Why an uplifting story on the news wasn’t so uplifting.

A theist friend of mine posted a video on her Facebook wall, and I couldn’t watch it without responding.

It’s a basic news fluff piece they like to show at the end of a broadcast to leave viewers with at least a faint hint of hope and joy in the world after spending almost an entire hour telling them how the world is falling apart.

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We hope this makes up for 3 stories about murder and an expose on government corruption.  Enjoy!

While it’s never explicitly stated, we’re supposed to interpret this as some sort of Christmas miracle.  God came down through a philanthropist to lend a helping hand to a man desperately in need of some faith.  Jesus took this atheist, and showed him the power of grace in his life to put him on a better path.  Praise the lord!

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Yer welcome.

Not so fast.

This reminds me of a scene in the movie The Messenger, where Joan of Arc is imprisoned and having trying to justify her actions to Dustin Hoffman (who’s either playing Jesus or a representation of Joan’s schizophrenia… I love that the movie never clearly defines that).

Dustin Hoffman offers about six different scenarios for how the sword could have ended up in that field, and he implies that a direct delivery by god is the least likely. This situation is no different.  I’m supposed to believe that god’s great plan is to bring this atheist around to see the light through a needlessly complicated series of events leading to a coincidental meeting with a wealthy benefactor which would lead him out of the darkness of faithlessness into a new life.  Or, it was just a really nice rich guy who gives out money.  There are many explanations for why a wealthy man would give out money, and god is fairly low on the list of likely reasons.  Maybe he is grateful to society that has given him a chance to amass so much wealth and wants to give some back.  Maybe he really likes the priceless looks on people’s faces when he hands them money, no strings attached.  Maybe he knows that while money can’t solve all your problems, not having any, especially around this time of year, causes plenty of problems on its own.  Perhaps this wealthy man believes in god and that motivates him to give.  None of these very likely scenarios prove the existence of god, though. To believe otherwise is confirmation bias at its very core.  If you’re a believer, this story will look like god’s work because you want it to look like god’s work.

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Maybe he’s giving it away because he got his use out of it already.

We don’t know what this Secret Santa’s motives are, and in the end it’s irrelevant.  Even if he a Christian and his beliefs motivated him to give money away, that doesn’t prove Jesus’ existence or influence on events.  Secret Santa chose to give of his own free will, and he is responsible for helping change the young atheist’s path.

The fact of the matter is that god is a non-player in this drama.  It was human decisions that made a young man an addict.  It was human kindness that gave him money in a time when he was in need.  And it was human actions that built the rehab center that he’s headed to.  Giving credit to god for any of that is an insult to all the people involved.  It impinges the goodness of the Secret Santa philanthropist to credit god for his generosity (not to mention bumping up against the whole free will argument).

But what I think is most frustrating about this story is the way it characterizes atheists.  Stories like this bolster the erroneous image of the downtrodden miserable atheist who just needs to find Jesus to be happy.  Preachers and pastors around the nation constantly rail against the angry, rageful, militant atheists when in fact most of us are very happy, content people.

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Pictured:  the disconsolate melancholy of atheism.

I understand how this story was meant.  And I’m honestly happy for the young man.  I hope he finds the help he clearly needs and becomes the father his child deserves.  I also love hearing about the Secret Santa.  In a time when I’m constantly hearing stories of greed and corruption – when corporations are forcing minimum-wage employees to leave their families on Thanksgiving to get a jump on Black Friday sales – It’s refreshing to hear about someone who hands out money so liberally.

The way this piece is frustrating, however, is in the way it frames the addict gaining his faith as the solution to his problems, which says by implication that his atheism is the cause of those problems.  This man had a lot of serious issues; atheism was not one of them.  The idea that being religious makes someone moral, or that being atheist makes someone immoral is not only wrong, but insulting as well.  Also, the fact that he now is a believer isn’t a guarantee that his problems are over. I’m sure he’s very motivated to get his life back on track, but I feel like every other time he went to rehab he had the best intentions as well.

We can’t even say how his new faith will manifest, either.  Will be become the type of Christian who raises his son to be an honest and moral member of society, or will he become the kind of Christian who would kick his son out on the street if he found out he was gay?  Will he become the kind of Christian that helps other addicts clean themselves up, or will he become the kind of Christian who bombs an abortion clinic.  Faith alone does not ensure that he’ll become a good and moral person, no more than lack of faith made him miserable, bad, or broken.

I sincerely hope this young man gets his life back on track, and I hope his faith brings out the best in him.  Having said that, though, we just can’t know he will.

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