THE BLOG
04/19/2013 11:12 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2013

Boston Reaction: Had It With Humanity?

The reactions to Monday's explosions at the Boston Marathon are well documented and many.

President Obama acknowledged in the aftermath that we knew little about the explosions at the Boston Marathon, but pledged "we will find out who did this and we will hold them accountable."

Obama maintained that Boston is a "tough and resilient town," and that "the American people will be with them every single step of the way."

The stories of the victims and the brave acts of heroism should be paramount here, but inevitably we ask: Who did this? Why did they do this? Why does anyone want to do something like this?

One particular reaction that many people resonated with was making the rounds on Facebook. It was from comedian Patton Oswalt:

Boston. Fucking horrible.

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, "Well, I've had it with humanity."

But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."

What do you think? Is humanity on the whole wired toward goodness? Is this an intentional, divinely infused goodness, or a product of evolutionary development, or perhaps both?

We discussed this very thing at Pub Theology DC on Tuesday night, the following day after the events in Boston.

The consensus seemed to be that humanity tends toward acts of goodness and heroism more so than toward acts of barbarism and evil. We also discussed the possibility that even an act that on its face appears evil may well be prompted by what the perpetrator senses is toward a just cause or a greater good, and so in his or her mind, must be carried out.

There is also the theological perspective, which various biblical texts support, that despite being made in the image of God, human beings inevitably "fall short" of God's glory, and are created a "little lower" than the heavenly beings. One such approach goes so far as to claim that humanity is totally depraved, and apart from God, the heart of man is inclined toward "only evil, all the time."

In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism states that "we are so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and are inclined toward all evil," apart from being born again by the Spirit of God (Q & A 8, emphasis mine).

Where do you land on this discussion? Do you agree with Patton, that we wouldn't even be here as a species if humanity were inherently evil? Or do you tend to agree that humanity, apart from God's redeeming influence, is unable to do good, and therefore, inclined toward mayhem like we saw on Monday?

Two of the victims in Monday's explosions were a mother who lost her legs and her daughter who nearly died. Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, noted that the mother had volunteered in his humanist congregation and is nearly an aunt to a member of their staff. He was overwhelmed at the response of support for this family from fellow humanists -- nonbelievers and others -- gave over $250,000 in one day to help with medical costs. This is a community of atheists, or literally, godless people, as Epstein would say. He remarked in a column yesterday:

We care and want to offer our support just as much as anyone. We, too, are in shock and grief.

Secular people place our faith in the human ability to value life over death. We believe in committing ourselves to love and care and help as indiscriminately as possible, because that is what makes our lives worthwhile. We try our best, despite our doubt, to ensure that the good will that comes from tragedy will ultimately exceed the bad.

All that said, I don't have a clue what Celeste's beliefs are, and I don't care. I just hope she and Sydney and everyone else injured get well. After all, would you believe for a second that every Christian pastor knows whether or not every visitor to his or her congregation truly believes in the Ascension? Nor should they. The point of a congregation, to me, is just to care about the people in it, and better yet, to help bring people together to care about one another.

My own sense is to lean toward Oswalt and Epstein's (and Mr. Rogers!) approach: that humanity -- regardless of religious affiliation or spiritual experience -- wants to do the right thing, and in many, many cases, will.

"Look to the helpers," as the Mr. Rogers' meme encouraged millions of Facebookers. They'll be there, and they far outnumber the perpetrators of outright evil that require them to act.

That said, I do agree with the biblical sense that humanity, despite its divine source, is flawed, broken, sinful. I know very well this is true of myself, and we all experience our own shortcomings daily. And we must not ignore suffering and brokenness wherever we find it, nor pretend there aren't serious systemic injustices. But common sense -- and everyday experience -- tells you that all kinds of people do all kinds of good (contra the catechism), regardless of their spiritual affiliation (or lack thereof). And on Monday we saw it. As Stephen Colbert noted in his terrific show intro Tuesday: "And when those bombs went off, there were runners, who after finishing a marathon, kept running for another two miles to the hospital to donate blood!"

I'm certainly glad, for the sake of those harmed in this incident and others, that there was no checkpoint for helpers verifying their spiritual status before allowing them to lend a hand. No, in moments like these, all our differences -- age, background, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and yes, religion and beliefs -- are secondary. First and foremost we are human beings. And we want to help.

Bryan Berghoef writes and tweets from the nation's capital, and enjoys facilitating conversation and connection, preferably over a craft beer. Check out his latest resource, Pub Theology 101: A Guide to Cultivating Meaningful Conversations at the Pub, available for Kindle.