Obama’s Speech in Newtown, CT: An Atheist’s Perspective

Mr. President, You Represent ALL Americans, Not Only the Religious

I have a simple question today, one that I am not sure anyone will be able to answer.  Were all of the families who lost a loved one in Newtown religious?  Were the extended family members, like grandparents, aunts and uncles and close friends who are also grieving religious?  Were all of the first responders, who in their own way and for obvious reasons, are having a hard time dealing with this tragedy religious?  I do not think we know the answers to those questions.  Again someone correct me if I am wrong.  Here is what we do know:  The people I listed above comprised the audience of last night’s vigil in Newton.  We also know that this ceremony was broadcast all over the nation, and perhaps many parts of the world.

I don’t really have a problem with all of the various religious figures who spoke at the event.  Regardless of the fact that I find their words hollow, certainly most in the audience and many on television did not.  Further, it is what they do.  They are just doing their jobs and dealing with this tragedy in the manner that is expected from them.  I did take issue with one part of the service: President Obama’s speech.  If you missed his speech, you can read it here.  I found much of his speech to be fantastic, however, when it came to religion, I found much of that troubling.

President Obama made nine references to god (14 if you count the individual references in his opening paraphrasing of scripture).  I have a problem with this.  President Obama represents a secular government when he speaks.  He himself has stated that “he speaks for all Americans”.  Well, last night he did not speak for somewhere between 11-19% of Americans, depending on which study you wish to look at.

What I struggled with the most with was some of the wording that he used.  I want to highlight some of the parts I found most troubling.  Obama began by quoting scripture, I found the entire piece to be absurd, but was really jolted by the end of his quote.  He stated:

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.”

Actually President Obama, we do NOT know any of that.  In fact, we have a great deal of evidence that would support the notion that heaven is a myth.  But that was not what really got to me.  What really irked me was describing this earth and our lives here as a “tent”.  You know, I own a house and a tent.  I have to be honest; I really do not care much for my tents in relation to my house.  Obama’s words only serve to cheapen our lives on this planet (a tent) at the expense of much better eternal “house”.  This is absurd.  It is also something that most atheists will find offensive.  Why?  It cuts to the center of so many of the discriminating comments that us atheists face—those regarding morality and the purpose of life.  It leads people to derisively ask atheists “how can we be good without god?” and “without god, what is the purpose of life?”  These questions are a source of great pain for many atheists who are discriminated against.  It is absurd questions like these that lead people to trust atheists less than they do rapists.  (Yeah…look it up).  Obama’s quote, though surely unintended, further propagated the myths that allow discriminating behavior of this nature to thrive.  Let me assure you President Obama, my life, the things I care about, this planet are all more valuable to me—and to every other atheist on this planet– than a damn “tent”.

Obama stated in reference to our lives:

“We’ll make mistakes, we’ll experience hardships and even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”

What a great statement…until the last phrase.  Are we truly to believe that the tragedy in Newton is nothing more than part of “God’s heavenly plans” that we cannot discern?  Is a god who has such a plan worthy of an ounce of your respect?  What possible plan could an omniscient and omnipotent god have that he could not better achieve his ends?  I challenge any religious person to look at this tragedy and try to square it with you claim your god to be.  Without some serious mental gymnastics and suspensions of reason, it cannot be done.  Christians always ask for proof that their god doesn’t exist.  Here is some proof for you:  an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent god would NEVER have allowed what transpired in Newtown to happen.  Period.  Do not come back with the fallacious and moronic argument of “free will”.  It is a cop out and is easily dismissed by any rational atheist.  If you’re not sure how, Google it…it won’t be hard to find.

Along the same line of absurd theology Obama stated, “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  He then read the names of the deceased children (this was incredibly emotional) followed by, “God has called them all home”.  What?  God/Jesus called the kids “home”?  What nonsense is this?  Did anyone check with their parents or sisters and brothers first?  Further, what type of deity is so pathetic that he would need to “call kids home”?  What type of monstrous deity would “call kids home” by have them gunned down by a madman with an assault rifle?  This is supposed to make people feel better?  Wake Up!  If any of this is comforting to you, you are not thinking clearly.

My heart aches for the children, teachers, and staff who died in this senseless attack.  My heart is broken when I contemplate the sorrow of their loved ones, who are also victims of this senseless attack.  There are not any great words to express the anger and sorrow that many of us feel.  However, we need not invoke an absurd deity for comfort (particularly, because if he existed he would share at least some culpability for this tragedy).  We do not need the President of a secular government doing just that.  You know what President Obama…I can almost guarantee that there are secular people in that community who are hurting as much as anyone, who need comforting as much as anyone, who are trying to come to grips with this tragedy.  Your words did nothing for those people.  And yet, you are supposed to represent those people as well.  I sincerely hope that we never have to deal with a situation like this again.  Please allow one of your citizens to give you a bit of advice…if you ever find yourself faced with a situation such as the one in Newtown, please choose your words carefully.  You represent all of us; your words should reflect that.  All of your citizens need comforting in a time like this.  It would behoove you to remember that.  By all means, make some references for the religious, you represent them as well, but when all of your words of comfort are religious in nature, you exclude many of your fellow Americans.

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.

—-John

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26 thoughts on “Obama’s Speech in Newtown, CT: An Atheist’s Perspective

  1. bryan kelly from Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand

    I completely agree with you John and very well put. Religion seems to be an easy crutch to fall back on in cases like this where there are no easy answers that will help the grieving. He should have stuck to the issues about; nation recovering, fixing, improving etc and deferred to the religious leaders for their areas of expertise. I don’t understand why he would want to get involved in that area and take on a preaching role. In my view it cheapens his office both at home and abroad.

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  2. sbj1964 from Madison, TN, United States

    I have no problem with his references to an imaginary deity.The truth is a lot of people (non-Atheist) find comfort in faith when trying to make sense out of events like this.I think it would be rather dickish to feel snubbed at a time like this.Right now it's not about Atheist,but about America grieving,and sadly as it may be 84% of the population are people of faith.As Mr.Spock would say."The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,or the one." May all Americans find peace in this time of sorrow.

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    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      Hi SBJ—I have to respectfully disagree with you here. I agree that many people will find comfort in the words of religions and the religious. There was no shortage of that sort of conversation at this event. There was at least 45 minutes of religious talk prior to his going on. I don't really feel snubbed personally, however, I do not think it "dickish" if someone were to feel that way. As I mentioned above, I would have been okay if he mentioned religion a bit. However, he went well beyond that. His speech was overwhelmingly religious. That is not his job. As vjack pointed out on his site, we need the Commander-in-Chief, not the Pastor-in-Chief. There is no shortage of religious figures to aid those who seek it. The President, when he speaks, he should attempt to speak for all of his constituents. He did not make this attempt. He spoke for those who believe in the god of Abraham. Again, if he mentioned it once or twice, I would not have felt uncomfortable about it. When he goes out of h sway to quote scripture two days in a row, and to lay the religion on so heavily, I start to get uneasy.

      I agree that all Americans need to "find peace in this time of sorrow". That is why I was uncomfortable. He did nothing to help anyone who isn't Christian, Jewish, or Muslim to do that. He should have done so.
      My recent post Obama’s Speech in Newtown, CT: An Atheist’s Perspective

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  3. troubleshooter125 from Bedford, OH, United States

    To be candid, I fully expected Obama to go religious on that audience. Doubtless most of them were christians and they were expecting such language, despite the fact that it was from the Commander in Chief of a government which is SECULAR in nature.

    And it makes me wonder – what would a SECULAR elegy for such a tragedy sound like? I'm not certain I've ever heard such a thing, certainly not from within the confines of the US. The closest approach to such a speech would be in the many tributes I heard in the wake of the death of Christopher Hitchens, though his death could be seen from a distance, and even he acknowledged that. Maybe someone needs to set an example, someone with the gift of empathy and an understanding of the power of words (not me by a long stretch!) write something which conveys acknowledgement of grief and offer of empathy and action against their loss WITHOUT mention of non-existent deities or their scripture.

    It would be a remarkable and most refreshing event to me, even in the face of such horror.

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    1. reasonbeing from Duluth, MN, United States Post author

      I expected him to make some religious comments, and would have been okay with that. He went way "over the top" in my opinion, and that is where I started getting uneasy about it.

      I am not too familiar with secular elegies for situations like this. I suppose that is because we are a minority…not to many of us writing things and even fewer to speak at such events.
      My recent post Obama’s Speech in Newtown, CT: An Atheist’s Perspective

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  4. abigskyguy from Polson, MT, United States

    Whether it was genuine or not, it seems to me that President Obama did what he needed to do in that context – deliver a personal and heartfelt message that helped to comfort the majority in Newport (Christians). I didn't get the sense that he was implying that ALL Americans believe as he does.
    To troubleshooter's comments – Yes, the secular community seems almost completely devoid of representatives that can speak clearly, compassionately and empathically in tragic situations like these. I keep checking at the AHA, Humanist Project at Harvard, etc……nothing. We need something!
    Maybe we as secularists need to get it together and come up with our own language of comfort. Maybe until we can do that, all we have left to do complain about how others are handling it.

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  5. SheldonGC from Glen Carbon, IL, United States

    Had he been speaking at a religious service, and it was clear that he was speaking for himself, not on behalf of the government, that I wouldn't have a problem with this, but since it was a speech open to all, and broadcast to the entire nation, I feel it was inappropriate.
    My recent post Exposing the IFB: Micheal and Debi Pearl

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  6. Pingback: Did President Obama Alienate Atheists With His Speech in Newtown? from Ashburn, VA, United States

  7. Pingback: Atheists and Grieving | Reason Being from Columbus, OH, United States

  8. Uzza from West Columbia, SC, United States

    Thank you for this post; I totally agree. However.
    In my adult life I believed in god for about thirty seconds–when they buried my son. There was an indescribaly vivid sense of his departing spirit going … away. Then I came to my senses, but it's easy to see how people would be seduced. There was some god-talk but it didn't bother me, it was a comfort just to see that people cared. My dad wrote "may he find the peace he was denied in life", an odd thing for a lifelong atheist to say, but I think we fall back onto religious language in these situations because that's what it evolved to express, and our language hasn't evolved any other way yet.

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  9. Pingback: The Problem of “God” in Obama’s Newtown Elegy | elephant journal from San Antonio, TX, United States

  10. Jim Simpson from Cleveland, OH, United States

    There is much to be said about this article and subsequent comments. As a skeptical Christian, it is the complete, literal belief in the Biblical God by so many Christians and the proseltyzing, self-righteousness, judgement and simple stupidity of other Christians that has driven so many of us from our churches (or at least from a wholehearted level of participation in our church). I think it was Tolstoy who wrote "What meaning was my life that the inevitability of death does not destroy?", which for me has so many factors for discussion as to be impossible here. However, I have studied near death experiences and many other human responses to a wide range of personal catastrophies. The answer remains that there is no middle ground for believers and non-believers alike which to me is the major causes of such divisiveness in the dialogue between us. CS Lewis, another pretty smart guy who began as an athiest and "went Christian" as a result of his own study and experiences said that "Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, if true, of infinite importance but that Christianity is NEVER moderately important". I submit that I am closer in my beliefs to you here than you would have it be, that maybe you are also all closer to me, and that closeness – in a perfect world – would bridge the gap. But, plain and simple, it does not. For me, I'll hedge on the part of infinite importance and my own personal epiphanies that make be a believer in a more rational creator than you (or my own kind) would allow to exist. My predecessors and those that I loved and passed away are either in a better place or not, but I will not put my human and eternal hopes in the hands of those who don't believe in human energy, spirit and the distinct possibility that something else in the form of an existence beyond nothingness and the ephemeral state my fellow cloud riders hold on to is the next phase of existence.

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  11. Pingback: The Problem of “God” in Obama’s Newtown Elegy | Matthew Remski from Canada

  12. Pingback: The Problem of “God” in Obama’s Newtown Elegy | Matthew Remski from San Antonio, TX, United States

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