After a Disaster: Christians and Atheists Seeking Meaning, and What That Means

Worldview and You

typhoonWith all the thousands of lives it took, Typhoon Haiyan has left many of us speechless in grief. John Loftus, atheist blogger, author, and editor, has responded rather differently, though, taking advantage of the tragedy with an article at Debunking Christianity on The Top 10 Christian Responses to Typhoon Haiyan.”

There’s something seriously insensitive about taking rhetorical advantage of the disaster the way Loftus has done there, which is ironic, considering that he’s trying to expose Christian insensitivity. There’s a deeper irony in here than that, though.

Here’s Loftus’s “Top 10” list, minus his commentary:

10) "Let's send help. God has no hands but our hands."

9) "Let's pray for the survivors."

8) "God knows what is best, ours is not to question but believe. God will work it all out in the end."

7) "God cannot alter the laws of nature even though he knows these disasters will happen sometimes."

6) "God gives life so he can take it away."

5) "In times of disaster people are more likely to become Christians, so this can be a good thing."

4) "This is all due to the first pair of sinners in the Garden of Eden."

3) "Any Christians who die will be in heaven so what's the big deal? The ones who died would probably never believe during their lives anyway."

2) "Their sins caused it so they personally got what they deserved."

1) And the number one reason is, "Praise God! I wasn't harmed! Isn't God good?"

Some of this list is accurate, in that Christians do affirm some of these things. Much of it is clumsy, if not deeply disturbing. In many ways the list reflects Loftus’s view of Christianity more than it does the reality of the faith—except for this: Other than one obvious theological error (“God cannot alter . . . nature”), I’ve heard fellow Christians say every one of these things, following disasters.

Seeking Meaning in Tragedy

We are a meaning-seeking species, and there is no time when we so desperately want to find meaning as following a great natural disaster. It’s hard enough to make sense of our day-to-day experiences, but the sudden death of so many thousands takes us to a precipice. What kind of world do we really live in? Is there anything good about it after all? As Christians we’re committed to the belief that God loves the world enough that He would (and did) die for it. In times like these, though, especially when the news first washes over us, that love is hard to discern, much less to understand.

Some things in life are clear, and some are very difficult to understand. Christians know that the cross of Christ tells us that God loves His people with a sacrificial love, and that He is willing to go to extreme lengths to express His love while satisfying His justice. A typhoon’s message is much harder to read than that. Being the meaning-seeking people that we are, though, we try. We try, and yet because it is so difficult, frequently our answers come out clumsy, awkward, or even wrong.

Does that mean we should give up the attempt? Maybe. At the very least we should be very cautious about how confident we are in our answers, for it is dangerous to think we understand a natural disaster.

An Atheist Seeking Meaning in Christians Meaning-Seeking

I find it interesting, though, that this Christianity-debunker, John Loftus, would try to find meaning in Christians’ search for meaning. If you read his commentary on this list you’ll see that’s what he’s doing. And the meaning he finds in it is that Christians hold a warped view of life and reality.

He distorts Christianity in his commentary, to be sure. To highlight just one example, his analogy in item six on “the gift of life” ignores the massive difference between God’s eternal sovereignty over all life on the one hand, and on the other hand a blood donor’s help in extending another person’s time on earth by a few years.

That’s interesting enough, but it’s standard fare among Christianity-debunkers, hardly worth commenting on. What intrigues me more is not the specific meanings he finds (or imagines he finds) in various Christian responses to tragedy. It’s that he’s trying to find meaning at all.

What Meaning Does Weather Have?

Think for a moment about what a committed atheist like John Loftus can say about the meaning of Typhoon Haiyan:


Or almost nothing, at any rate: He has nothing to say, but “It’s all in the course of nature, and natural law cannot be altered.” Then of course he can add, “Let’s do what we can to help.” Sure, his language may be free of clumsy, inappropriate explanations like some of those on his “Top 10” list; but how could it be otherwise? He has no explanations at all. He has nothing he can say about it except that 10,000 or more people died because, well, thats what happened. Why? Because it happened. Natural law made it happen, but natural law didn’t have any meaning in mind when it did that. Natural law has no mind. It just is.

There’s no meaning there, for atheists. None. The winds and the seas are completely embedded in nature and natural law. Things happen, and that’s all anyone can say for or against them.

And What Meaning Do Humans Have?

But the same is true of humans, according to most contemporary versions of atheism. We evolved, or so they say, because thats what happened. We are who we are because of our genetics and our environment. Even on our most human level, the brain and mind, many atheists even say we have no free will: Our apparent “decisions” are really the result of unalterable microscopic processes of physics and chemistry in our brains, over which no one has any control.

The implications of that have got to be disturbing to atheism. Why has some preacher said, of this tragedy or any other, “Their sins caused it; they got what they deserved”? He said it because natural law in his physical body followed its natural course, and out of his mouth the words came. In other words, he said it because thats what happened. Why? Natural law made it happen, but (I’m repeating myself on purpose) natural law didn’t have any meaning in mind when it did that. Natural law has no mind. It just is.

Note carefully, now: I mean that it’s his saying those words that happened. The preacher’s clumsy expression came from the same place as the typhoon. Just the same as with the wind and the waves, its what happened. Why then should it have any more meaning than a storm—which (according to atheism) just happens?

Yet John Loftus wants to find meaning in it. He wants it to mean that Christians are unthinking, careless, and heartless. He knows that the winds and the seas, being part of nature, have no purpose or meaning behind them. He ought to know that his atheism embeds humans within nature and natural law just as deeply as any storm. He should recognize what this means: that what we do and say can have no more real meaning than a storm, which is none at all.

Finding Meaning Regardless

But we do have meaning, and he can’t get past the fact. So even while he lampoons the meaning Christians make of tragedies, he denies the universal meaninglessness his worldview should lead him to accept.

There is a God who rules over all with love, justice, and eternal sovereignty. Because of that, everything has meaning, from the small to the great, the delightful to the disastrous. I doubt we really understand most of it. I am certain we cannot understand the worst of it, including this terrible typhoon. We want to understand, we want to explain, but it’s beyond us. It’s not only difficult, it’s dangerously difficult: Too often it leads us to say things we’ll regret later, for in times like these it’s too easy to misrepresent God and His ways.

We do better to keep our mouths closed in grieving silence, while we roll up our sleeves—or better yet, for most of us, open up our checkbooks—to help. God knows what His intentions are for what He does. Most of the time we can’t know that, but we can know what our intentions are for what we do. The meaning of a storm is beyond us all. Our response is well within our reach.

Image copyright Kevin Frayer for Getty Images, via the Los Angeles Times.

Tom Gilson is the national field director for Ratio Christi, the chief editor of “True Reason: Christian Responses to the Challenge of Atheism,” and the author/host of the Thinking Christian blog.

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