Dinesh D’Souza seems to feel that a time of mourning and tragedy is clearly the appropriate time to get some licks in on those damned atheists. Presumably, though atheism doesn’t appear to be a source of great comfort to the community of Blacksburg, Virginia (more on which later), D’Souza’s God and His great and unknowable plan were around there somewhere, mourning Cho Seung-Hui’s misuse of his free will in order to slaughter people and loving the misanthropic lunatic all the same. Yes, I can see how faith in the non-interventionist but loving and don’t-you-dare-be-mad-at-Him-because-you-can’t-know-His-plans God would be a great comfort.
Wait. No I can’t. But that’s my own issue. I’m not one to cast stones at whatever gives people comfort in a time of grief and confusion. Religion has a great deal of utility in providing shelter against incomprehensible fear and horror, as well as being a wonderful method of comforting the grieving. I don’t find it necessary, but that’s me. “To each their own” has its appropriate uses, and this seems to be one of them.
D’Souza uses an interesting rhetorical trick, though. He’s casting the Problem of Evil on its head, using it as a metaphysical stick against atheism, rather than its typical target, theism. Say what you will about his (specious) thought, the man’s a damned decent writer, and I tip my hat to him putting the shoe on the other foot. The flaw comes in his approach however. As a devoutly religious individual, D’Souza sees no other way for atheism approach grief, or the Problem of Evil, than as he would as a Christian.
Atheism does not invoke itself as a metaphysical governing philosophy, other than to say, “there’s no God we can comprehend or know” – and really, all the atheist does is add one more God (the Abrahamic one) to the list of gods most other people don’t believe in – and proceed on its merry way to figure everything else out on its own. But D’Souza can’t seem to comprehend that (indeed, as a devout Christian, such thinking is likely completely alien to him); atheists must rely upon some sort of metaphysical order, and so he seizes upon scientific materialism as the end-all-be-all of the atheist’s moral and cognitive schema. And since scientific materialism cannot account for Why Evil Happens, atheism must therefore be fundamentally flawed.
I shouldn’t have to point out the venial flaw in that logic to a learned audience. But, somehow, I have the sneaking suspicion that I do. Atheism does not entail scientific materialism, even when the two dovetail nicely. Atheism doesn’t need to account for the Problem of Evil because it does not lay claim to an underlying metaphysical order, does not ascribe characteristics to itself or its object (indeed, it lacks an object to begin with), and does not subscribe to an overarching narrative (unlike the forms of theism to which the Problem of Evil is usually applied, like Christianity). A Mysterian attitude seems appropriate here: Evil is something that happens, for many reasons, many of which we cannot comprehend or perceive. That we know it exists is enough. We can delve into the psychological factors that motivated Mr. Cho, and thereby understand him, but we can never truly learn why he did what he did. Ascribing that final motivation to another agency, like Satan, is simply an admittance of being uncomfortable with incomplete knowledge.
Atheism simply removes God from the equation. We don’t need to appeal to His (or Her, or Its, or Their...) authority in order to make sense of the world and feel secure in the midst of its insanity. Atheists in Blacksburg (if there are any) are deriving comfort from the same human means and agencies that everyone else is: The outpourings of empathy and collective grief, the coherence of a community drawn together by mutual sadness. Whether that community invokes God or not, they are coalescing around the same tragedy and using the very same deeply, profoundly, and ineluctable traits that make us gloriously human. I, for one, take great comfort and pride in the irrepressible potential for resilience and compassion within humankind. And that’s all the metaphysics I need.
[James Elliott is the proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum—ed.]