer alive, that is?  I.e., dead?

#19 Greg Laden (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 2:58pm

Griff, when you are “dead” you are not “dead” ... you are still “alive” ... just mostly bacteria and other organisms.

#20 Serge on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 3:02pm

Huh? You lost me at “I can’t take that in.”

#21 Griff on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 3:54pm

Serge—I was using a literary device called sarcasm.

Greg—Really?  The lifeforms which abound on Planet Us turn around and consume us after we, um, cease?  How gauche of the tiny critters.

There are no good or bad germs, obviously—just germs.

I can’t believe we’re not challenging the popular notion that “dead” means “not moving,” since dead bodies, left alone, often jerk around like crazy due to escaping gasses.  Corpses can even make noises.  And how can someone be “dead as a doorknob,” since doorknobs are neither living nor dead?  And how many coffins are literally buried “six feet under”?  It’s not like we have some agency overseeing this.

Worst of all: “If the dead could speak.”  Um, if they could speak, they wouldn’t be dead.  Sheesh.

#22 Greg Laden (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 4:02pm

Actually, there is an agency overseeing how deep coffins are buried and it is generally 6 feet under, depending on jurisdiction.

#23 Griff on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 4:24pm

However, the popular phrase is not “generally six feet under,” but rather “six feet under,” which means exactly.

We haven’t discussed “dead” letters.  If we’re going to go after figures of speech, let’s go after them all.  If not, why not?

#24 Romanian Humanist on Thursday December 20, 2012 at 8:34pm

Instead of religious remarks, your president rather say nothing.
In your example with a divorced friend, you rather say nothing than a statement which is not true.
Don’t forget about those children who looks up to president and believe whatever he says. Someday one of them will be the next president and will speaks like his/her predecessor.

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