Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Like many folks, I've spent a lot of time this week keeping up with coverage of the horrific tornadoes that hit Moore, Oklahoma. As I looked through pictures in this article at the Daily Mail, it literally took my breath away to see the wreckage of the town, which one local described as "scorched earth." With tears in my eyes I remembered when an F5 tornado leveled a neighborhood five miles away from where I lived in 1997, and knew with a sense of dread that the pictures did not even come close to capturing the devastation.
In a temporary lapse of judgment, I scrolled down to the comments section of the Daily Mail article. One never expects open comboxes to be bastions of charity and civility, but I was shocked at the number of notes expressing disdain or condemnation of the people of Moore and Americans in general. I clicked through to other articles about the tornado on the UK-based website, as well as those at other news outlets, and almost all of them garnered similar responses: There were lots of positive, encouraging voices, but a shocking number of hateful ones too. The tenor of almost all of the negative responses was that the devastation that the people of Moore experienced was ultimately their fault: They supposedly didn't build their houses out of proper material, they probably supported policies that caused global warming, or they shouldn't have chosen to live in that part of the country in the first place.
I've seen plenty of crazy comboxes in my years on the ol' internet, but these really appalled me. I would have thought that the agony and the devastation that leapt off the page through those pictures would have silenced most of those negative voices, at least for a while. Yet when the news was still breaking, when the people of Moore were still wondering about missing relatives and staring at the wreckage of their homes, plenty of corners of the internet were alight with commenters spewing vitriol at them.
I suppose that part of the explanation has to do with anti-American sentiments in other parts of the globe, since the most hateful forums I saw were outside the U.S. And of course a fair amount of it is due to the age-old truth that people say things they'd normally never dream of saying when they can do so anonymously. However, I think that at least part of the reason for these kinds of responses -- maybe even a large part -- is that we live in a world that is terrified of suffering.
There are few more difficult questions in the human experience than the mystery of why bad things happen to good people. As hard as it is to experience suffering ourselves, watching someone else suffer brings its own kind of wrenching pain -- especially when you're powerless to do anything about it. It's difficult enough for Christians to process stories of innocent people undergoing torment. There are no pat answers that make it all better, but we can find hope in the crucified Christ, and have an intellectual repository of thousands of years of thinking on the subject. But a godless society has no lexicon for processing suffering. A people who have no belief in a loving Creator or an eternal afterlife are left to face the pain of their fellow human beings in all its horror, with no spiritual consolation. They are forced to try to make sense of human agony against the setting of a dead, uncaring universe, which is almost an impossible task.
That is what I believe is at the root of the hateful comments about Moore. And I think we're going to see more and more of it as Western culture drifts further and further away from its Christian roots.
One way to resolve the conundrum of why bad things happen to good people is to tell yourself that the people weren't really good in the first place. It's easier to see someone in pain if you can tell yourself that she brought the misfortune on herself, or perhaps that she's a "Bad Person" who probably deserves it. Christian culture is not immune to this kind of thinking (ahem, Pat Robertson), but I would suggest that atheistic cultures are particularly susceptible to it, as it eases the burden of trying to process the the intolerable combination of suffering and meaninglessness.
I'm not suggesting that every nonbeliever addresses suffering this way; in fact, as I've said before, some of the kindest, most compassionate people I know are atheists. And maybe I'm wrong about the root of the online response to the Oklahoma tornado, and it was simply a few loose cannons venting in inappropriate places. However, my guess is that we're going to see these kinds of compassionless sentiments spill over from the comboxes of the internet and creep into mainstream opinion in the decades to come. I fear that it's the inevitable result of a world that no longer has the spiritual tools to process human suffering.