Friday of last week I posted a quote from Primo Levi, an Italian Jew who came to the conclusion that there could not logically both be a god and a place like Auschwitz, where he was imprisoned during the war. Comments like his, in my opinion, give a somewhat broader perspective when contemplating the scope of the mercy and compassion of a personal god … especially when the modern First World criteria for determining such qualities will commonly include such pointless trivialities like finding spare change in the couch cushions or getting an extra McNugget in our Happy Meals.
I wrote my commentary on Friday, before the disaster struck Oklahoma earlier this week and took the lives of over two dozen people. When things like this happen, I’m of the general mindset that the last thing people need to hear in the face of tragedy is that their belief system is wrong, stupid, or not based on empirical evidence. I might still hold that position, but I’ll also hold my tongue because it just smacks of poor taste. That whole “bitter atheist” thing again.
I’ve heard from a few friends recently who said that they prayed for the safety of the people affected by the tornado … even agnostics or deists who don’t even necessarily hold any kind of firm belief in a personal god, but who still wanted to feel as if they were doing something while sitting thousands of miles away watching the tragedy unfold on their TV screens. I can’t say I blame them. Even as an atheist, I still think it’s only human nature to reach out and appeal to some kind of higher power in the face of great tragedy, loss, or time of need … especially if you feel that all other hope is lost. I, myself, am hard pressed to say for sure what I would do if a person I loved were suddenly and prematurely taken from me. Logically, I would have no more reason to believe in a god, heaven, afterlife, or anything else than I did the day before. But when faced with the anguish of the loss of a loved one, logic and reason give way to the raw emotion of simply wanting them back no matter what. If that means believing in an afterlife to accomplish it, then that’s what the mind will do if only to avoid completely unraveling.
So, in short, I get it. I understand why there are people who believe in something. No, it doesn’t make logical sense, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes its only purpose is to give the comfort and support so desperately needed in order to allow a person put one foot in front of the other … if only to keep pace with a world that didn’t grind to a halt when theirs suddenly and painfully did one day.
I’ve been watching some of the videos and reading articles about residents’ reactions to the devastation wrought by the tornado, and noticing a great deal of praise for God from those who realized that they escaped with their lives. “We’re so blessed”, “God is looking out for us”, and so forth. At this point even I’m forced to admit that if I had a close shave with a large, violent force of nature and passed through the other side relatively unscathed, I’d probably utter a “thank god” myself … even if I mean it not as praise for a divine being, but simply as an expression. For the most part, I get the feeling that as (generally) religious people who have just been through a traumatic event and survived, it’s a perfectly understandable response.
But not everyone escaped unharmed. Approximately 24 people lost their lives, including nine children. Even those who survived have had their lives and their livelihoods dealt a major blow. About 1,500 buildings were destroyed, resulting in the displacement of thousands of people and the loss of millions in revenue from businesses within the tornado’s path. Consequently, when I think about the people who praise God for the miracle of their survival, saying they were blessed or what have you, I can’t help but think of the clearly less fortunate and how they fall in the eyes of God. What do these same people say about them? Were they not as blessed? Did they not have enough faith? Does God love them, or their loved ones, or their friends any less to take these people away and let someone else survive? What about the seven children in the Plaza Towers Elementary School? I can’t think of any situation within the realm of reason or common sense that could make me believe that those children were in any way less loved or less deserving of life than others who survived.
Some people would say such a sentiment makes me bitter, angry, or filled with nothing more than a desire to turn a tragedy into a soapbox for atheism. Maybe that’s what it’s turned into, but that’s not why I’m doing it. Similar to what I said on Friday, I think that both saying and believing statements like the ones I described above ignores the greater context of the disaster that had just unfolded before them, and how claiming to be in possession of God’s favor and grace as demonstrated by their survival immediately puts the faith, value, and worthiness of those who did not survive – not to mention the benevolence and mercy of the personal god in which they put their faith – into serious doubt.
EDIT: Deborah Mitchell from Kids Without Religion wrote about a similar topic a couple of days ago, with specific focus on the Wolf Blitzer interview with one of the survivors. After he prodded her a little by asking if she felt blessed by the Lord for her safety, she responded that she was an atheist. A rare breed in Oklahoma, no doubt. Anyway, the post and corresponding comments are a good read, and I recommend poking your head over to her site if you get a chance. Tell her I said “hi”.