While the Colorado-church shooter seems to have ultimately taken his own life, church security volunteer Jeanne Assam will still be rightly remembered as having saved untold lives by putting him on the ground. Her actions were pretty much the idealized paragon of handgun heroism, and pro-concealed carry gun advocates are quite justifiably crowing with glee over the good PR.
To be honest, that issue actually doesn’t interest me much either way, but something Mrs. Assam said does touch on something I’ve mused about a lot. Mrs. Assam reported praying for Divine Guidance, a prayer that she feels was answered. Through God, she believes, she found the strength to do what was necessary and gun down the spree killer.
As on outsider to that sort of thing, I wonder what that actually means.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to belittle the woman’s heroism (if anything, it’s she who is humbly belittling it by attributing it to something outside her own character). Nor am I trying to be meanspirited about this tragedy. This issue is actually just deeply intriguing to me, as a human being trying to understand other human beings, be they believers or no.
So, that said, I have to start out by making an obvious observation: for all the inspiration of someone calling on God and doing something heroic, it really seems that tragedy and heroism and pretty much all worldly events all happen the same utterly regardless of the level of ones religious belief or prayers. Sometimes evangelicals find the strength to do heroic things, sometimes Catholics, sometimes Hindus, sometimes atheists. And sometimes they all don’t. All that really seems to differ is the interpretive lens that a person views these events through. Different gods, or no gods, same struggles.
As a non-believer, I obviously don’t see much of a problem explaining this phenomenon: I don’t see any evidence that God exists or does things like give people extra strength. It is quite obvious that beliefs in God exist, but the fact that human beings sometimes find the strength to do brave things doesn’t really seem to need religious explanation in the first place. This utterly unsectarian apportionment of bravery doesn’t, of course, prove that God doesn’t exist, isn’t constantly active and responsive, or even that there isn’t just one-true God responding only to a certain sect’s prayers. But it does make whatever actions God is taking pretty much indistinguishable from no actions at all.
Christian theologians are, of course, aware of this issue. They point out that God speaks of raining troubles down on both the just and the unjust: and since all are unjust, there is never any hard or fast line of what anyone deserves or gets in this world. And yet, that response really seems at odds with the plain reality of claims made and felt, really felt, by believers. You can rationalize away the problem with the theologian’s excuses, but believers really do speak of God doing things, answering prayers, having effects on their actions. And yet, in the aggregate…
In this case, Ms. Assam prayed to be granted strength and found it with, she believes, the Holy Spirit guiding her. And yet, in other cases, other people would have simply sought the strength within themselves and found it. They might simply have given different rationales for how it all worked inside them. And so it has to be asked: is there really anything at all different going on between these two cases? From my perspective on this… not really. Prayer seems like something someones’ mind does to pass the time while the body acts: a particular spin that put on top of everyday human reactions and choices. You have to be thinking about something in situations like this, but do the details matter? I’m not sure they do.
And that’s likely because the biological process of finding courage: of reacting, of whether or not you can conquer your fear and act, seems to be the same struggle for everyone. Whatever narrative you lay on top of that process, it’s still down o the content of your character, your trained reactions, your confidence, and so on.
It’s not that beliefs can’t affect who you want to be and what you do to get there. It’s more that no particular belief is the only possible motivation or impetus, and if you really want to find some, you can find them in most anything. Once you reach a certain place, however, its your character and a myriad of other human influences that run the show, and they run it the same as they would do for anyone in the same emotional and moral place.
What do people imagine a God actually specifically doing to inspire momentary courage anyway? I mean it’s pretty clear that things like fight or flight reactions are highly biological. So in Ms. Assam’s case, would people imagine God as telekenetically massaging her adrenaline glands so that they release more (or less) than they otherwise would have? Since real world effects are claimed, could any of these effects be measured in the body from which they originate?
I’m sure that believers would quickly say that they cannot: that the influence is all mental: supernatural interactions all on the other side of a dualistic wall. But still: in that case, what is the model of what God does to cause these mental effects? Because, if, as Assam says, she felt that God was with her giving her strength, then it really seems like what she actually is saying is no different than that the idea of God being with her gave her strength. And this is, frankly, something that she could experience whether God existed or not. How is some intelligent being beaming resolve into your will in any way distinguishably different from just finding that resolve, and interpreting this as a God doing it? It’s not like thoughts leave traces by which we can sort out which take on things is the right one.
Again, I’m not trying to lead up to a “ha ha, thus God is all a fantasy!” here. But I hope believers can at least come to understand why their experiences of God moving within their lives are so unconvincing to non-believers as testimonials.
Grief, Grief, and Non-Belief
I’ve often felt that the same issue of religious indifference comes up when thinking about grief over the loss of a loved one. Believers seem to go through the process with all sorts of theologically appropriate window dressing, all sorts of ideas they hold on to like a “he/she’s in better place” or “I’ll see them again someday.” But the actual grief process is pretty much exactly the same for atheists: it’s no harder, and no easier. If the religious ideas are so important, so comforting, shouldn’t there be some noticeable difference in how people cope?
Indeed, many religious people say that they cannot even imagine how they could deal with death without the panoply of comforting thoughts they feel help them through. They wonder how atheists can possibly do it (and perhaps suspect that we can’t, or that we just don’t care as much in the first place). And yet, there isn’t much to wonder about in my experience. There’s no mystery at all. Those thoughts, or the lack of them, really don’t seem to make any substantive difference.
The human process of grieving is built on uncontrollable emotions of loss and regret and inevitable processes of finding new support and moving on. Abstract ideas about heavens and eternal souls may fill the mind in the meantime, but they don’t seem to penetrate the heart. However much one believes in heaven, the body just doesn’t seem to care very much.
We would all like to think that our particular beliefs make a big difference in our lives (and for some: to our eternal fate). And maybe, on some larger and abstract canvass of a life’s direction and major philosophies, they do play a role. But we probably overstate the effect considerably when dealing in the here and now: our thought processes, our imaginations, our contextual interpretations of what we are doing are all very compelling and distracting, but underneath this accenting noise we’re just typical human beings plodding along: feeling, wanting, coping, rationalizing.
We’re all pretty helpless and humble beings, in the end, whether humble and helpless before a God or not. I’m still just glad there are heroes among us, whatever they think made them who they are.