With the recent shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the news media have every day brought us yet more information. More stories. More pictures. More heartache. The stories of children huddled in closets and teachers reassuring and protecting them, of victims’ families finding themselves facing a Christmas of mourning rather than joy, of gifts unopened and family gatherings missing their youngest member…it is all heart-wrenching. I don’t often find myself overwhelmed with emotion, but reading these stories has left me with tears in my eyes almost every morning. The lives of children, brimming with potential waiting to be unleashed, have been cut short. And as the families of these little victims weep, the world weeps with them.
The story is, of course, a trove of material for journalists and columnists, debating about gun control and mental health and assault rifles and pointing blame. I don’t have much I could add to this. I don’t have much I would want to add to it, to be honest. There will be more words written about this incident than should be written, and finding my own place in debating public policy at a time like this is not something I want to do.
But as the reality of death (and death so young!) has been on my mind, I realized that these sorts of events, more than anything else, make me wish for an afterlife. I don’t really fear my own death much. I never really have. But when someone dies “before their time”, it makes me wish that an afterlife was something I believed in. As an atheist, I think about what I could possibly say to someone who just lost their son or daughter that would bring them any morsel of comfort. I wish I could offer them the thought that their child is not truly gone, and that their life has just found a different form, and that the parents will one day be reunited with them. I wish I could say that, and it’s at times like these where I truly hope that I am entirely mistaken about God and heaven and eternal bliss. I truly do. I see what comfort such beliefs can bring in such a painful time, and I wish I could believe them myself and offer them to others.
But I don’t. So how does an atheist deal with death? How do I come to terms with my own end, and how do I offer comfort to others? These are questions that have no easy answer. There is no possible way to come up with a belief that is as comforting as eternal bliss, to be sure, but can’t there be something? Isn’t there some reassurance even in a world where death truly is the final end? I believe there is.
When I lost my own faith in God, I feared the loneliness that my religious leaders told me accompanied such a loss. I feared that without God, the meaninglessness of life would swallow me whole. I feared that I would be lost in a lonely world where the only possible source of meaning (God, of course) was not present. But I decided that such fears must give way to truth, and I desired to follow truth even in the midst of dread. What I found, however, was not what I had feared. Instead of being lost in loneliness, I found a kinship in humanity. Humans may indeed live in a universe which offers them no intrinsic purpose, but we are all here together. We share the world we live in, and we share the human condition we find ourselves thrust into. We share the sunlight and the darkness, the excitement of birth and the tragedy of death. The story of the universe binds us all together as one. We can share in the struggles of those even thousands of miles away, because their struggles are human struggles. More broadly, we can share in the labours of all life, for the struggles of animals and even plants are our own as well: survival, interdependence, and flourishing. In short, when I lost my faith in God, I found my faith in the human condition. We are all in this together, in a very real sense.
So how is this reality a comfort to those in times of grief? It provides its comfort in several ways. First, death binds us all. Although such words mean little in a time when death has come to those so young, such time cut short should spur us on to make more of the time we have ourselves. The death of these little ones can encourage us to find life ourselves. In this sense, these children’s lives are not lost to us; instead, their lives ripple outward, spreading love, compassion, warmth, encouragement, the sharing of grief, the call from a friend, the kind word of a loved one. Failing to make our lives meaningful through those around us would dishonour the lives of these victims and yield a second tragedy.
More tangibly, the reality of the human condition reminds us that the tragedies we face are not ours to bear alone. As the families of these victims mourn, the world mourns with them. We all understand the meaning of loss, and we share that loss together through the empathy we have for others. And when we share that loss, we strengthen the bonds of affiliation between us. It is often noted how a community “comes together” after a tragedy; this effect is born of a necessity to share the weight of the loss. Through sorrow, we find those who are there to comfort us, and we find that the grief of others shares striking resemblance to our own. No, we have not all known the pain of losing a child, but we can share some piece of that sorrow and find our common humanity in that. Making these connections can make even the deepest pain bearable.
Finally, the reality of the human condition places our own lives in perspective. In daily life, the pursuit of pleasure, of money, or prestige makes it easy to forget that our lives are not made meaningful by these achievements. In a universe which offers no objective meaning, it is up to us as meaning-making machines to provide meaning for ourselves and others. And this meaning and purpose chiefly arises through our relationships with others. The bonds we form with those around us, and the impact we have on others, are the measures of a life well lived. And though in such an incident where death came to those so young, we know that their memories will be cherished by their families, and by every connection those families have made with others, and by every connection those others have made, extending ever-outward. How much more we can do with the lives that we have! We can spread love and goodness to others, and accept love and goodness back from them. This goodwill is a contribution to the course of humanity, even though one’s life seems infinitesimal amongst the throngs of humankind. It is forming relationships with others that makes the world better and that makes our lives more meaningful.
These are the reassurances I have as an atheist. I cannot in good faith reassure someone that their child will live on in eternal bliss. But while the road ahead will be hard for these families, the relationships they have formed can support them and draw them inward. And I can reassure them that their children’s lives can serve as a catalyst for sharing love, compassion, and goodwill with others. No, not all people understand this. Some perform terrible acts and rip apart lives with little thought for the devastation they create. But in the end, such acts will not be overcome with gun control or discussing mental health issues (though of course, these can be good too). Inhuman acts must be overcome with acts of humanity—love, compassion, drawing others closer together. This is the way forward. And this is how the memories of children’s lives can be cherished in the face of loss.