One mistake in thinking cost me many years. It followed me from Christianity and out of it and past it. My belief in this idea led me into and out of any number of disastrous personal decisions. That belief was in the idea of a Just World. I’ll show you what it is, why it’s such a bugbear for so many people, and maybe illuminate a path away from it.
Introduction to the Just World Belief.
But though she was not afraid of death she was not indifferent to it. She found that she resented it; it was not fair that she should have to die when she had never lived.
Sometimes people call it the Just World Hypothesis, or the Just World Fallacy, or even the Just World Phenomenon. The terms mean the same thing: the idea that good things happen to good people, while bad things happen to bad people. Maybe the good or bad things take a long time to happen, but happen they must. Eventually, the cosmic scales of justice get set into balance.
Corollary to the Just World is the notion that everything that happens for a reason. Everything can be explained somehow. Cause and effect forms a chain from the first event to the last. It all works out for the good of those that believe.
Kids may develop this belief system very early–maybe by 6 or 8 years old. If their parents feed into it, then it can firm up considerably by the teen years. Young people use that belief system to frame historical events and current events alike into narratives (if you have a JSTOR account, there’s a link on that page to the full paper).
If young people don’t seriously examine this belief in themselves and try to move past it, then they enter their vulnerable young-adult years primed for some serious disappointment.
Newsflash (This Just In): Life’s Not Fair.
Sarah: It’s not fair!
Jareth: You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.
Maybe more than any other belief we hold as children, though, reality interferes with the Just World so often that it shreds it to wet tissue paper. And that process happens incidentally. Natural disasters claim lives daily, all around the world. Horrible people hurt innocent ones. Only the good die young, while the bad seem to live forever.
Even in our personal lives, we see immediately and often that justice can be elusive at best. We get blamed for stuff we never did, and the good stuff often gets overlooked. Sometimes we can spin a pleasing-enough narrative out of random chance events, but not nearly consistently enough.
For the most part, we depend upon our parents and other caretakers to ensure that the scales get balanced (eventually). But when they fall down on the job, there’s not much help for the situation.
Some people grow out of the belief on their own (or aided by parents). They learn that justice and mercy don’t get doled out by a caring universe or gigantic imaginary friend, but must be cultivated by people, and that despite our best efforts, sometimes terrible things happen to good people–and bad people benefit by wrongdoing more often than we like.
Righting the Wrongs–Sort Of.
Bishop Ellis: I thank God that reprobate [his own father] is in Hell.
Carlton: You just said you loved him.
Bishop Ellis: I adored him.
Carlton: And you wouldn’t get him out?
Bishop Ellis: Hell is where he’s at and Hell is where he belongs.
Instead, what most people get is indoctrination into religion.
There, this belief in the Just World gets hijacked, appropriated, and assimilated into a framework. Sometimes, that framework lasts a difficult lifetime.
In Christianity in particular, adherents get taught–and believe, firmly–that every person will get their due at some point. Maybe they won’t be rewarded or punished adequately until the end of the world. Even so, yes, it will happen–eventually.
Moreover, this scale-balancing will happen to everyone in the world. If people do not get their just desserts (one way or the other) in this life, they certainly will in the next. A godling that proves curiously incapable of assuring fairness in this world will somehow make it happen in the next, without fail, and yes, even in this one now.
That simple belief right there is what keeps so many Christians in the pews years past the time when their hearts began whispering yes, but now. Only by toadying up to this godling can they escape the “justice” they believe will be forced upon everyone who doesn’t do the same and more. And only through cozying up to this vicious deity can they hope to gain some measure of justice in this world–all of it handed down miraculously (if capriciously) by a “loving” god who allows his followers–and none others–to escape the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
Struggling With Bubble Maintenance.
[The blathering of an entire Christian apologetics book trying to reprimand Christians for being upset when their entire belief system is violated by the clear evidence that nobody supernatural is helping them do anything.]
I’ve heard many Christians describe this belief as a literal “safety net.” Without their god’s help and active assistance, they believe they would be left without any way at all to assure themselves of justice in the world. They fear that they would cut themselves off from miraculous aid to balance the cosmic scales. They would be alone. Indeed, I’ve heard a lot of ex-Christians talk about feeling bereft like that right after deconversion. I’ve even felt that way myself–briefly.
Of course, that feeling of having a safety net is, itself, an illusion. Every Christian over the age of about 12 knows perfectly well that despite slavish obedience, bad things happen anyway to good people. Every day, they receive confirmation of the truth about bad people all across the religion victimizing others.
As I said, reality interferes with this belief perhaps more than any other platform of Christianity. The more wonder-working the god a Christian holds as the one true divinity, the more reality contradicts that vision. And rest assured, Lady Reality does so with a raspberry and two raised middle fingers. She doesn’t even take the cigarette out from between her ruby-red lips while she responds.
As a result, Christians must expend a great deal of work to make their Just World beliefs fit with what they see going on all around them every day.
And as usual, nobody compassionate likes how they square that impossible circle.
Victim Blaming From TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
“Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?”
Job 40:7-8, wherein Job gets screamed at for four chapters for objecting to his losses
(which came as a result of his god’s cheap bet with Satan)
Because Christians start with two false beliefs, they can’t possibly begin to empathize with the victims of abuse and disasters.
Premise 1: The Christian god loves his followers and wants to help them wherever he can, except when he makes cheap bets with Satan, of course.
Premise 2: Sinful behavior stymies this omnimax god’s efforts to help.
Conclusion: Anybody who suffers must have come by that suffering through some sin they committed. They need to quit doing that, so they can receive the help of their divine safety net.
It’s a purely insidious line of thinking. And yet we see examples of it everywhere in the religion.
In the Wild.
Worrying about fairness is a spiritual and emotional dead end. . . God is in control of all of life’s circumstances and [ ] nothing happens outside of his will.
The more extremist the Christian, the more they seem to like blaming innocent victims.
- Pat Robertson famously blamed the 2010 Haitian earthquake on a centuries-old “pact to the devil” he was sure the Haitians had made to free themselves from slavery.
- Jim Daly of Focus on the Family decided last December that an epidemic of sexual abuse comes from “the sexual revolution,” by which he means disobedience to the demands he and his fellow Christian leaders keep trying to make.
- A month later, the Missouri Attorney General (and now candidate for Senate, running against Claire McCaskill) Josh Hawley blamed sex trafficking on the same thing, that evil ole “sexual revolution” that he felt had opened women to “exploitation” for the first time, unlike his own version of patriarchal fundagelicalism.
- None other than megapastor Rick Warren thinks that school shootings happen because kids learn about evolution in their biology classes instead of being indoctrinated into Christianity’s mythology there. (Other Christians think that teaching science in science classes causes rape.)
- When a popular fundagelical pastor, Geronimo Aguilar (“Pastor G”) got convicted and sentenced for raping a 13-year-old girl, his own uncle wondered out loud if the girl had somehow brought her fate upon herself through provocative behavior.
Calvin: It’s not fair!
Dad: The world isn’t fair, Calvin.
Calvin: I know, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?
Not for nothing do a lot of folks speculate that Christians often seem stalled in their emotional development. And again, the more hardline the Christian, the more immature their reasoning can get. This absolute need of theirs to see the world as running ultimately in a fair or just fashion is simply another aspect of that arrested development.
As well, some psychologists differentiate between Just World beliefs as applying to particular individuals and the belief as those individuals apply it to others. Focusing the belief outward can bring someone to a serious lack of compassion toward the victims of disasters and abuse.
It’d be very easy to mock and deride them for that stalling-out. It does, after all, make them sound downright callous and cruel toward those victims.
But it ain’t much more fun to be a decent person who gets trapped in that mindset. And surprise, surprise! Deconverting doesn’t magically make that mindset disappear. If someone doesn’t work out what got them into religion in the first place, they may take the Just World with them to the next false ideology they buy into.
Justice for Thee; Mercy for Me.
Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.
When someone needs the whole world to operate according to the plan and design of an omnipotent deity, that puts them into a serious bind when loved ones–or they themselves–run into trouble.
I’ve known good people who felt thrown into a deep pit of despair when they couldn’t figure out what they were doing so wrong that they faced this or that problem–or kept getting victimized. Sometimes they beat themselves up mentally and start doing weird and more extremist things trying to purify themselves. Other times, they simply slide into depression. And worst of all, they often endure whatever the situation is because they think they deserve it.
I mean, terrible people will always find permission slips to continue being terrible. As an example, check out this interesting paper that found a positive association between Just World belief and dishonest behavior! As the authors there discuss, this belief is already associated with “vengefulness, harsh social attitudes, hostile attributions, and delinquent intentions.” (Also “defensive coping, anger, and perceived future risk.” And more besides.)
But when good people get sucked into these beliefs, the results can be heartbreaking.
Escaping the Just World Belief.
That mothers and fathers both can perish untimely is no deliberate injustice on life’s part. Scouter knows that life is just life. And so he is not quite astonished when his send-call is swiftly answered. This, too, is just life.
Some experts think that belief in the Just World might help alleviate a lot of anxiety and feelings of vulnerability. If someone realizes that no imaginary friends are out there helping kids stay safe, or helping people drive to their destinations “safely and on time,” or helping world leaders navigate national security, that could provoke a lot of worry in them.
I can identify. The thing is, those illusory benefits can’t outweigh the real damage the belief did to me.
Here are some ways I’ve used to stop this mindset from pushing me in directions I don’t like:
- Demystify the belief. Be aware that you have this bias, if you do.
- Tell yourself as often as you need to that the world isn’t intrinsically fair, but people can work to make things better.
- Learn to discern how much control people have in situations. (When there is nothing you can do to gracefully resolve a scenario, be aware that abusive people rig scenarios that way.)
- Refuse to assign blame to the victims of abuse or disasters.
- Learn about free will–or rather, the difficulties that exist with the idea.
As you grow in confidence and learn to set boundaries, a lot of this cognitive bias will fade. It seems to me that when we complain that something’s not fair, we’re kinda making an implicit request for someone to come along to make it better for us.
Aaaannnnd that brings me to my last point of the evening.
Making Our Own Justice.
“Once I start messing around like that, there’d be no stoppin’ it. Seems to me, the only sensible thing is for people to know if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.”
Adam Young (regarding his infernal powers) in Good Omens
We’re it, gang.
No cosmic beings of pure light and energy exist to right the wrongs. Whatever justice, fairness, and mercy exist in our world, it comes from us. And it must. And it is best that it does.
Once upon a time, I would have been devastated by that idea. I would have felt like I was walking a tightrope without a net beneath me.
Now the idea exhilarates me. It lights me up. It gives me a strange and crackling energy.
You and I and everyone who wants to be a good person, we storm the castle together. We hold the rulers of high places accountable; we help make the world a better place than we found it.
Alone, we are each just little drops of water in a huge bucket.
But–friends–just look at what happens when many drops of water come together at once.
NEXT UP: Prophecy might not be paying the bills like it used to for charlatans. We’ll look at one of the lowest-of-the-low cottage industries for Lord Snow Presides on Monday, and then we’re moving on to a surprising new development in the world of Christian wingnuts. See you soon!
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