Last week was a big one for assumptions. There was Wolf Blitzer asking an Oklahoma tornado survivor if she was thankful that the Lord spared her life. Then that brief, awkward moment when Rebecca Vitsmun looked down at her baby, cracked a half-smile, and replied ‘I’m actually an atheist.’
Vitsmun continued, saying that she didn’t blame anyone for thanking the Lord. Apologizing for one's atheism is unfortunate, though understandable given the trauma she had just suffered. Vitsmun had a national platform to challenge Blitzer's assumption, instead chosing humility in that context.
While it’s equally unfortunate that some atheist blogs railed against Blitzer—it was a simple suggestion, however misguided it was—we have to crawl underneath the assumption and investigate his context. Blitzer was suggesting that God saved this woman for helping her make a split-second decision. The dozens that died by the wrath of the tornado were no longer relevant in this conversation. (Or, in religious lingo, in a ‘better place,’ part of a 'bigger plan.’)
Thanking God for everything from winning sports games to navigating disasters while others perish has become a default sentiment. Perhaps it was Blitzer repeatedly provoking Vitsmun to admit her faith on national TV that caused comedian Doug Stanhope to start a crowdfunding campaign as a relief effort. Setting the bar at $50,000, his goal was surpassed in 17 hours; with 55 days left, people have donated over $101,000. The entire project is lesson in empathy—there needn’t be a higher power for people to do good deeds. (Or perhaps our higher power is in the doing of good deeds.)
Regardless, Blitzer’s comment was similar to one made by Pope Francis, when he announced,
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone. ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!
The Vatican quickly denied such a possibility, which should make for a rather awkward dinner conversation with its recently appointed leader. The most insightful commentary on this war of beliefs came from Stephen Colbert, who commented,
What the flock? Even atheists? I am a Catholic so I can have the fast track-paradise easy pass—in the words of John 3:16, 'Membership has its privileges.' If the Lord redeems atheists, what’s next? The Lord redeems Lutherans? It’s madness.
While this bickering between leader and clergy is humorous, Francis made the same assumption as Blitzer: of course God is responsible. It's not certain that the pope could comprehend that atheists don’t care about his feelings on heaven. It’s another example of this brilliant sentiment expressed by Bill Maher:
Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position.
Another belief's system should not be a point of contention unless that person is actively oppressing another because of it. It is the assumptions that believers make that proves most troubling. What Francis implied in his statement is that it doesn't matter what you do or even don't believe: his God will decide your fate. The Vatican isn't really at odds with what he said; it only verified that its clergy thinks their chosen set of beliefs is the only one that represents reality.
It's odd that some humans can't understand that luck and compassion can go hand-in-hand, that there needn't be a reason for bad things to happen to people without a 'purpose,' and that we can respond with an ultimate goal in mind. I applaud Vitsmun for her bravery in moving this conversation forward, and the 3600+ funders who are helping her repair her life regardless of what she does or does not believe.
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