by Dale McGowan
Executive Director, Foundation Beyond Belief
I come before you today to thank Dinesh D’Souza. Please don’t blink — it isn’t likely to happen again.
After the tragedy at Virginia Tech in April 2007, D’Souza took the opportunity to accuse atheists of being absent in times of human suffering. “Notice something interesting about the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings?” he said. “Atheists are nowhere to be found.” The piece was the most shameless bit of opportunism since Jerry Falwell held us (along with feminists, gays, and civil libertarians) responsible for 9/11.
Most of all, it was breathtaking in its careless ignorance.
Fortunately the reaction against ignorance — even ignorance on that scale — can lead to good things. An atheist professor at Virginia Tech posted a response at The Daily Kos (under the handle Mapantsula) of elegant indignation, honesty and pain:
It is hardly surprising that Dinesh D’Souza is once again not only profoundly mistaken but also deeply offensive. But I thought it worthwhile to say something in response, not because most people would put the point in the same morally reptilian manner as D’Souza, but because there is at least some vague sense amongst people that we atheists don’t quite grasp the enormity of Monday’s events, that we tend towards a cold-hearted manner of thinking, that we condescend to expressions of community, meaning, or bereavement.
He went on to describe the pain and terror he and his family experienced and his own participation in precisely the collective events of healing and commemoration from which D’Souza had declared him absent.
There were also surely atheists and humanists among the emergency responders and doctors and nurses and counselors who fought valiantly to stitch together shattered bodies, minds and hearts. But D’Souza’s blindness to something that was so obvious to me, and to Mapantsula, helpfully crystallized the problem for me.
The atheists weren’t absent. They were invisible.
Their bodies and skills were easy enough to see, of course. But their convictions — that this is our one and only life, that its loss is something to fight hard against, that we have no one but each other to rely on when bad things happen — those convictions went unnoticed. Prayers and songs and religious rituals announce themselves. Quiet conviction goes unseen.
I began to think about the problem of atheist and humanist invisibility that month, the same month Parenting Beyond Belief was released. Many of the most tireless volunteers and most generous charitable givers I know are atheists and humanists. But unlike my religious friends, their efforts didn’t visibly express and reflect their worldview and their values.
Two years later, I filed the incorporation papers for Foundation Beyond Belief. And here we are.
This Foundation exists “to focus, encourage, and demonstrate” the compassion and generosity of humanists and atheists in part because of Mapantsula’s eloquent response to Dinesh D’Souza’s thoughtless screed. So I’ll take this opportunity to thank Dinesh D’Souza for making his ignorance known. He didn’t inspire atheists to do good in the world — let’s be quite clear about that — but his blindness to what was already there made me realize that others were surely just as blind to it.
It’s time to make visible our values and our efforts to improve our one and only life. Thanks for being a part of it.