What prompted Susan Jacoby to write her piece was a colleague telling her that atheism "has nothing to offer when people are suffering."
She wrote the piece, "The Blessings of Atheism" ("It is Here and It is Now!" screams the subhead) to prove her colleague wrong by offering a consoling atheist alternative to religion's consoling belief in an afterlife. Atheists cannot believe that there is any existence other than this life. But, Jacoby insists, atheists can still offer consolation to people who lose loved ones, such as the parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook.
It is meant as no disrespect to this well regarded writer that her piece provides one of the finest illustrations of the intellectual and emotional emptiness at the heart of atheism. Jacoby's piece actually confirms her colleague's assessment.
Jacoby offers a quote from Robert Green Ingersoll, who died in 1899. He "was one of the most famous orators of his generation, [and] personified this combination of passion and rationality. Called 'The Great Agnostic '... he also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend's child, he declared: "They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest ... The dead do not suffer"(ellipsis in original).
I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message.
"The dead do not suffer" is atheism's consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation -- though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife -- to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn't suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance. And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared to the religious message that we humans are not just matter but possess eternal souls.