Nothing puts the cognitive dissonance of faith on display like a destructive storm system ripping through a religious community. And that happens quite a lot in this country, in case you weren’t aware (see graphic below).
Once again this week a violent storm system cut a destructive path through towns across the Deep South, killing more than a dozen people and destroying churches, homes, and offices in multiple communities. Some of the most devout people you’ll ever meet either lost homes or had significant property damage in the wake of the storm. Most of them prayed for protection as the storm bore down on their communities. Many of those who prayed lost their homes. Some lost their lives. Some only lost their deductibles. Those who survived will testify that they prayed and that God spared them. The death of their next door neighbor will sadden them, but it will not lessen their conviction that their prayers made some kind of difference in their circumstances. We won’t hear from the ones whose prayers for salvation went “unanswered,” so this scenario sets up the survivors for a kind of confirmation bias which assures them that “prayer works.” Since their surrounding culture overwhelmingly endorses this belief, very little will work against this conviction, and this belief will grow stronger through this tragic experience.
Let’s illustrate the many logical inconsistencies of this belief with a hypothetical (yet entirely realistic) scenario, shall we?
A Not-So-Hypothetical Scenario
A tornado hits a cul-de-sac containing four homes. Two homes are hit, two are spared. Three of the homes are occupied by devout Christians, and one by a non-religious family.
Allen is a spirit-filled Pentecostal who, after marshalling his wife and three children into the downstairs hallway, prays earnestly for God to protect his family and their home from the oncoming storm. His family is spared and his home suffers no damage at all. They praise God for delivering them from certain destruction.
Barbara, a devoted Presbyterian, isn’t so fortunate. Although she prays just as fervently for protection, her home is razed and she does not survive the storm. She lived alone, so no one will hear her story. The majority of her community will not credit God with her death; it was just an unfortunate tragedy. Her church will see it differently, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Craig is a Southern Baptist deacon, and he and his wife lose virtually everything except their lives and the lives of their two children. Their home is demolished like Barbara’s, but they have a basement, so their lives are spared. Their insurance policy will cover the replacement of their property but their family photos, boxes of memories, and their grandmother’s china were all irreplaceable. Still, they praise God for sparing their lives.
Daniel is unusual for his very religious community. No one in his home prays when the storm comes because as most of their little town knows, he and his family are agnostics. They seek shelter in the most logical room of their home, and they huddle together just as all the others do. When the storm passes them by, they are relieved. Their relief is short-lived, however, as they soon learn of the death of their neighbor, Barbara. On top of that, they learn that their back-yard neighbors, who were also non-religious, didn’t survive the storm. Ellen was a single mother with two children of her own.
What happens next is both fascinating and infuriating to anyone with a lick of sense.
Allen’s church will gather together later in the week to praise God for answering his prayers for protection. His pastor will make much of how devout Allen and his family are, recounting how valuable they are to their church family and to the kingdom of God as a whole (they speak in grandiose terms at Allen’s church). His fervent prayers will be credited for saving both his family and his personal property. They will sing and clap and rejoice for the triumph of their faith over the forces of the Devil, who clearly was trying to harm one of God’s precious children. But praise God, he failed! Jesus won and Satan lost.
Barbara’s church will be much more somber come Sunday morning. Citing the sovereign hand of God, her minister will remind his flock that God alone gives life and takes it away again. The minister will remind his people of the story of Job, arguing that whatever the circumstances, the name of the Lord is to be praised. He works in mysterious ways, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts, so we must not question the right of the Creator of all things to do as he pleases, potter and clay and whatnot. Someone (probably not from the same church) will likely reason that “God must have needed another angel” so he “called her home.”
Craig and his family will join their Baptist congregation in thanking God for sparing their lives. Contrary to the Calvinists down the street, Craig’s pastor won’t credit God with sending the storm, but he will credit him with keeping it from killing the family. He will never bring up the notion that God could have prevented the whole storm in the first place, nor will he mention that God could have kept the storm from destroying all of the family’s precious heirlooms, clothes, and keepsakes at any point in the process. “God is good, all the time!” he will proclaim, only looking at half the picture and ignoring any perspective which places the blame for this destruction on God. Bad stuff just happens sometimes, and God can’t be blamed for those things. But praise him, he does protect his people…sometimes!
No church will gather to rejoice with Daniel nor to mourn the death of Ellen and her family because they weren’t members of any local churches. Friends and family will pull together and pick up the pieces of what remains. After helping settle Ellen’s financial affairs, Daniel will help to start a fund to upgrade the community’s early storm detection system and will start a petition to rewrite the residential building codes to include a safe room in all homes which lie in storm-prone paths. It won’t bring Barbara or Ellen or her family back, but it might help spare lives in the future. Daniel will mourn, and he and his family will do what they can to make life safer for others in the future; but they will not attempt to ascribe meaning to the tragedy, nor will he claim there is any divine purpose in what happened. The rest of their community, on the other hand, will offer up many diverse religious interpretations—all claiming to be the right view—producing multiple layers of cognitive dissonance, each in slight disagreement with the other. Let’s see how many problems we can count.
So Many Problems
Allen’s church believes that his prayers protected his family. This implies two other inescapable things which most will never consider, or at least which they won’t say out loud:
1. Barbara’s prayer was futile and God did not protect her. Maybe she didn’t do it right. Maybe she forgot to say “in Jesus’ name.” Or maybe she had some unconfessed sin in her life so her prayers weren’t answered. Yeah, I know that sounds awful, but very large groups of Christians teach and preach that, so there it is. They could always just say “It wasn’t God’s will,” but if that’s the reason, then prayer itself becomes pretty meaningless when you think about it.
2. If Allen hadn’t have prayed, the Devil would have had free rein and he would have killed Allen and his family, too. Evidently they believe the Devil is in charge of most things, and that God only protects his children from him if they ask him. What a great father that makes him, huh? Unless, of course, they fall back again on “It was just God’s will,” in which case, once again, prayer becomes unnecessary.
Barbara’s church, convinced their way of looking at things is the right way, would be appalled by giving the Devil credit for anything. For them, God is in total control, which means that both good and bad things come from him. This is the way that most of the Bible talks (it’s not always consistent), so that’s the way they’re going to look at it, too. All other interpretations are wrong. This presents many more problems of its own (most notably, it makes God an amoral monster), but they’re not going to let that deter them from being “biblical.”
As I’ve already implied, Craig’s church makes the least sense of all. They aren’t keen on ascribing meteorological powers to the Devil, but they likewise recoil from blaming God. Both of those notions make them uneasy, so instead they say that storms just happen, and it’s not right to talk as if God made them happen for any specific reason (Just don’t ask Fred, who lives just one street over. His church teaches that God sends storms to punish communities for things like allowing gay people to exist in the same vicinity). Craig’s church puts God into more of a “first responder” position. He diligently watches events as they unfold and swoops in “at just the right moment” to keep things from getting worse. He watches as the storm tears through home after home but when it gets to one particular family, he “puts his hand over them” and protects them so that their lives are spared.
This familiar pattern happens a lot, by the way. For example, when a terrible car accident happens, they have him waiting until after the cars collide to save one guy out of four, leaving him paralyzed for life. That man and his family will probably praise God for saving him from this tragic accident. It could have been worse, right? God could have waited a second longer. Or perhaps someone gets cancer. God didn’t stop her from getting it, but after trained oncologists and surgeons cut away and treat the afflicted areas, God sweeps in and “heals” her…for at least a few years. Don’t even get me started on God working to bring to justice the guy who molests his stepdaughter. You’d think he might have stepped in before that happened; but hey, his ways are higher, remember?
This is terrible talk, I agree. Doesn’t it make your stomach turn? It should. It does mine. The truth of the matter is that nobody is sitting silently by, watching these awful things unfold. We are the only protectors, defenders, and first responders we will ever have. Sometimes things happen and we can’t keep them from happening. All we can do is do our best to prepare for the worst, and pull together to help each other out when things do go bad. That’s what people do, religious or not. They don’t do it because of their religion; they do it because we’re in this thing together, and we know we have to look out for each other. Nature rewards those species which help each other out. That’s why it feels good to do things for people, even complete strangers, expecting nothing in return. That’s how people get by down here. Around here they will almost universally credit God with the good parts of what happens (unless they’re Calvinists, in which case he does it all), and they will likely never ask themselves any of the questions I mentioned above.
One more tidbit I must throw in. Fundamentalist preachers (like Fred’s) are fond of interpreting storms as either signs of the immanent return of Jesus or else as God’s judgment for doing something bad, like allowing a gay pride festival in your town. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson come to mind, but so does Bryan Fischer of American Family Radio. The reason that’s significant is that the hardest hit town in Mississippi this time around was Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis and also the location of the national headquarters for Fischer’s AFR outfit. If the address I have for the AFA is correct, it looks like the tornado touched down extremely close to where they’re based. I wonder if there’s any chance he will take this as a message that he and his organization are doing something wrong?
Yeah, I don’t think so, either.