How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Here’s a little sociological fact that’s equal parts horrifying and fascinating: I have a friend whose middle schooler recently walked into their living room and announced that his school would now be conducting routine “intruder drills.”1 He then proceeded to describe how he and his classmates were instructed to flatten themselves against the wall, drop down, and creep toward the door in order to lock it and turn off the lights.2 During the Cold War Era, students and teachers anticipated nuclear attacks with “duck and cover” drills, hiding under their desks from the possible onslaught. In our day, school shootings have become so normalized that they’ve now got their own protocol. Active shooter drills and storm drills exist on the same emergency roster in our schools. This is America today.
If intruder drills make it impossible to hide from the fact that these massacres have become commonplace, our current habit of immediately skipping grief in favor of political squabbling also serves as a poignant reminder of just how jaded we’ve become. How could we not? The ubiquitous “active shooter” will certainly go down as one of the archetypal monsters of our age. Though there’s currently no detailed psychological profile for this kind of deviant, most of us recognize in these men a lethal combination of alienation, entitlement, and rage that’s entirely unique to our cultural moment—the vicious dark side of one particular stratum of expressive individualism.3 In this context, how many of us have heard or uttered some version of the sentence, “I wonder when the next one will be”? Sadly, this prediction is far from idle speculation.If the heavenly reading of Guerra’s illustration is meant to supplant the intense pain it addresses, then it’s being misread. I do know from firsthand experience that healthy grief has no escape clauses.
The political squabbling may appear crass in the face of such intense suffering, but it’s also inevitable and necessary. Rarely has it been so difficult to escape the conclusion that our private lives have public consequences. Nevertheless, many of us continue to resist this fact with a defensive stridency that borders on the pathological. Watching several of the teenagers who survived the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, take the stage in front of thousands at a Florida town hall meeting hosted by CNN was to witness the human face of our common life. Lest we forget: the political is always personal, and any talk of rights—no matter how principled and prudential—that fails to acknowledge this fact needs to be challenged. Our children are now asking the questions we’re unwilling to face. This is our country now.
But grief also has public consequences, and our habit of bickering over political solutions at the cost of a healthy mourning process has caused many of us to internalize pain in a manner that’s deeply harmful. The philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has vigorously challenged the notion that art “comes into its own” only when it’s hermetically sealed off in an aesthetic zone of disinterested contemplation. Both elitist and naïve, this view overlooks the inherently social aspects of most works of art. Does the Vietnam Memorial, for instance, come “into its own” when we isolate it from its tragic circumstances and try to view it as nothing more than an elaborate sculpture? Or does it serve as an invitation to communal lament, inviting people to descend its steps, stop, and weep? What about a funeral dirge? Is it made for an opulent concert hall, or a gathering of distraught people?
What about Pia Guerra’s “Hero’s Welcome” cartoon? In the drawing, a smiling little girl is leading Aaron Feis—the Parkland high school coach who laid down his life for his students—by the hand into a large gathering of small children and a few teachers, most of them Sandy Hook victims. “Come on mister Feis! So many of us want to meet you!” says the little girl.
When the daily comics publisher the Nib passed on the cartoon, Guerra decided to release it into the Twitter maelstrom. Not surprisingly, numerous people briefly unclenched their culture warring fists to share, pause, and mourn.4 A work of art can’t be neatly divorced from its circumstances, but neither is it necessarily bound by those circumstances. Guerra’s painting soared above our various ideological divides, reminding us of the deeply paradoxical truth that loss often binds us in ways that joy and celebration never can. As Walker Percy says, “A dirge, a lament, even a jeremiad, implies an intact society.” Break our hearts, and we’re all the same.
Though many people see the cartoon as a heavenly picture of the afterlife, Guerra’s atheism rules that interpretation out. She anticipated this kind of response, of course, and she’s been very gracious, allowing people leeway to experience the picture on their own terms. It’s a compassionate response, but, at the risk of sounding insensitive, what if imposing this heavenly dimension on the painting actually undermines its central message? Plenty of artists are content to let their work speak for itself.5 Guerra, however, has been forthright about her intentions: As journalist Samantha Schmidt put it in a Washington Post article, “She wanted to show the immense collective magnitude of the loss, a visual tally of just how many people have been killed in mass school shootings. She also wanted to evoke the nature of the youngest victims of these massacres—the wide-eyed, gentle essence of a child.” This statement of intent makes it clear that the destination of this particular work of art is grief, not resolution.
For the moment, let’s set aside the issue of foisting a foreign vision onto Guerra’s cartoon, and simply ask: Is there really a problem with being comforted by the notion that these people we’ve lost are in a better place together? Is that really such a harmful sentiment? In a sense, these are impossible questions. There’s no instruction manual for grief, and it would be the very height of arrogance and insensitivity for me to act like I’m qualified to dictate some kind of proper response. I’m not and I can’t. However, I do think we have a problem when we try to sidestep grief. If the heavenly reading of Guerra’s illustration is meant to supplant the intense pain it addresses, then it’s being misread. I do know from firsthand experience that healthy grief has no escape clauses.
Atheists who are weary of people trying to skip grief with exalted visions of the afterlife might be surprised to discover that the Bible resolutely refuses to skip grief; we’ve even got an Old Testament book that’s named for it. Before summoning him from the tomb, Jesus weeps6 for his friend Lazarus. It seems that the hope of resurrection doesn’t preclude grief. Likewise, Paul informs us that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Notice that we still grieve. Hope doesn’t overshadow grief.
In the case of the most recent atrocity at Stoneman Douglas High School, we can turn to Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet”: “Thus says the LORD: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more’ ” (31:15). Matthew famously connects this prophesy to the “Slaughter of the Innocents” decreed by King Herod in the wake of Christ’s birth.
Hope, resurrection, and future restoration—none of these promises preclude grief. In the face of devastating loss, Christians ought to be the first to affirm that there is a time to weep bitterly and to refuse to be comforted.
1. Some schools drop the euphemism and simply call it an “active shooter drill.”
2. Though there are currently no standard practices, this procedure will gradually become more refined as our experience in these matters grows.
4. The spell never lasts for very long, of course, and soon people found cause for offense in the picture’s lack of diversity. Guerra responded with grace and humility, noting that her urgency to capture the image while it was still fresh led to an incomplete picture.
5. Critics aren’t.
6. The word weep scarcely does justice to Christ’s visceral response at the tomb of his friend.
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