The vapid Christian response to the death of Tyler Winstead

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For those who are not from Northeastern Pennsylvania — or otherwise do not know — a 14-year-old boy named Tyler Winstead was recently shot and killed while walking home from playing basketball at a Christian Youth Center by an assailant who is still at large and unknown. Local media has described Winstead as a “well-behaved church-going honors student” and noted that he was killed right outside of Mount Zion Baptist Church where he and his family attended. Tyler even sung in the church choir. As might be expected, many Christians — including members of Tyler Winstead’s family — have commented on the death.

As an atheist and a theological non-cognitivist (one who believes god-language is empty in content), it should be quite obvious that I don’t believe talking about God or appealing to any god is going to actually do anything about the recent shooting death besides offer false hope. In this case, it seems that the appeals to God — as you’ll see in this post — actually hurt the situation and make people believe that something is being done to rightly address the shooting death…which is one of the main reasons why I am authoring this post.

Some atheists may object to me even writing this post or commenting on the issue (and some have) because of various reasons: they may want me to ‘leave the family alone,’ may believe that religious appeals are persons’ only coping mechanisms, may believe that is is improper to criticize Christian beliefs considering the recent death, etc. I don’t think these objections are sufficient especially considering people — even those outside of Winstead’s family — honestly believe that their ‘Christian solutions’ will properly address the recent death…and they’re willing to go on the record with their comments.

One of the first comments that was made ‘on the record’ regarding Tyler Winstead’s death was from Tyler’s grandfather, Willie Golden, who said,

We believe in God and his master plan – whether we understand it or not.

This comment is quite interesting concerning the implications that this statement makes which are as follows:

  • God — an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing being — includes the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy in his ‘master plan.’
  • Since God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, his ‘master plan’ should be lauded because only all-good consequences can flow from an all-loving being. (Many Christians, from my experience, have argued or asserted that all judgments or actions stemming from God must accord with his all-loving character)
  • Since Tyler Winstead was killed as part of God’s plan (and God is all-loving), this is actually — as much as our moral intuitions may contend — a good thing. [I’ll get more into this later considering a pastor actually states that Tyler “is in the best hands he ever will be.]

I can’t possibly believe in an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God who weaves — as Golden says — the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy into his ‘master plan.’ Instead of failing to understand the plan, we should instead assume the following: God’s plan doesn’t include the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy or God doesn’t exist. How can one seriously contend that a shooting death of a 14-year-old boy coheres with the moral character of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god?

Other comments concerning ‘God’s plan’ came from someone whom, incidentally, I had the pleasure of debating on a special episode of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast. Rev. Marcelle Dotson, commenting on the death of Tyler Winstead, was quoted in an article saying,

I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord. They are plans for peace and not disaster.

I was quite confused by this comment, so I asked Rev. Dotson to clarify her statements. She said, on Facebook,

It’s unfortunate that the Citizen’s Voice did not include the comments that followed pertaining to that passage: That is is not God’s plan that any life should be taken by another and that God intends a hopeful future for all. We are not to allow perpetrators of violent acts to hold us hostage and attempt to deny us a life of peace and justice.

Thankfully, Rev. Dotson doesn’t believe that the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy is part of God’s plan (although concerns of theological fatalism might force her to concede this, but that’s a post for another day). This statement, though, seems problematic because Dotson contests that God intends a hopeful future for all. I cannot see how this is the case when God, whom many Christians believe created the universe, weaves natural disasters into the fabric of his design. I mentioned this in my debate with Rev. Dotson vis-a-vis the evidential problem of natural evil and Dotson’s response seemed to appeal to the common ‘you can’t know the mind of God’ defense that I believe dramatically fails.

Following Dotson’s comments, Rev. Michael Brewster of Mount Zion Baptist Church — who believes that atheists are adversaries of Christians who are trying to take away their power of prayer [listen to his sermon titled “Prayer: It’s Importance in a Believer’s Life” …although it’s no longer available (5/24/12)] — had many words to say regarding the death of Tyler Winstead.

The Citizen’s Voice article, “Church offers message of love in wake of teen’s death,” features many comments Rev. Brewster offered. The article begins, “…the community intends to fight back with a force far more potent than violence.

A large number of us have determined to engage with a fierce, and much more powerful weapon, the likes of which no evil has the power to withstand,” Brewster said. “We’ll employ the weapon of unconditional and radical love for humanity, and out right to live, and not only live, but our right to thrive in a community in peace, in this beautiful valley God has created, in this place we call our home. We intend to preserve it.

It’s quite obvious that ‘evil’ has already had the power to withstand the supposed love and prayers Brewster and every member of his congregation have offered to God. God has, it seems, done absolutely nothing — assuming he exists — to prevent to death of Tyler Winstead. On some accounts, this death was even part of God’s plan. The “powerful weapon” of “unconditional and radical love for humanity” in “this beautiful valley God has created” isn’t going to stop the violence.

God, if he exists, despite all of the prayer and “unconditional and radical love for humanity” allowed Tyler Winstead to be killed at the age of 14. Free will, you say? Apparently, the ‘free will’ of the shooter was more important than Tyler’s. Apparently, God’s secret reason for allowing all of this famine, pestilence, slaughter, disease, and death outweighs every concern and desire humans have to be free from egregious suffering — much of which has nothing to do with moral agents acting — and we should just continue believing that an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing god exists despite the massive amount of evidence to the contrary.

Following the previous comments, Brewster said, of Tyler, during a moment of silence,

he is in the best hands he will ever be.

Apparently, on Brewster’s account, Tyler is better off dead (and allegedly in the hands of God) than he is alive and in the hands of his loving family and friends. What ‘message of love’ is this?

To make matters even worse, Brewster says,

I want to say to those who are responsible for taking this precious life, I want you to know that despite what you’ve done, God has and always will love you. And he stands ready to forgive you, should you humble yourself and ask for his forgiveness. Furthermore, it is because of the message of Easter, which brings hope to all mankind, that the family, too, has chosen to love and to forgive you as well.

So, as we see, God loves and forgives people who kill 14-year-old children provided that they humble themselves and ask for forgiveness. What kind of morality and legitimate forgiveness is this? God, apparently, can forgive on the behalf of others (including the murdered victim) and a simple humbling and asking for forgiveness can make everything better. Additionally, the family, on Brewster’s account, loves and forgives the shooter.

I don’t know about you, reader, but I don’t think I could possibly forgive a person who might happen to murder a 14-year-son of mine especially if I didn’t even know the person, the person’s motives, or other circumstances that were involved.

While Brewster and many others — being persons of faith — may appeal to their religious beliefs to cope with or otherwise address the death of Tyler Winstead, it’s quite clear that appeals to religion and some other world aren’t going to do anything in this situation. Instead of appealing to God or some other world, our concerns should remain in this one where only real solutions can be found. I don’t have the answers, but it should be quite clear that Brewster’s message of love — as a response to the death of Tyler Winstead — is a vapid one.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula produces content about Stoic Philosophy; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and hosts monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is pursuing a degree in Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and formerly worked for the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign and plays at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • No one should lose their life to violence and no family should have to endure the pain, grief and loss of a loved one. At times like these one searches for the modes comfort they are accustomed to – in this case they reach to belief. It’s as senseless as Tyler’s death and it’s what people are conditioned to say and do when they can’t find satisfactory comfort in reality. I imagine there will be family members who will live out the rest of their lives pursuing the carrot of eternity, waiting to reunite with him in heaven, never finding healthy closure and acceptance. The whole situation is so very sad. I feel empathy and compassion for anyone in a situation like this.