I try not let a summer pass by without reading at least one book for fun. I just finished Dave Cullen's Columbine, and I must say that it was one of those rare examples of a book I couldn't seem to put down. After planning to read a few pages before bed, I would find myself staying up a couple hours later than usual to keep reading. For those of you unfamiliar with the Columbine tragedy, two high school students killed 12 students and a teacher and injured another 24 students during a thoroughly planned terrorist-style assault on their school in 1999. The gap between what we were told by the media at the time and what the author uncovered through six years of research was astounding. The contrast is yet another reminder of why we should be extremely skeptical of the initial media reports on nearly any tragedy.
I may revisit the subject of everyone assuming that the attackers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had to be atheists (or Satanists) in a future post, although this was not unique to Columbine. We see the same thing happen in almost every violent crime where the perpetrator is not Muslim. We hear the constant whines abut how "real Christians" would never do something so evil and that secularism was responsible for the tragic circumstances. We know it this is bullshit. I may also revisit how some evangelical Christians seemed to view the tragedy as an excuse to prey on the vulnerable, peddling their salvation myth and attempting to blame Satan. But these things are not what I want to address now. Instead, I want to note the valuable function that several of the big churches in the Littleton area served in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
According to Cullen, many of the community gatherings that were so essential after the tragedy - opportunities for Columbine students and teachers, their families, and many others in the community to come together - took place in area megachurches. This made sense not only because many of those affected by the tragedy were religious but because these were the only structures large enough to accommodate 800+ people at a time.
Obviously, religious people are going to turn to religion for solace in times of distress. It was no surprise that church attendance would spike in the Littleton area right after the tragedy. This is exactly what we would expect to see in any religious community. What I had not previously considered was the logistical challenge involved in assembling such large groups of people and the necessity of churches in filling that role. Were it necessary to pull that many people together in the town where I live today, the megachurches would be a likely venue.
Despite the frequent accusations from some Christians about how atheists are absent in tragedies, we know this is not true. Atheists are nearly always among the victims, the first responders, and every other group involved with any sort of tragedy. Atheists contribute time and money to charitable organizations that provide aid, assist in rebuilding communities, and so on. And yet, we do not have anything to offer that can come close to competing with the symbolism of a community gathering in a megachurch or two.
I am generally content to leave it to other atheists to debate the merits of whether atheists or humanists should work to develop some sort of secular churches. I have written before about how I would love to see secular community centers. Of course, anything I have described previously would be far smaller than a megachurch and would still not meet the sort of needs a massive structure can provide. The sort of function the megachurches provided after Columbine was very different from anything I've imagined a secular community center doing.
When I read about what some of the Littleton area churches did for those struggling to come to terms with what had happened in the days following the Columbine tragedy, I cannot help remembering that organized religion can indeed accomplish some good in the world. This has not always been something that is easy for me to remember, but it does need to be acknowledged. If we atheists really think we are going to replace the functions provided by churches, we certainly have our work cut out for us.