On Being a Murphyist

I have spent the last seven years in the occasional study of a religious system that I believe has always existed, but has never been academically defined (except perhaps in secret by some graduate engineering students). My interest in this religious system is that my wife is an adherent, and in order to better understand her I needed to have a deeper understanding of her religious faith. Through that study, I have come to realize my wife is far from alone… that tens of thousands, if not millions of people believe, either explicitly or implicitly, as she does.

The name we have arrived at for this religious system (and a quick search of the internet shows we are not alone in this either) is Murphyism. At its core, it is the religious belief that the principle known as “Murphy’s Law” (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) is the guiding and unifying principle of the universe.

I will say from the outset that this article is a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little. Perhaps because I am not a Murphyist I cannot fully grasp the seriousness with which the adherents of this faith take it. I know how serious it is, because I have seen it in this woman who has been my friend for 17 years, and partner for the last 10. So, I will attempt to place my own misguided lightheartedness aside, other than to say that if you find this article ridiculous, then you are not a Murphyist… but if it seems ironic to you, then you just might be a Murphyist…

I will also mention that this article has been approved by my wife, the Murphyist…

If you ever find yourself making backup plans for your backup plans… you might be a Murphyist. If you have ever dated someone because you think they might be “lucky”… you might be a Murphyist. If you are really interested in the results of crash tests when buying a car… you might be a Murphyist. If you set more than one alarm clock when you go to sleep at night… you might be a Murphyist. If the first thing you notice about a new room is the number of fire exits… you might be a Murphyist. If you look at a glass and see it not as half-full (optimist) or half-empty (pessimist) but as something that might spill on you… you might be a Murphyist. If you have thought up new things that you do that could fit within this paragraph… then you might just be a Murphyist. I’d love to hear those new “You might be a Murphyist if…” one-liners.

As with many religions, the origins of this one are shrouded in myth and mystery. The modern wording of this “truth” goes back at least 150 years, although there is evidence that it was old even in that time. Its initial modern codifications began in the fraught-filled field of military engineering, and some have traced the initial prophet Murphy to an Air Force Engineer in 1949… but even this is shrouded in mystery and controversy. As best as I can decipher the legend, it was the colleagues of an Air Force Captain named Ed Murphy who first noticed that he had an inherent penchant for disaster… and named the law appropriately.

At the core of this religious faith rests the immutable law “Anything that Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong”. This however is just the beginning of the religion, for from this center flows an entire theology. I have identified two separate branches of Murphyists: Secular/Rational Murphyists and Religious/Mystical Murphyists.

Secular/Rational Murphyists are those who believe that the workings of this law can be demonstrably shown to be an inherent part of the universe through observation and the scientific method. They do not perceive their Murphyism as a religious system, and often do not perceive themselves as religious at all. They can often be found in engineering and the physical sciences. The scientific method, with all of its checking, double checking, verified and reproducible results, is a comfort for them, yet they are not surprised when it does not work. They believe that Murphy’s Law itself exists and operates independently of any being or intelligence. Like gravity, it is a fact of existence. Its universality is a comfort for them, for they are able to say that, also like gravity, the law operates equally among all people… and any perception they might have that they seem to have worse “luck” than others must just be perception, not reality.

For the Religious/Mystical Murphyist, nothing could be further from the truth. They are deeply aware that the “Law” does not apply to all people equally. The experiences of their lives have convinced them that some people are more prone to the effects of this “Law” than others, and they sense a mischievous divine intelligence behind this fact. They look to past religious traditions that name “trickster” gods such as “Loki” and “Coyote” for their ancient sourcing.  Put simply, the Religious/Mystical Murphyist believes that they are the “chosen” of the God Murphy, and often feel like a small mouse that a cat plays with. The God Murphy is a fickle, trickster God who cannot be appeased, only mitigated and suffered.

The Rational/Secular Murphyist believes that:

Murphy’s Law is the primary, guiding law of the Universe.

Murphy’s Law applies to all situations and all people equally, though humans may not always perceive its workings.

Systems such as the Scientific Method have been developed to allow humanity as a whole to mitigate the effects of this law upon progress.

Everything in human life should be checked at least three times by two or more people before it can be trusted, and then that trust should only be provisional.

When systems such as the scientific method and other checks are used and things still go wrong, there is no guilt or fault that attaches, because the universe is designed to go wrong (Chaos theory). You just find out how it went wrong this time, correct for that, and try again.
The Religious/Mystical Murphyist believes:

Murphy’s Law is the primary, guiding law of the Universe.

Murphy’s Law is manifested by a trickster God, named Murphy.

The effects of Murphy’s Law are not manifested equally throughout the universe. The God Murphy has chosen some human beings to be his “favorites”. They experience the effects of the law more profoundly than others.

The God Murphy cannot be appeased… only mitigated.

Some human beings, often termed “lucky” are mostly ignored by the God Murphy. Though this is unfair, it is simply the way things are.

Those who are the “chosen favorites” of the God Murphy have developed ways of living their lives that mitigate the effects of being the “chosen” of the God Murphy. Some of these strategies include always having multiple backup plans, utilizing all possible safety equipment, and spending time with (and sometimes becoming life-partners with) those that they perceive to be “lucky”, hoping for some balancing effect.

When things go wrong, Religious/Mystical Murphyists realize that is it probably not their fault. Fault only attaches if they can identify some precaution that they could have reasonably taken that they did not. If they took all reasonable precautions and things still went wrong, then the Religious/Mystical Murphyist remembers the God Murphy and seeks to mitigate any and all effects.

Each of these religious systems begins and ends in the same place… and in this beginning and ending lies the strength of each of these systems that I wish to hold up to close this article. I look forward to hearing from the Murphyists out there as to how well I have captured a snapshot of your religious system, as I am one of those “lucky” one’s that a Murphyist has married to seek some kind of cosmic balance. I freely admit that I am only seeing part of it, having not lived the reality myself.

The strength in each of these religious system is that they begin with a firm ideological foundation (Anything that can go wrong will go wrong) and the end with a way to place the fault for things going wrong on something besides the self, so long as one has done the hard work of precautions and testing that is the spiritual practice of the Murphyist. Thus, taking precautions, developing backup plans, testing possible results, cushioning consequences, purchasing safety equipment, etc… all of these become an intimate and intricate dance in the life of the Murphyist, be they religious or secular, rational or mystical. The Murphyist is called to live a life of preparation, knowing that all preparation will ultimately fail. However, if they can prepare well enough, then the God Murphy can shoulder any blame. The true Murphyist becomes an expert at “picking up the pieces” of that failure and trying again. It is all they can do.

As I believe that all good theology should have a Science Fiction analogue, I have found such an analogue for the Murphyist. If you reach deep into Science Fiction you will find, within the Universe inspired by Larry Niven, a race of beings known as the Puppeteers. They live on a world with no hard edges, no corners, and no surfaces that are not cushioned. They prepare constantly for any danger, mitigate any threat, and seek safety as their primary purpose. Any Puppeteer who seeks adventure is declared criminally insane, and immediately exiled. When they sensed the impending energy-death of the Universe, they moved their entire solar-system to an area of the universe that would last longer than others.

If such a world appeals to you… then you might just be a Murphyist.

Yours in faith,

David

  • Kathy Ellis

    Hello David, I have indeed known and been close to some Murphyists. They do have some strengths. ;-)

  • Theresa Lutz

    Oh gods, first I become a UU and found out that talking to trees and worshiping dirt for decades meant I was a pagan. All those same decades I’ve been taking umbrellas with me to prevent rain on iffy days, packing a walking first aid and tool kit, and traveling with extra *everything* specifically to appease Murphy and often invoking His name.

    I am undeniably a Murphyist.

    But despite the daily devotions, routine offerings and frequent invocations to Murphy, I’m also a practicing Pollyanna. So I may be practicing a slightly different version than those described, but it is clearly Murphyism. So now I’m wondering about the relationship between Pollyanna and Murphyism, what shape a formal ritual to Murphy might take, and having a really uncomfortable memory of a friend telling me that Loki has known me for a long, long time.

    Pagan, Pollyanna, and Murphyist. It’s easier to just say “UU”


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