The Atheist Response to Sandy Hook

Last week the New York Times published an opinion piece that offered atheism’s response to the evil/tragedy in which 20 children and six adults were murdered at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut.

What prompted Susan Jacoby to write her piece was a colleague telling her that atheism “has nothing to offer when people are suffering.”

She wrote the piece, “The Blessings of Atheism” (“It is Here and It is Now!” screams the subhead) to prove her colleague wrong by offering a consoling atheist alternative to religion’s consoling belief in an afterlife. Atheists cannot believe that there is any existence other than this life. But, Jacoby insists, atheists can still offer consolation to people who lose loved ones, such as the parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook.

It is meant as no disrespect to this well regarded writer that her piece provides one of the finest illustrations of the intellectual and emotional emptiness at the heart of atheism. Jacoby’s piece actually confirms her colleague’s assessment.

Jacoby offers a quote from Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899. He “was one of the most famous orators of his generation, [and] personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called ‘The Great Agnostic ‘… he also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer”(ellipsis in original).

I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message.

“The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife — to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn’t suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance.

And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared to the religious message that we humans are not just matter but possess eternal souls.

Though I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence, I understand atheism. Anyone observing the terrible amount of unjust human suffering understands the atheist. But even atheists — indeed, especially atheists, since they claim that, unlike believers, they are guided solely by reason and intellect — have to be intellectually honest. They would have to acknowledge that, in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on, and you will be reunited with her.”

What we have here is an intellectual unwillingness or a psychological inability on the part of Susan Jacoby and just about all atheist activists (including the New York Times, which featured, not just published, her column) to confront the consequences of their atheism.

If they did, they would have to say something like this to the parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook:

“As atheists, we truly feel awful for you. 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.”

An atheist with the courage of her convictions would have written that. But the New York Times would not have published it.

All this column did for me was reconfirm this insight of the Bible: “Wisdom begins with reverence for God.”

No God, no wisdom (witness your local university). And certainly no consolation.

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  • steve

    Why don't doctors tell terminally ill patients they will recover. It would be consoling to them and their families.
    Its time we stopped pretending that people don't really die, it belittles life. If one of my children died I would be absolutely horrified if somebody tried to console me by making out they were still alive. How awful.

    • stern

      Believing that people are nothing more than an accidental conglomeration of cells and intellect – that doesn't belittle life?

      • Testy

        No it doesn't. The truth is so much more miraculous than the lie.

  • Me. X

    Steve, stable people, whether atheist, agnostic or religious are gracious and do not fly off the handle if someone infirnges on their religious sensibilities with good intentions. They do not get “horrified.” They let it pass. Religious people, that’s all they have to offer, and if the bereaved reject it, let them accept the gift. Oddly enough, atheists really have nothing to offer anyone in times of grief but a removal of sustaining hope. A sensible atheists stays quiet at such times. Some irrationality is healthy. Unless its Hillary running around the White House speaking to Elenore Roosevelt’s ghost. Now that scares me and I have end this to catch the morning prayers, snd hope that doesn’t “horrify” anyone.

  • Western Spirit

    I don't understand quantum Physics but it intrigues me. Science has verified some of Jesus’ teaching through it, like His teaching about the mustard seed, for example, and because of it scientists feel they have discovered the rabbit hole.

    To me the rabbit hole sounds like the physical has bumped into the spiritual gateway that hitherto has only been accessed by faith, but what do I know. All I know for sure is because we are so limited when logic and reason have taken us as far as they can go faith has filled the gap. And faith not only gives us consolation in grief but purpose in life so much so you have to wonder at the atheist’s hostility toward religion.

  • slider 96

    First off an agnostic is not an atheist . Secondly , parents of these children do not need any affirmation by ANYONE else , of whether their dead children are in an afterlife or not .What they don't need is to be used in partisan bickering and talking points for political parties . And LEAST OF ALL hairbrained conspiracy theories coming from the right , that somehow this horrible act was orchestrated or contrived by gun control advocates or the Obama Admiinistration .This is truly sickening ,and a show of utter disrespect for the victims and their families . One man on whose driveway six evacuated children turned up , for the mere human act of comforting them is now being HARRASSED AND THREATENED BY PHONE AND LETTER for being a part of said conspiracy. There is no shame in this country anymore .

    • Western Spirit

      First off who said agnostic is the same as atheist? Secondly how do you know what these parents needed other than to be comforted, which is a human need and a human response to human suffering? And how is Dennis' moderated essay partisan bickering and talking points for political parties? What right wing hair brained conspiracy, that was contrived by gun advocates, are you talking about?

      I think you are responding to the wrong article. Otherwise you make no sense at all. Go take your hysteria somewhere else,

  • Agnostic Xtian

    Regarding “The dead do not suffer”:

    Forgive me if this seems morbid, but apparently several of the children in the Sandy Hook shooting suffered horribly in the moments before they died. If my child fell victim to such an attack, the fact that death ended their suffering quickly and completely would be one of my few comforts.

    • Western Spirit

      So they are dead and any suffering involved is over. I suppose that would be comforting for anyone. but not much.

      • Testy

        Who values this like more:

        The one that believes after they die they will live forever in a perfect world,
        The one who believes that the will be reincarnated into this world again,
        or the one who believes this is the only shot at life they have.

        For me that last one is the one who will be most horrified by the Sandy Hook events, since someone else robbed those poor children of their one shot, and deprived the parents of ever seeing their loved one again. They would be the one to mourn.

        I would think the first one would be happy, because they are in a better world now. Hell they should be throwing a party.

  • donnie mcleod

    I read her piece and took the time thank Susan Jacoby and share some thoughts about living with a miserable degenerative disease. I am living and dying. God is no help. People like Susan Jacoby are between me and death. So I have to be nice or I will be alone. Your faith feeds on fears and misery. When death comes mine will be a most perfect sleep. I am comforted looking forward to that most perfect sleep.

  • Jasmine

    I'm just going to say it: NO Christian truly believes in life after death.

    As evidence, let me offer millenia of crying and mourning for the dead, especially for the young dead. How very strange all that emotional agony seems in light of the dogma that the young enter heaven, the land of eternal joy, as soon as they die.

    If you believe, why the tears? Please don't tell me you mourn so deeply because you'll miss the kids; according to your dogma, they went to eternal joy, to paradise! You should be throwing parties rather than mourning.

    However, for whatever mysterious reason, Christians don't jump up and down with joy when their children are murdered in cold blood, and they most certainly don't jump up and down with joy when their children are diagnosed with a terminal illness.

    The reason is obvious. Christians, like the rest of humanity, know that there is no heaven. There is nothing after you die. Yes, you can warble off the dogma when things aren't hard, but when your child dies? You mourn. When your child gets very sick? You despair and look for a cure…the cure that will keep your child on earth, and away from heaven.

    Honesty hurts, but it really shouldn't. Mourn in clear conscience, dear Christians. You believe what we do. The only difference is, we're honest about it.

    • Mary Sue

      Oh come on. You're denying human emotions. Everybody cries when someone dies; be they Christian, Jewish, Atheist, some other religion, or Agnostic. The pain of loss is a real thing. Humans are naturally more concerned in the immediate short-term with things that are happening here and now. People's deaths have consequences, ripple effects. A husband dying while still in his working years may throw his family into turmoil and perhaps poverty. A child dying means that child will not give the parents grandchildren. If it's an only child and the parents are long past the age where they could have more, it's even worse.

      And you're an idiot for not taking this into consideration.

    • Mary Sue

      BTW you will notice that terrorist Muslims jump up and down for joy when THEIR children are murdered…

    • David

      Jasmine, if my wife died today, I would most definitely mourn. Not because I don't believe there is a heaven, but because I will miss the fact that I could have spent the next 50 years with her. She is my friend and I love her very much. It is natural for a human being to mourn over something that has been taken away from him. God even knows that there is a time for everything. "Ecclesiastes 3:4 "A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;"
      What Christians have that unbelievers don't is the "peace that passes all understanding." After we have mourned, we have a peace of knowing that we will see them again someday and that God's grace is still sufficient.
      It's ok though. I understand you can speak for every single christian in the world since you somehow possess the knowledge of knowing every single christian's heart. All I can do is hope that God changes your heart.

  • EarlyBird

    What would help to reach atheists and agnostics is to let them know that anybody can "experience" God (to the extent we can on this earthly plain) without being religious. Stillness, meditation, contemplation of "Big Issues," and honestly asking to experience the presence of God is what life is all about and what transforms lives.

    Experience of God, not religion per se, is what has transformed countless once-evil people and is the source of peace in one's life. To me the main value of religion is that it can point us the way to experiencing God. But without that as a main purpose, then religion is just one among many philosophies and ethical traditions, and we could include ethical atheism in that group.

  • Jason

    "Atheists cannot believe that there is any existence other than this life."

    Had to pause right away at this line, as it is completely false. There seems to be an unfortunate lack of imagination among both atheists & theists regarding an afterlife; it's as if the only conceivable possibility for life after death is the standard, Judeo-Christian idea with a judging God, pearly gates & whatnot. Though they can find themselves subject to ridicule from other atheists for engaging in new-age thinking, there is a vast array of ideas out there that many atheists find intriguing regarding the possibility of consciousness continuing to exist – in a purely naturalistic way – after death.

    • EarlyBird

      I agree that there seems to be this ultra-simple binary idea that one is either religious or an atheist. I am very much a Theist, but not religious, and don't experience God as a "guy in the sky." It's when I questioned my religious upbringing (for which I am very grateful) and sincerely sought experience of truth that I actually found my faith in God.

      I have found that many atheists are rejecting religion, which does not mean one rejects God, and also are too embarrassed to try to find words which describe what they do believe, for fear of sounding New Agey, or having to use religious terms. Shame.

  • Ghostwriter

    "The dead don't suffer." That doesn't do much for their loved one in the meantime.

  • scum

    Deplorable, despicable article.

    • Mary Sue

      scum scum scum, go back to where you're from.

      Truth hurts, don't it?

    • EarlyBird

      Scum, why do you find it so bothersome?

      • @SGHeathen

        the whole article is a whine about how sad it is to hear that when you are dead you're really dead. in fact if there is no evidence of what happens after we die, what are people worrying about? We need to console people precisely because we have no evidence that we will see the dead again, not because we will see them or they may suffer in the afterlife. The only effect we know when people are dead is that they cease to be alive and we cannot interact with them anymore. We'll miss them. Saying that there is an afterlife because it consoles people is just plain dishonest.

        • mkat68

          "Saying that there is an afterlife because it consoles people is just plain dishonest."

          It's only dishonest if you have absolute proof that there is an afterlife or not. If you've had such evidence for this long, you should've told everyone.

  • @SGHeathen

    Why not tell people in the afterlife you can have all the houses, cars, food, entertainment that you want? Obviously because there is no evidence of that is it not. When you believe things are true on no evidence, there is no limit to what you can believe. So what if God created you? He sends people to hell. Even God doesn't see people's lives as sacred. So what if I were a product of natural laws? Does it make me want to harm people? If God created us we are nothing but playthings. Even if we have evidence that God created us I won't give a damn about him. This is what religion does to people. You will rather hear something that is comforting than to hear what is probably true.

    • David

      The Bible tells us that we (christians) serve a God that does not lie. He has told us in His Word all that we can comprehend with our finite minds about heaven. You are correct that there is no "physical" evidence. The Bible clearly says "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things that God hath prepared for them that love him." I Corinthians 2:9. And I'm sure you have heard this before, but it's all about faith.
      God does see peoples lives as sacred. That's why he instituted capital punishment in the Old Testament. "Whoso sheddeth man's blood by man shall his blood be shed." Genesis 9:6.
      Hell is purposed for those who reject God and try to be their own "saviour". It's simple: "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God: that ye may know that ye have eternal life and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God." I John 5:13. In reality, they are sending themselves to hell. God has given them a choice. "And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." Revelations 20:15.
      I'm pretty sure this probably won't change your view on this subject, but all I can do is hope that God changes your heart.

  • Rusty Yates

    I have an imaginary god for you. This is consoling. You feel better now. He killed lots of children in the bible. So don't feel bad. In the Noah story he drowned them. Millions of them. Feel better now? He only killed a few of yours. He had a purpose for them. You can't understand it.

    God murdered lots more children in the story of the Passover. Their parents were being bad. So he killed the children. See how moral god is. You need his morals.

    Isn't it good to have a god that kills lots of children? It makes you feel so much better when he only kills a few of yours. See if you were an Amalekite, god would have his murderer kill everyone in Newtown and every animal too. And if the murderer didn't kill every last child and dog god would have him murdered for disobeying. See how merciful god was to you? See how much better you feel.

    God is really good at consoling people that way. God's consolation is not empty, you really have something to be thankful for. Give thanks to god for his mercy.

    Jesus is going to judge your children and see if they go to heaven or hell. If they go to hell he will burn them with hellfire and brimstone for all eternity. You must be feeling really good now. Oh you are Jewish? Too bad. But you can at least be happy that all the Christian children – that are real Christians – of the right Christian faith – will be in heaven. See how happy you are for them. God is so good.

    What is wrong with Christians? Does the religion suck the humanity out of them? Can they not give a simple human gesture of kindness without invoking the most evil god ever imagined?

    "I am so deeply sorry for your loss." – no gods – no assumptions of religiosity – no proselytizing – just a human expression of compassion. Maybe Christians will learn this one day.

    • EarlyBird

      In the worst of times, people – all people – must believe there is some rhyme or reason to their suffering or they suffer even worse. For most it is a desperate belief that there is some benign Intelligence out there, some Order into which the suffering fits.

      I certainly understand rejection of religion, and even anger at it. I tend to think that those who call themselves adamant atheists are rejecting religion and superstition, but I don't think they are rejecting that sense that there is some greater Order to the universe into which their sufferings and joys fit. We don't need to fight over what happens when we die, or other things that nobody can truly "know."

    • EarlyBird

      By the way, Rusty, in your (rightful) high dudgeon over the horrors of religion, don't forget all the incalculable human kindness and enrichment of the human species that has occurred in the name of God.

      Sure, atheists are capable of doing good, and do good. But the accomplishments of atheists are uttlerly dwarfed by the good done in the name of God. Atheist didn't create hospitals for the masses, build the foundation for what we consider Western liberal values (small "l"), the world's universities and systems of learning and science, systems of soup kitchens, orphanages, and the armies of clergy who give their lives to the most vulnerable and wretched.

    • Ghostwriter

      Oh yeah! You two have a REAL mature attitude towards religious people. [sarcasm.]

      • EarlyBird

        What "two" are you referring to?

    • David

      You got to love it when people like you take things in the Bible out of context just to prove a point. Obviously you are bitter about something and really don't know what you are talking about.

  • cxt

    Gotta tell you I really am puzzled about how one poster can accuse all relgious folks of "your relgion feeds on fear and misery" while the dude above me (Rusty Yates) spends his time plungeing his verbal knife into people that belive—yeah, cause its "god" that is so nasty.

    So lets re-cap–a being that according to Rusty that does NOT EXSIST–but he killed millions of people. Jesus–who ALSO does not exsist is going "send your kids to hell–maybe (my paraphrase)

    But has seemingly no clue that the only person TO ACTAULLY EXSIST–him Rusty Yates– spends his time saying mean and hurtful things to his fellow humans–some of which are actually suffering.

    So my choices are a quite possible unreal being that at least provides at least SOME confort to millions and millions of people or Rusty Yates that cars so little for his fellow humans that he can't even restrain his venom over a mass shooting of children.

    I think I'm going with the "unreal" being—Rusty just sounds to nasty. ;)


    Science tells us that there is a gradual process changing things into a different and usually more complex or better form. A few other important pieces of science that are like gifts, come to mind.

    This planet has been held in its orbit by gravity for eons and also keeps everything here on earth’s solid ground. The orbit is around a burning sun that gives us all those wonderful warm, sunny days. The earth itself adds to the day’s pleasure by regularly spinning on its axis once every twenty four hours, giving us those beautiful sunsets and moonlit nights.

    The earth’s axis tilts a little back and forth somewhat, every year giving us summer, fall, winter and spring. Delightful humans, animals and plants benefit from each season. Every cubic inch of every living thing is miraculous. Each portion takes part in the care of the whole being, perfectly. We all simply just eat and drink to keep going.

    Fire is another fascinating thing. It is both dangerous and beneficial, producing both heat and light. Lightning can produce fire and bring with it rain to water all the plants and provide humans and animals with water. Some of those plants and animals also make terrific food for us when cooked over fire.

    Another amazing thing is electricity, discovered by a brilliant human mind. Other brilliant minds found ways to produce things from all the metals and minerals found so accessible just below the surface of the earth.

    Beautiful colors cover the earth and sky and we are enabled to see it all in living color. Sounds and odors occur and we are equipped to hear and smell. All of this is so very remarkable.

    Many people have no idea what the very most wonderful gift of all is.
    The one that put this world together for us, offers to us that marvelous gift and tells us all about it in his own word, the Bible. You can check it out for yourself.

  • Sean Pi

    This article is so ignorant that it's insulting.

    Atheists are still capable of compassion and empathy; we're still human. To console is an outward expression to empathize, borne out of our capacity to love and understand others' love. It may be more difficult for an atheist to verbally express his or her empathy since we don't have thousands of years' worth of dogmatic vocabulary to parrot–but we still empathize and will say what we can if we think it will help others.

    Theists are fortunate to have the concept of an afterlife as part of their belief system; it's a helpful form of autopilot to at least appear to empathize. Just quote something pretty from the Bible and you've done enough.

    Atheists have to dig a little deeper.

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  • mike

    ” I understand atheism”
    No you do not. Atheism is not mad at god for bad things. Atheists don’t believe in god because there is no evidence for it. We are not cavemen anymore. You read about the character of god in a book from the bronze ages, great. The people IN the bible had evidence for their belief, god was doing magic and talking to people every other day.

    “I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence”

    Ever heard of Evolution? I really hope I’m not writing to a creationist..

    “in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between”
    Atheism is not about lying to people to make them feel better. The only good thing an atheist can say about death is there is no suffering. The consolation should come from living people, keeping the memory of your children alive and moving forward without fear, hatred and regret.

    Humans have all the meaning in the world for us, because we are humans. Don’t lie and pretend atheists don’t care about people or life, it is the ONLY thing we care about.

    Let me write a christian apology
    “Too bad the loving and omnipotent god works in mysterious ways and did not want to help, pray some more next time. I hope none of the children were non-christian, because they are being tortured in hell for eternity. For the christian children, don’t worry they are hanging out with grandma and grandpa, also Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are there too. They are waiting for you to die to see you again!”

    “No God, no wisdom (witness your local university)”
    Hmm and yet that is where our understanding of the universe comes from. Not from your bible quotes.