A massive storm swept through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia recently. Twenty people were killed by a swarm of tornados including one which hit a mobile home park.
As always, brave and generous people rushed in to help the survivors and save those who could be saved. I find people to be universally good and kind to one other in such awful circumstances. I am inspired by this. I think it is the best part of human nature.
What I cannot always understand are the comments people make in these cases. Our need to explain tragedy often leads to a response which to me feels hollow, illogical, insensitive, or even cruel.
Here are some examples from that weekend’s news reports:
“God was with me that day .”
“I’m just blessed to be here.”
“God was in the room with us.”
“God was looking after them,”
“Is God mad at us?”
I wrote the following piece several years ago after a tragic outbreak of tornados killed 24 people in Oklahoma. I have been reluctant to post it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, matters of religion are sensitive. This piece, while it was not intended to be offensive, might appear so to some. I have no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings. There are quite a few “believers” whom I like, and respect, and count as friends.
Secondly, there is often a price to be paid, in this Christian dominated society, for even admitting that one is an atheist or agnostic. A young person who thinks differently, expresses doubt, or questions the answers his pastor gives him can be branded a trouble maker and ostracized. An adult who does so is subject to subtle, but very real penalties.
It is difficult for Christians in the United States to understand just how powerful they are. You sometimes hear them lament the“war on Christmas” or the “rise of secular humanism.” But, if you consider, for just a moment, the quantity of Christian references in our daily life compared to that of any other religion or set of beliefs it is overwhelming. As I write this the television is on. When I flip through the 18 channels I find fully a third devoted, 24 hours a day, to Christian programming. I find none dedicated to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Atheism. When I drive to our local town to the store I pass 8-10 Christian churches, each with a billboard out front admonishing us to believe as they do. Do I pass even one center for agnosticism or free thought? Not one. In fact, I never have seen one.
The good thing about being an atheist is that we are not obliged to proselytize. I will explain my point of view to you here, and I might be gratified if you came to believe the same thing, but I don’t have to save your soul. All I ask of the dominant Christian culture is that my tax dollars not be spent to support religion and that kids who attend public school not be compelled to believe in it. That’s in the Constitution and that’s not a big demand.
On a personal level I generally like religious people and am fascinated by religion. If you approach me in a friendly way with a Bible tract in your hand or knock on my door, full of enthusiasm for your new devotion, I will smile and listen thoughtfully, as I have done for 30 years. It might be nice also, in an open and free society, for Christians to listen occasionally to those who think differently? After all, as the Turkish writer Elif Shafak has said, “If we learn anything, we learn it from people who are different from us.”
It is always troubling to encounter a concept I cannot grasp. The embarrassment is compounded when I discover, to my chagrin, that the idea is easily understood by others. There are many examples. My father-in-law can rattle off a list of numbers (rates, capacities, volumes, ratios, percentages) and within seconds arrive at a mathematical solution which is invariably correct while I am still hunting for the square root key on the calculator. Many times my father has tried to explain elementary radio theory to me only to leave me smiling and nodding like Dan Quayle at a spelling bee. And don’t get me started on quantum physics. Actually, you can’t get me started on quantum physics.
It is not so bad to be bested by intelligent women and men from time to time. How else can one learn? I will readily admit that there are things I do not understand and possibly will never understand. I am willing to concede that there are better brains out there than mine. What is truly unnerving, though, is to be at odds with a majority of the world’s population on a question of importance. Religion is such a stumbling block to me.
It is estimated that 89% of the U.S. population believes in a God, of one sort or another. That is a pretty resounding number and it suggests that I might be wrong in my thinking. I do not regard being wrong as a moral failing, since most people are from time to time. The remedy is simple; merely collect more information and revise the hypothesis. Yet my mental roadblock here is thick. The more information I collect the more I am convinced of my previous hypothesis. I am no more able to accept religion at face value than I can start a gouda mine on the moon.
I listen to the 27 televangelists on my TV, I read the Bible, I sit quietly waiting for my still small voice and…and…and…nothing. Nothing comes to me. Nothing persuades me to ignore the contrary evidence I see all around me. My own innate sense of what is true will not give credence to stories about a 6000 year old planet, nor all the earth’s creatures escaping a giant flood on a vessel built with hand tools by 5 senior citizens. I cannot comprehend a system of good and evil in which an omnipotent God allows the non-omnipotent Devil to get the upper hand even occasionally. I cannot adhere to a moral code that puts a book filled with contradictions and of unprovable provenance above other human beings.
When I look at the misery in this world which is the direct result of arguments over religion I am loathe to conclude that I want to be on their side, even if they are right. And how does one choose the one true faith if such a thing exists? As Professor Robert Price has said, “I’m going to hell according to somebody’s doctrine (Islam, Hindu, Christianity, etc). I may as well call them as I see them.”
The closest thing I have found to representing how I feel about religion is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut in his later years.
“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”
Still, being a humanist has to mean also that we show a decent respect to the thoughts and feelings of other humans. That means the other 89%. I have tried to do this throughout my life as I have been bombarded with Christian culture every day on the airwaves, on billboards, at public events, and in person. Christianity enjoys such hegemony in this society that it is an affront apparently to simply express your non-evangelical ideas in public. It is hard to be different, as we all know, especially when the odds are 89% to 11%.
Let me offer an example, from my personal life, where I have been at odds with the majority of people around me. The following story illustrates my difficulty, as a believer in logic and science, in coming to the same conclusion as the majority, who are religious believers.
Take the case of Officer Norman Rickman, a member of the Knoxville, TN police force. In a U.S.A. Today article about police officers embracing the use of bulletproof vests it was explained that Mr. Rickman had been shot twice in the line of duty while not wearing a bulletproof vest. The story says, “Yet he was on the ground within minutes, blood pouring out of bullet wounds to his chest and left arm as one of three suspects stood over him and fired two more shots into his upper back at point-blank range.” It continues, “More extraordinarily, perhaps, is that the May shooting marked the second time in seven years that Rickman had been seriously wounded while not wearing a bullet-resistant vest.”
The story includes two quotes from officer Rickman. One says that he will wear a bulletproof vest when he returns to work. The other, while it mystified me, was readily understood by others to whom I showed the article. It was this, “God was on my side that day.” This, to me, invites two questions and I do not mean them to be flippant or disrespectful. I should like to ask Officer Rickman the following:
1. If God is on your side, why did he let you get shot four times?
2. If God is on your side, why wear a bullet-proof vest?
I explored these questions for some time after reading the article. I concluded that there were four possibilities, logically, with respect to God and Officer Rickman. They are as follows:
1. There is no God and Officer Rickman was shot by a sociopath who himself had been created by a combination of his environment and genetics. Officer Rickman, in this scenario might have been saved by a bullet-proof vest. Logically Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his vest.
2. There is a God and he (or she) allows free will. In this case God allowed the sociopath to develop from his environment and genetics and shoot Officer Rickman without intervening. In this case, logic dictates that Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his bullet-proof vest.
3. There is a God who has malevolent aims for humanity. In this case God created the sociopath on purpose and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman. Logic dictates that Officer Rickman should actively oppose this God and wear his bullet-proof vest.
4. There is a God who loves us, but desires to teach us moral lessons through adversity. In this case God created the sociopath and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman, but did so for a noble objective. Whether Officer Rickman assimilated the lesson is unknown, unless that lesson was “Wear your bullet-proof vest!”
In only one scenario would I conclude that Officer Rickman might, and I emphasize might, thank his God for the treatment he has received. That is the benevolent God who continually treats us to his “tough love.” If God’s lesson was to wear a vest, which is a good lesson for policemen according to statistics, it seems a harsh form of instruction. The article states that 37% of the officers murdered in the line of duty in 2007 did not have on a bullet-proof vest. Those officers died. They had no opportunity to learn God’s lesson about vests, or any other moral instruction he might have been offering.
Are we to conclude from Officer Rickman’s statement and the opinions about it from religious believers that these unfortunate officers did not have “God with them.” Again, I do not wish to be flippant about so serious a tragedy. I am anxious that no one die under these circumstances. It is not I who trivializes this tragedy, but the people who chalk such things up to “God being with me.”
This same story can be seen night after night on the news with the names and locations altered slightly; A tornado rips through a subdivision in Oklahoma annihilating houses on one side of a street and leaving them standing on the other. Invariably a survivor from the “lucky” side will credit God and his love for her family’s survival. This explanation is accepted readily by the majority of conventionally religious people in this country who can be seen nodding their heads as the woman speaks. But is it not insulting, both to our intelligence and to the people who were killed, to credit God’s mercy for saving those who survived. In fact, it is a cruelty to say such a thing. Does God hate the other families?
We might be better off as a civilization if we worked out problems logically, with the human costs evaluated, than to offer credibility to supernatural sources. If we did not give the credit for good things to God and bad things to the Devil, we might conclude, rightly I think, that people are complex and must be dealt with (helped or punished) on an individual basis. God did not make us all either good or bad, but a complicated combination of circumstances did make some people more selfish, more corrupt, less empathetic, less kind than other people. Without the easy answer of religion and the stark contrast between good people and bad people, between believers and heathens, we might be forced to try to understand the problems we face. It is entirely possible that we might come up with solutions to some of them.
by: Dustin Joy