Originally published June 02, 2010

“Do you think God hates us all a little bit right now?”

The gentleman’s question hung heavy in the humid Tennessee air as I looked out over debris–first torn out of ruined homes, now spilling out into the streets of his Nashville neighborhood–two weeks after devastating flash floods had swept over more than two-thirds of the state after torrential storms on May 2 and killed more than 30 people.

I was in Nashville volunteering with the American Red Cross (ARC) as part of the organization’s humanitarian mission to assist victims of the disaster. For more than a week, I had walked up and down streets caked in river silt, dodging wrecked furniture, broken glass, soggy insulation and carpeting, and ruined possessions. I’d listened to residents’ stories of amazing escapes from the raging flood waters and held their hands while many of them cried.

I joined the ARC almost a year ago because I wanted to volunteer with a nonreligious organization. The ARC does not discriminate on any basis when providing aid or assistance and requires that its volunteers be just as nondiscriminatory when they interact with clients.

So being a secular humanist, I hesitated to answer the gentleman’s question. To do so honestly would be providing my personal opinion about a deity’s intentions. But to provide the gentleman with reassurance about his god or discuss his religion was not the kind of assistance I was personally comfortable providing.

Seeing my hesitation, the gentleman prodded me and said, “With the all the bad stuff–the oil spill, all those tornadoes [referring to deadly storms in Oklahoma], and this mess–don’t you really think God must hate us right now?”

I took a deep breath, looked at the gentleman and answered vaguely, “I don’t believe in a god that hates or hurts people like this.”

The gentleman looked back at me and raised his arms, gesturing at the destruction surrounding us, and replied, “But God certainly is allowing all this to happen!”

Still trying to avoid a direct answer, I said. “Sir, I don’t believe in a god that allows these kinds of awful things to happen and does nothing.”

“OK, then, what do you believe?” the gentleman asked, a little bit exasperated.

I decided to just be completely honest: “I believe bad things happen and I believe in people helping people. That’s why I joined the Red Cross and came down from Iowa to help in Tennessee.”

The gentleman looked at me for several seconds, and then nodded and said, “I like that.”

When our visit ended, the gentleman gave me a hug and we went our separate ways. Our paths will likely never cross again, but I will never forget our conversation. And I will never forget the dozens of Tennesseans I met whose religious faith was what gave them strength when their lives had been destroyed.

For a secular humanist who is often on the receiving end of negative religious propaganda (the most common sentiment I hear from religionists is that I am going to Hell), my trip to Tennessee reminded me why so many people turn to religion and God for support, comfort and community. Because after the angry flash flood waters receded, it was churches that stepped up first and offered food, clothing and shelter to anyone who needed it. Volunteers from neighboring states came in waves to help clean out debris from homes and gut drywall and flooring. Many of them were from religious organizations.

There were no Bibles in hand, no religious tracts being passed out, and no street preachers on corners screaming, “Repent!” Just people helping people–and no one asking what church you attended.

During my trip I was told “God bless you” more times than I can count, called an “angel,” told I would be in numerous prayers, and told that I must have been sent to Tennessee by God. These sentiments were heartfelt and genuine and meant to give me, a volunteer, something back from those who had lost everything. I believe they felt it was all they had to offer, so it was easy to accept their words graciously and humbly.

I came back from Tennessee still a secular humanist, but maybe I’ve returned more accepting of why religion remains at the heart of at least some people’s lives. Whether the people helping others were religious or nontheistic (and there were many!), I definitely saw humanity at its best.


Amanda Knief, a cofounder of Iowa Atheists & Freethinkers, is an attorney and Humanist Celebrant.