As an atheist, I too wonder why anyone would deliberately massacre young schoolchildren, as occurred in Newtown, Conn. I, too, share some of the pain of those who have unfairly lost their loved ones.
But unlike many theists, I don't blame this tragedy on the loss of God in our schools. I don't struggle to understand how an omnipotent, benevolent God could let this happen. And, unlike Dallon Eugene Nye (Standard-Examiner, Jan. 11, "God loves everyone, regardless of their choices" http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/01/11/god-loves-everyone-regardless-their-choices), I don't blame yet another mythical being: Satan. Or any other conspiracy http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/01/09/conspiracy-theories-claim-newtown-shootings-were-hoax, http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/01/16/our-view-conspiracy-cockroaches.
There's no paradox here, no need for theodicy. The simple reality is that random bad things can happen to innocent children like Emilie Parker for the same reason that they happen to bad people: None. And it's easy to answer the question that Nye posed, "Where was God at these moments?" God was where he always is, whenever that question is put to an objective, empirical test: Nowhere. God is imaginary.
So, how should one address this tragedy? How can one even do so, if one doesn't believe in God?
Unfortunately, too many believers have been widely exploiting these murders to promote their religious agendas.
"God sent the shooter http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/1-westboro-baptist-church-god-sent-the-shooter-to-ct-for-supporting-gays/news/2012/12/16/56585," claims the Westboro Baptist Church. That's no surprise, coming from an obvious hate group. But they are by no means alone.
There's also Eric Hovind, creationist minister http://www.patheos.com/blogs/wwjtd/2012/12/theres-never-so-much-evil-that-religious-leaders-cant-add-a-little-more/. Bryan Fischer, Christian radio host. Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor, and Baptist preacher. And, of course, the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2012/12/17/iranian-supreme-leader-ali-khamenei-echoes-mike-huckabee-on-newtown-school-shooting/. All had nearly identical explanations: "We have systematically removed God [or prayer] from our schools" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/14/mike-huckabee-school-shooting_n_2303792.html. Or, even more forcefully: "God is not going to go where he is not wanted" http://www.examiner.com/article/christian-host-says-god-didn-t-protect-children-because-of-no-prayer-schools.
They're wrong. As a simple empirical matter, there was plenty of prayer in Sandy Hook Elementary. The teachers "kept praying" for the gunfire to stop http://video.today.msnbc.msn.com/today/50214862/. But it didn't. Likewise, since 1999 there have been some 255 killings in U.S. churches http://www.carlchinn.com/Church_Security_Concepts.html, where God was very much invited. But when it came time to stop the carnage, God was again a no-show. Prayer holds no power over bullets.
People have rightly criticized the Westboro Baptist Church and their more mainstream faithful brethren for their hurtful remarks, just as they have rightfully criticized the "conspiracy cockroaches" http://www.standard.net/stories/2013/01/16/our-view-conspiracy-cockroaches who claimed that the massacre was a government plot.
But here's the thing. From a theological perspective, such hurtful claims regarding the divine are standard fare. Put crudely but fairly: All things considered, God wanted these children dead.
It's the ultimate conspiracy theory.
For not a sparrow "will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father" (Matthew 10:29). That's Jesus Himself talking, the only perfect man ever to have walked the earth. So, too, President Obama stated, "God has called them all home" http://www.npr.org/2012/12/16/167412995/transcript-president-obama-at-sandy-hook-prayer-vigil. It's a common Christian belief that the children are in a better place now. The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith explained "why it is that infants, innocent children, are taken away from us... The Lord takes many away, even in infancy ...they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice."(link).
Say of us what you will, at least atheists don't rejoice in the deaths of innocent children.
Furthermore, when it comes to killing babies, God himself is the king of kings, once drowning nearly every one of them. He makes Andrea Yeats http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/03/how-andrea-yates-lives-and-lives-with-herself-a-decade-later/254302/ look like parent of the year. More locally, that's the same God who purportedly intervened http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865558777/Announcement-expected-in-Sierra-Newbold-murder-investigation.html?pg=all to identify the alleged killer of six-year-old Sierra Newbold--but was conspicuously silent while she was being kidnapped, raped, strangled, and drowned.
Given God's record, it requires staggering self-delusion to claim, as Nye and others do, that "God ... loves all of his children." What loving parent would willingly kill their child that way, or passively stand by and let her be killed? Who happily sends their child to the home of a mass-murderer?
Granted, many people find that that their religion offers the comforting hope of continued life and reunion with lost loved ones, even if that's not actually true. So be it.
But most atheists value truth over false hope. They find genuine inspiration in those people who have the courage and integrity to face the truth, even when it's unattractive. They find meaning in the sacrifices made by the teachers to save the children as best they could.
Shortly before she died, I asked my mother how she felt about dying. Despite her hard, brief life and her impending death, she wasn't bitter. I couldn't help but remark to her about that.
"Don't get me wrong," she replied, with a chuckle. "That doesn't mean I think it's fair."
Fair or not, she had accepted the truth, and yet prevailed, with honesty and courage.
And now, so must we.
Gregory A. Clark is an Associate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Utah and a member of the Atheists of Utah.