Back when I considered myself a Christian, I never had much difficulty in finding a way to respond to tragic events, or evil in the world. There were multitudes of theological formulae that could help bring comfort to a situation that felt hopeless. We would talk of how no matter how bleak things looked, Jesus was still Lord. We would declare that despite human evil and sin, God was there to bring peace. Our God gave us strength to triumph over our adversity and look with anticipation towards a new day.
Now that I no longer consider myself someone who believes in a deity, those old comforts ring hollow. In light of tragedies, such as the mass shooting in New Zealand, non-theists like myself need to find answers that don’t come from the concept of a spiritual being, or a divine creator. We need to discover how we can best respond to tragedy that aligns with our worldview, where humans alone are responsible for their actions, and the promise of an afterlife doesn’t exist.
Despite the fact that we don’t believe in a divine presence, we still need a framework by which to engage with the world. The word ‘theology’ comes from the Greek word theos meaning god, and the notion of logia which denotes a study or knowledge of a thing. In modern times the idea of theology has been generally equated to the study of the Christian God, though by definition it can apply to other theistic or spiritual faiths as well. When we talk about theology, we ask questions about how human existence and the spiritual interconnect in the world. Theology is only relevant in terms of how it affects the life of human beings.
As a non-theist, can we have a theology? Undoubtedly yes! If we break apart the word theology again, we then can ask the question, what is the theos that a non-theist is talking about? If a person does not believe in a deity, the concept of non-belief becomes the theos of theology! To a non-theist, the lack of a divine presence is the building block upon which we study and know things in our life. The theos in ‘theology’, for a non-theist, is the foundation of how we approach life. It’s the basis for how we answer the tough questions about how we should live and exist in the world with other human beings.
The theology of non-theism is a belief that we only have one life to live, and therefore how we act and treat others has a direct impact on how each and every one of the hours that we have left, is spent. If we treat people badly, and without love, then our lives will be lesser for it. Whereas if we approach the world with compassion, grace, love, and respect, our own lives will be enriched and more full. Creating, loving, sacrificing… these are all acts that bring life to it’s fullest, not just or us, but for those around us. If we only have one life to live, why shouldn’t it be as full as it can be?
So, how does this influence how we respond to tragedy? If we can’t bring comfort in the hope of an afterlife, how do we wrestle with the hatred and death that surrounds us? We bring hope through the understanding that every action that we do has an impact in the hear and now, and that fact is of utmost importance. By showing love and compassion to those who need it most, we’re improving not just their life, but the entire human condition as well. Every act of sacrifice that we perform enriches our understanding of what it means to be human. We learn and grow as we show love to others, and this growth helps bring our society together. Just because we don’t have the promise of a life hereafter, does not mean that the non-theist cannot bring love into another’s life.
When events such as racially charged mass shootings happen, the response of the non-theist should be one of anger, sorrow and grief, but also of hope. Hope that when evil is brought out into the light that it is shown for what it truly is, and that its lies and ugliness becomes a repugnant smell to everyone around it. Hope that those who suffer can be given comfort and care by people who can show them love. Hope that anger and pain can be turned into positive actions that make a difference in the lives of those who will come after us. We do good in the world, for the sake of the world.
The late Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better, when we all do better.” This is the theology of the non-theist (and many theists!). A theology of hope and compassion towards everyone around you, seeking to make the world the best it can be in the time that we have.