The Arrogance of the Miraculous

This past Tuesday, a DC-9 jetliner crashed on takeoff in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After failing to lift off, the plane crashed and burst into flame on the ground. Among the passengers were the Mosiers, a family of Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries. With the help of other passengers, they forced open a door and escaped as smoke filled the stricken plane’s cabin. The Mosiers’ 3-year-old son Andrew suffered a broken leg, but other than that, they got out with only bruises. Surely, this was a miraculous escape – a tangible sign of God’s supernatural protection – and the Mosiers didn’t hesitate to affirm that belief:

“We couldn’t believe that our family of four could all escape a plane that was crashed and on fire, but by God’s mercy, we did,” he said.

Mosier said he believes the family made it for a reason.

“I think the Lord has a plan for us, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “He still has work for us to do.”

There’s just one tiny little problem with this interpretation. After failing to lift off, the plane overshot the end of the runway and crashed through a fence, into a crowded marketplace. Most of those on board the plane got out, but the people on the ground had not been expecting a huge mass of tangled, flaming metal to suddenly come hurtling towards them. The market was decimated, and at least 40 people died.

Read those sappy, self-congratulatory quotes again. The missionaries made it out by God’s mercy. God has a plan for them. He miraculously saved them from this catastrophe.

Now read the accounts of people on the ground:

Hundreds of people gathered at the morgue in Goma. Annemarie Mulotwa, 19, leaned against a wall and wept for her young nephew, Kikuni.

“I saw his body inside, he is dead, he was burned,” Mulotwa said, covering her face with her hands. “He was 12 years old, he was only in primary school. He wasn’t even on the plane.”

Mary Rose Kiza, 33, said she watched as her 15-year-old son ran out of a shop, his clothes and body on fire. She does not know if her three other sons were alive.

“What have I done to God to deserve this?” she wailed outside the morgue, after leaving a hospital bed where she was treated for back injuries.

Apparently, God’s mercy protected the family of white American missionaries on board the plane, but God did not have mercy on the 12-year-old boy who was burned to death. Evidently, God had no particular plan for the lives of the dozens of people in the marketplace, nor did he have any reason for them to continue living, so there was no reason for him not to violently kill them in a sudden, unexpected disaster. This view makes us all out to be God’s toys, to be used as he sees fit while we’re useful and then thrown away without a second thought when we’re no longer useful. Don’t these missionaries see the grotesque arrogance and ugly narcissism of believing that they rated God’s special protection, while the people burning and dying all around them did not?

In the real world, there are no demonstrable miracles, and in catastrophes like this one, blind chance rules the day. The lack of any tangible evidence that a deity is protecting his followers makes it even more offensive for people to claim that their survival was due to some special worthiness or virtue. A humbler, more ethical philosophy would refrain from drawing any conclusions about the relative moral worth of those who survived versus those who didn’t, and simply express happiness to be alive without demeaning those who were not so fortunate.

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  • Caroline

    I am continuously unnerved and angered by careless statements like this made by people who are convinced they are God’s special little pets. They make these statements without giving thought to what it is they are truly saying. That for whatever reason, some people are not worthy of God’s protection while others are. Its like they are children gloating when a parent pays special attention to them over and above their siblings! Its callous, its insensitive, and extremely childish. Above all, its this kind of dangerous magical thinking that keeps the religious convinced of their elitism that comes directly from the “big daddy in the sky.”

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    Stories like this demonstrate why “self-righteousness,” “smugness” and “hypocrisy” are listed as synonyms for “pious” in the dictionary.

  • Antigone

    I really annoyed my father-in-law when I thought that a belief in “guardian angels” was narcistic and harmful, after make an argument exactly like this. (He maintains that he got to witness the birth of his son (my husband) because of a guardian angel that made lights green, and gave him a close parking space). I didn’t call him narcistic or harmful, but he still interpretted it that way. I don’t know how can attack these beliefs with out people shutting down. Any suggestions?

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.ocom yunshui

    The ‘Argument from Selective Miracles’, eh? Disaster has always been a big draw for the religious, for some reason. This was a really great example of how the faithful will willingly exploit the misery of other people in pursuit of their own agenda.

    Religion and hideous firey death? Sounds like a fairly normal combination to me.

  • Jeremy

    To Antigone:

    Given the emotional significance of that event to your father-in-law, I think it should have been a red flag for you to avoid that situation as an example of belief in guardian angels being “narcissistic and harmful.” (Keep in mind that I share your view of guardian angels).

    It seems to me that you’ve done nothing to change his mind and instead have gone a long way to make him your enemy. Although I find it frustrating that people wish to cling to comforting illusions, I’ve learned some hard lessons about trying to rip those illusions from the their grasp. You cannot make anyone listen to reason if they are not willing to be reasoned with.

    Hopefully you can mend the damage (if you care to).

  • Antigone

    Actually, I learned about this particular story AFTER I had made the comment. We were actually talking about the Minneapolis bridge disaster, and I was expressing annoyance about the people on TV talking about how “God had saved them”.

  • velkyn

    the most common excuse given by Christians in this type of situation is “we can’t understand God”. Well, they certainly claim to understand him if they think that he is “merciful” or say “he has more work for us to do”.

    “Ugly narcissism” is probably the best term I’ve seen for this disgusting arrogance.

  • Jeremy

    To Antigone:

    That bit of information changes everything. :-) My apologies.

  • GSmith

    Many Christians will argue that the Mosier’s are not arrogant for being thankful for God’s protection despite the horrible deaths of others, but that God also had a plan for those who died which made it necessary for him to take them from earth. I agree that this is ridiculous logic, but I think it is quite common among Christians. For Christians who make this argument, I would ask them 1) If this is true, why does God take these people “he needs” in such horrific fashion. Why does he not simply take them or put them to sleep and explain to their families that he is sorry, but he needs them? Why does he burn them alive and not say anything at all to comfort the families? 2) Why is it that when tragedies like these occur, the determination of who lives and who dies appears from our end to be based solely on physics and is in no way linked to the character or religion of the people involved? If I take a toy airplane and toss it onto a building made of toy blocks, it is likely that some blocks will be displaced, while others will remain standing. The only apparent pattern will be based on the physics involved (i.e. the exact location where the plane lands, the amount of force, the mass and location of the blocks, etc.). The color and/or attractiveness of the blocks will not have any effect on which blocks are displaced and which are not. If God is really behind who lives and who dies, why is it that victims and survivors share no distinctive qualities related to their character or religion? Why would a good God use the natural laws of physics to disguise the true purpose of his actions, leaving us only to guess, when as you say, his purpose is good?

  • Ray

    Of course all of these people are narcissistic. Why else would they parade themselves in front of the media? All they want to do is point out how very much more loved by God than you they are.

    Of course, in every US election, both The Democrats and the Republicans have God on their sides. In most wars, both sides claim God is rooting for them. And yet, every time, the losers never say “this then is proof that God does not exist”. They simply forget that God was supposed to make them win this time and say that He’ll make them win next time.

    Supremely deluded or supremely cynical?

  • YAAB

    Great point, Ray. You hear this time and time again with (among others) Islamic radicals who seem to punctuate every threat with “God willing.” Of course, they never close the loop after a defeat by saying either, (a) well, obviously, God must be on the other guy’s side, or (b) God doesn’t exist.

  • Jeremy

    Being that this topic is related to the “problem of evil”, I thought I’d share a view I’ve come to have on the subject:

    For me, the “problem of evil” is non-existent. I do not experience disappointment in the gods because I do not expect protection by the gods. When predator devours prey, it is good for the predator but evil for the prey. But when the prey escapes to live another day, it is good for the prey but evil for the predator.

    Although I am a human, it is no different for me, a member of the community of life. If I’m swimming in the ocean, I do not expect the gods to protect me from the wind and waves–or the leviathan. I do not expect the gods to protect me just as I do not expect the gods to protect the quail from the fox.

    This view strikes me as consistent with reality and has given me peace. I must credit it to an author named Daniel Quinn, though it could very well have been stated by many others prior to him. I simply first encountered it in his writings.

  • Stephen

    @Antigone: I also had a brush with my father-in-law. I’d just had a nasty car accident as a result of another car driving the wrong way down a motorway, but fortunately I was not injured. (Three people in another car were injured.) My father-in-law assured me that a guardian angel must have been watching over me. I replied drily that I wasn’t wildly keen on angels who sent cars the wrong way down a motorway. My father-in-law chuckled before he was able to stop himself and sheepishly admitted I had a point.

    I don’t know what the answer to your question is. I do know that anger seems to be a frequent tactic used by people in these situations (some other acquaintances of mine do the same whenever the subject gets around to matters such as astrology or the Loch Ness Monster, and I decline to go along with their fairy tales.)

    The best that I can offer is to wait until they’ve cooled down and then tell them politely that you don’t like the way they talk to you when all you are trying to do is have a civilised conversation. Maybe it will work sometimes.

  • mikespeir

    Of course, they’ll throw out the “higher good” rationale, but they won’t be able to support it. On the other hand, I can think of an awful lot of good that certainly would have come from not letting this happen.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Seems to me that a just deity wouldn’t bother with kiiling and death anyway; if he wanted them that badly, he could simply “beam them up”, get whatever it was he needed — y’know, the lawn mown or toilet scrubbed — and then “beam” them down again. But of course, this is sensible. Therefore no religion posits such a god.

  • Jennifer A. Burdoo

    I read an infuriating comic recently:

    Two cars, upside down on the roadway. One has a Jesus fish, the other a Darwin fish.

    Jesus fish driver thinks: “Thank God I survived!”

    Darwin fish driver thinks: “Thank the random processes of chance I survived!”

    My response to that would be:

    Jesus guy: “Thank God!”

    Darwin guy: “Thank the engineers who designed, tested and built my car, thank the bystander who called 911, and thank the police, firefighters and paramedics who saved my life!”

    Religion devalues real human accomplishments.

  • Kyle

    The worst is the 9/11 stories about turning to faith. Apparently, God loved everyone in the building so much that he let them be killed by a rival sect running planes into buildings. Or, apparently, God loved SOME people by allowing them to escape but buried 3000+. Or, apparently, it was God’s will for them to die.

    It’s awesome when you can rationalize anything. It’s the equivalent to the fun game of sports superstition. If I would have worn my secret underwear and my lucky watch, they would have won. Damn, if I hadn’t went to the bathroom, we’d have won.

  • Samuel Skinner

    You know who I’d thank? Myself, for not being stupid enough to buy that cheap Pinto even though it would save me money.

  • HairTonic

    the most common excuse given by Christians in this type of situation is “we can’t understand God”. Well, they certainly claim to understand him if they think that he is “merciful” or say “he has more work for us to do”.

    “Ugly narcissism” is probably the best term I’ve seen for this disgusting arrogance.

    Comment by: velkyn | April 18, 2008, 11:41 am

    Exactly. “We can’t understand god” in its many forms is one of the favourite fallback positions of Christians whenever they encounter a problem with their religion they can’t explain away. Other times, this is the premise for complicated, winding and sometimes even circular arguments used to defend their faith.

    Why then does god create humans to be rational, make Christianity impossible for humans to understand and then expect us to believe in him?

  • goyo

    Excellent comments all. I always remember my mom telling me when someone from our church died, that god needed them in heaven.
    When my dad died two years ago after a surgery, after the whole church praying for him for three days, (to which they always add on the “if it be thy will” tag), I wanted to ask her if god needed a watchmaker to fix his old Bulova.
    Remember, there’s a kick-ass band in heaven, too: Hendrix, Joplin, Elvis, Morrison, etc…

  • Roi des Foux

    This reminds me of something I read in a local paper a few years back:

    A man came home from work a little earlier than usual. He found his wife lying motionless on the kitchen floor, and he immediately called 911. A blood vessel had burst in her brain. She suffered brain damage, leaving her partially paralyzed, but the doctors were able to save her life. If the man hadn’t come home from work early that day, she would have died on the kitchen floor. The man thanked god (I don’t remember the exact quotation, but it was clear that it wasn’t an empty phrase; he was actually “thanking god”) that he had returned home early enough to save his wife’s life.

    I’m having a hard time deciding which mentality is more disturbing. The business with the plane crash shows a horrifying devaluation of human life. But to give god credit for saving his wife’s life, without assigning god any blame for the injury strikes me not as an ethical failing, but a complete inability to apply logical thought to one’s religious beliefs.

  • John

    I remember watching the boxing day tsunami disaster on the News several years ago where 250000 people died and the Christian who was in the room watching it with me said – “Imagine all the testimonies”. I couldnt believe what I was hearing.

  • StaceyJW

    It angers me when PEOPLE solve a pressing problem caused by a tragic event- like getting a vaccine to a remote place or when a firefighter manages to rescue someone from a tragic fire, or when people work together to escape a burning plane- and they call it the “work of god!”.

    It’s NOT “gods hand” intervening, its the product of people in a civilized, advanced society, working for the common good- together in the face of calamity. You could also say it is the HUMAN will to survive playing a role in some cases. When HUMANS work with skill and heroism to avert a disaster, or lessen a disasters effects, it is insulting to give credit to ‘god’, like each person didn’t make conscious choice to step in and solve the problem!

    If it was “god”, why would he step in and rescue SOME people from an event that he either created or allowed to happen? (assuming that one believes that god is in charge of everyday life, of course)Why have a tragedy in the first place? Doesn’t ‘god’ love All of “his children’?

    I bet that those people think they were saved because they are devout, and that the others must have been sinners that had the vengence of ‘god’ coming for their sins! That’s how some people think, which is disgusting, and shows their belief in divine retribution for the sinners- even when their ‘god’ Jesus actively courted sinners. (according to Christian beliefs anyway)


  • Juan Felipe

    There is a higher scale version of this arrogant claim: the so called Hiroshima miracle

    “In Hiroshima, a small community of Jesuit Fathers lived in a church
    house near the parish church, situated only eight blocks from the
    center of the bomb blast.

    When Hiroshima was destroyed by the atomic bomb,
    all eight members of the small Jesuit community escaped unscathed,
    while every other person who was within a radius of roughly one and a
    half kilometers from the center of the explosion died immediately. The
    church house where the Jesuits lived was still standing, while the
    buildings in every direction from it were leveled.”

    Even if it isn’t true (it probably isn’t) the fact that some people are eager to show it as a miraculous occurence speaks a lot about the morality of their beliefs. If God can miracolously protect people from the harm caused by others, why doesn’t he does it more often? Are we to believe that a perfectly fair God only protect those who worship him exactly as he likes?

    Also, seems to me that proclaiming these things as miracles implies abandoning the free will theodicy completely, God can create magical auras to protect his favorite childs from harm, and this is somehow not an infringement on our free will?

    There was a page debunking that miracle (‘how fables become facts’) but now I’m unable to find it. If someone has a link it would be very helpful.

    BTW, I’m having problems with URLs here, how do you close them?

  • Juan Felipe

    Ah, nevermind, the links works. It wasn’t working on the preview

  • feralboy12

    I’m reminded of athletes who thank Jesus for the great victory he allowed them, while ignoring teammates who hit home runs, made great catches, sacrificed personal glory for the team, etc. In 1997 I watched Tony Fernandez of the Indians hit a game-winning homer to put his team in the World Series, and then say “this victory belongs to Jesus and we praise him therefore.”
    The Indians lost that World Series when Fernandez booted a routine groundball. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jesus caused that, too.
    It’s a short step from thanking God for good things that happen to blaming him for your misfortunes. That’s not a healthy mindset, nor a recipe for happiness, and is definitely not conducive to problem-solving.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    It’s a short step from thanking God for good things that happen to blaming him for your misfortunes. That’s not a healthy mindset, nor a recipe for happiness, and is definitely not conducive to problem-solving.

    Unfortunately, many believers prefer to rest on their laurels at precisely this point in the journey, and never make this “short step”.

  • Modusoperandi

    Everything that goes wrong is your fault. God gets the credit, you get the blame*. That’s how it works. Obviously. Sheesh.

    * Except 9/11 and Katrina. Those were because of the ACLU, feminists and “the gays”. True story.

  • themann1086

    And the pagans…. you know, the motorcycle group.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Phew. Every time I see Modus’s SN after mine on “recent posts” I wonder what kind of skewering I’m in for.

    PS Love your link, MO!

  • Modusoperandi

    It is pretty awesome.