How to Deal with Tragedy in the Atheism Community

By now, most of you are probably aware, at least tangentially, that a former contributing host by the name of Scott Smith of the “Recovering From Religion” podcast was involved in the murder-suicide of his wife yesterday. Many of his Facebook friends were also witness to the events in real time, as Scott had posted a cryptic “goodbye” on his page, prompting many to be concerned. These fears were justified when, hours later, news came of his call to 911 and of the subsequent tragedy. Swat never made it to his home in time to try and negotiate his surrender, and we can only guess as to what unfolded after he hung up the receiver. Scott leaves behind three young children, who will no doubt have a long road to recovery ahead.

The reaction from the atheism community has been mixed to say the least. Some were familiar, and even close friends with him; these poor people are still in shock trying to process the events that unfolded. Not only must they deal with the loss of someone they cared about, they must also simultaneously wrestle with the injustices he committed. An innocent mother has been murdered; her children orphaned. Their own Facebook posts have reflected this confusion, but the anger and outrage over the resulting orphans has prompted many atheists to begin arguing, bickering and turning on those that try to come to terms with these actions. The spirit of these attacks is understandable: three children face a future without both of their parents thanks to Scott’s murderous actions, and there is undoubtedly room for anger in this regard.

But what these people fail to realize is that the children of this man will face the same emotions and the same battle as his friends; only worse. They will be the ones who read the callous comments of people who condemn a man they nevertheless loved, and I cannot begin to fathom the complexity of their emotional state now, or in the future. I try to imagine if something similar had happened to my family, how I would react. Would I remember the happier times, or be consumed by anger for what they had done that horrible day? I do not have to make this decision, and unless you have to as well, then I suggest you reserve your judgement and opinion for now, and consider whether your words will age well.

We are still a young community, one which exists largely on the internet. This medium offers an unprecedented level of interactivity and availability, but it also allows people to create personas, hide critical elements that may negatively impact them, and use social media to create a false reality for themselves. Generally, in this movement, we have a good idea of what everyone thinks, but rarely know how they feel. So when tragedies strike, we are more prone to use this as a platform to espouse our beliefs rather than our feelings: “I think suicide is cowardly”, “Gun control is the only answer to this epidemic”, or “domestic violence is not being taken seriously enough”. What we really should be doing is talking about the emotions this evokes in us. If we were talking about “how hurt, upset and angry” we feel, these are emotions that we can process, and that inevitably are shaping our opinions regardless.

Working on The Good Atheist and my other blogging projects also taught me that people change their minds more often than they would like to admit. I just happen to have both an audio, and a written record of these, which has a allowed me a certain perspective on things. The first is that we always feel the strongest about something the first time we “feel” it, which should tell you something about what part of your brain is really in the driver’s seat. The second is that you past words and actions can be profoundly embarrassing, even humiliating, and therefore that discretion is always advised when dealing with human frailties. Lastly, it’s that you should never dig your heels in any argument, and that you should always begin your conversation by pointing out what you do agree with your opponent on. At the very least, knowing you do share common ground is bound to keep tempers down.

There is something else to consider here: how we react may well determine the frequency of these kinds of events. If we show ourselves to be callous, to fall for our baser instincts, then we may well push away future offenders who worry they will be judged for having similar thoughts, and choose to suffer in silence. We know that Scott had serious PTSD from being a combat veteran, and that every day, 20 veterans kill themselves (roughly one every hour). Was he even mentally aware of the dangers he was in? He did call for help, but by then is was far too. Had Scott simply reached out to his friends, family, and yes, even his community, I have no doubt this could have been averted.

What do you think? How should the atheism community deal with such tragedies in the future?

EDIT: There is now a gofundme page for the family. I suggest we do everything in our power to demonstrate our compassion and generosity towards these poor little girls. I doubt we can call ourselves a community if we fail to do so.

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