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If religion provides no solace, what then?

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, people continue to ask the useless question, "Why?" We search for the shooter's "motive," as if we could discover a satisfactory explanation for why a depressed young man would decide to execute his mother, 20 first-graders and six of their teachers.

Why did this latest alienated loner in our pantheon of mass murderers grab the stockpile of weapons his suburban mother had accumulated? How could people not have known? Was this a "failure of the mental health system?" How about this for an explanation: Deeper in the shooter's heart than we can imagine burned a hatred for those who occupied a different world than he could aspire to, who ignored him in what he imagined was their self-satisfied happiness. He attacked what he knew they valued most.

When confronted with random events, it is human to search for an explanation, if only to reassure ourselves that a similar tragedy will not befall us, that there is something we can do, something we can learn, "to prevent this from ever happening again" — even though we know in our hearts that it will happen again. If there are two airplanes in the sky at the same time, there is a tiny chance that they will collide with each other. If there are thousands, odds are that there will be a collision at some point.

Among the most persistent solutions to the problem of randomness and the certainty of death is the belief that there is an organizing principle to human life that gives it meaning, something beyond our powers of reason or simple ideas about how to cope with unfairness. Religion provides explanations about the order of the universe and reassurance about ultimate judgment and salvation for the innocent. In the face of atrocity, the troubling question, "Where was God in all this?" is answerable only by invoking the mysterious ways in which he works.

And so the eulogies for the children offer comfort for bereaved parents in reassurances of ultimate reunion, while bringing people of like faith together to mourn. When my 6-year-old son died from leukemia, I was assured by the faithful that "he's in a better place" and was told that "God doesn't give us more than we can bear." Some even looked on the bright side with the promise that "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

I did not then and do not now feel stronger, and the idea that the death of my little boy would have any positive effect on the lives of those who loved him still strikes me as obscene.

Yet, when tragedy occurs, it is religious leaders who speak to and for us. Even the "thoughts and prayers" wish that is the reflex for condolence is deployed by all. But what are we praying for? More important, to whom are we praying? Will the God who let this happen now provide us with the strength to accept it so that we can go on worshiping him? And if, as often happens, we forsake our faith and conclude that we are blameless victims of a random fate, will we be punished further?

Who would we be then, with only each other to help us mourn? Would we still be able to come together in shared grief? Could we face the sheer disaster that is the death of a child without some religious salve? It is human to fear mortality and to wish that the losses that we suffer in this life are redeemable in the next. From whence comes our courage to go on if there is no heaven? Can our lives have meaning without "faith?" Are memory and devotion not enough to fill our broken hearts?

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of books including "Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son." His email is gslcvk@aol.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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