Cold Comfort

Chuck Doswell - 13 May 2011

In the wake of the 27 April tornado outbreak this spring, mostly in Alabama and Mississippi, many folks have been quoted as expressing gratitude to god for sparing their lives.  I certainly understand why a believer who survived the horrors of being caught in a violent tornado might feel inclined to be grateful to their skydaddy.  And it seemingly does no harm to express that in public interviews.

One question that occurs to me, though:  what about the friends and family of people killed by those very same tornadoes?  Are they also obligated to be grateful?  “Thank you, oh lord above, for taking our loved ones from us for your own reasons, which we mere humans couldn’t possibly understand!”  Somehow, in their grief and loss, I doubt that gratitude to their skydaddy is in the forefront of their thoughts.  What cold comfort might they be able to derive from their tragic losses?  Is it reasonable to expect them to be grateful for their pain?  Just what should they think about the deaths and debilitating injuries dealt out to their loved ones on the whim of their deity?

Believers always seem to find ways to rationalize the simultaneous benevolence and death sentences carried out by their chosen deity.  After all, god was responsible for the tornado and knew in advance who was going to live and who would end up mangled and lifeless in the debris.  Believers have to rationalize, after all. defines rationalization as follows:

to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that superficially seem reasonable and valid but that actually are unrelated to the true, possibly unconscious and often less creditable or agreeable causes.

In other words, rationalization is a process of denying the truth in favor of a more agreeable cause.  If people accepted the evidence in front of their own eyes, they’d have to conclude that their deity is apparently dealing out pardons and executions for no obvious reason.  Good people are killed.  Bad people are spared.  Where’s the logic in that?  Oh yeah – god works in mysterious ways.  That convenient and always-ready excuse:  god needs provide no explanation, no excuse for having killed your loved ones.  Believers must accept the absence of a logical explanation because there will be none forthcoming, save that it was god’s will.  Rather than allowing us the comfort that there was some good reason for all the pain we’re feeling over the loss of friends and/or family, this deity simply thumbs his nose at our problems and leaves it up to us to figure it out.  The skydaddy sits on his heavenly throne, silent and aloof, without even the slightest demonstration of his existence, let alone offering the grieving survivors any understanding of the reason for the loss of their loved ones in the process of carrying out his mysterious plan.

However, the very same deity is said to have created us in the first place!  God evidently did so without giving us sufficient wisdom to fathom his divine purpose in killing some and sparing others.  Given his infinite powers, there certainly is no obvious reason for him to cast us in this seemingly inadequate mold.  If we’re incapable of understanding his reasons, then god is responsible for that deficiency!  It was done deliberately.  We simply have to take it on faith that he loves us, even though he’s responsible for that anguish over lost loved ones that would cause any one of us in that situation to ask “Why?”  Are these apparent facts evidence of an infinite love for us?

What really bothers me are those clerics and other self-appointed spokesmen for the skydaddy, who see such tragedies as an expression of god’s displeasure with us.  “Our evil ways are responsible for this punishment!”  I challenge these fundamentalist bullshit artists to tell the parents of a child killed in the tornadoes that this was the just punishment of a loving god inflicted on their child.  At best, those parents might accept it as punishment for their sins, but not for those of their beloved child!

Another good one is that these tragedies caused by tornadoes are just a test of our faith.  I suppose on one level, that’s not a completely unreasonable way to interpret the event.  The problem is that if we fail the test and repudiate this deity in our grief, then the deaths and hurt seem utterly without meaning.  It’s natural to want to believe that such pain could only happen if there was some higher purpose being served.  To rationalize the event, in other words.  If such pain is inflicted by a coldly indifferent natural phenomenon, then to some it could seem much worse than taking it on faith that there had to be a reason for this agony.

As I see it, the evidence is pretty clear:  we live in a world that is not a benign paradise created for us.  We are late arrivals on a planet full of dangers and hazards.  If we’re killed, it’s our bad luck to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If our world isn’t benevolent, neither is it malevolent.  Only indifferent to us as a species or as individuals.  There is no good reason to explain why one is taken and another is spared by the tornado.  If you accept that, then you also have to accept the responsibility for your own safety and that of those around you about whom you may care.  We’re not being saved or killed according to some skydaddy’s unfathomable plan.  We have to look out for ourselves and those we love.  To put it all on the whim of a skydaddy is to shirk our personal responsibilities.