In The New York Times of January 6, Susan Jacoby writes that atheists should speak up more boldly after tragedies such as the killings in Newtown. Mute in the face of the formula that murdered children have “gone to be with God,” atheists appear to have nothing positive to offer in its place.
In fact, Jacoby writes, atheists are liberated from the quandary of “How could a loving God have done this?” and their strength is their focus on the present—the banner for the article reads “It is Here & It Is NOW.” The children, atheists can proclaim, are at perfect rest and suffer no more, and the task of the living is to advance the reforms that might have saved them.
But it seems to me that atheism’s consolation is to be found not only in the here and now but also in the opposite, the continuity of life through time. Atheists seem eager to jump into debates about evolution, but they are also on the whole oddly indifferent to the grandeur of the billions of years of life that we belong to and to the value of each person in the stream of interaction by which the future rolls itself out in front of us.
How is such a perspective a consoling one? Part of the answer lies in some familiar thoughts and emotions that follow such a tragedy:
Deceased children are frozen in innocence. Their lives will not unfold, and their family’s hopes for them are lost. But it is not true that they achieved nothing, made no impact, gave nothing to the future. Their families remember them vividly and painfully precisely because they achieved so much.
Children bring joy, change their parents’ lives, bring families, neighbors, and even strangers together. Children accomplish what we all hope to accomplish, changing the future by taking part in the present. Uniquely, though, children do so without intention or calculation. They simply reach out because they need and want to trust. They make their mark through their innocence.
Their real afterlife is found not in a supernatural realm but in the life-after of all those who, whether or not they remember or even realize it, were touched by a child.
Ripples in the pond, even though the pebble was so small.