The solipsism of faith

Human engineering prowess has long sought to protect people from the sorts of natural disasters that have struck the nation’s midsection over the last several weeks.  Some survivors of these recent storms, however, see God’s hand–rather than successful building design or random luck–in their exemption from the devastation that struck down their neighbors.  In Alabama, where almost 200 people were killed by tornadoes at the end of April, a Birmingham minister

spoke of the miracles of the disaster — the people who cheated death; the buildings, like his church, that somehow remained. He talked about trusting in God in times of trouble.

In Joplin, Missouri, hit by the deadliest twister of the season last week, some congregants at the Blendville Christian Church

spoke of their own miracles that kept them alive.
“How many of you have prayed this week?” asked Virgil Eubanks, 60, the pastor.
A chorus of hands shot up. “Oh yeah,” he continued. “If this didn’t catch you up on your prayer life there’s something wrong with you.”

One doesn’t want to deny survivors of cataclysm whatever emotional succor they can find during a period of undeserved loss.  Still, it is always puzzling to me how believers can attribute their escape from calamity to God’s protection without feeling compelled to explain why God did not extend that protection to other people not clearly less deserving than themselves.  If God was capable of working a “miracle” to prevent you from death by tornado in Missouri or Alabama, why didn’t he work that same miracle to save your neighbors?  (We will leave aside the added puzzle of why God would allow the natural cataclysm to proceed in the first place and confine himself to piecemeal, after-the-fact efforts to mitigate its effects for a select number of survivors.)  The implication of attributing one’s own good fortune amid a wave of misfortune to God is inescapable: God cared for me more than for the deceased victims.  Yet only rarely does this implication seem to break through into a believer’s consciousness. 

When it does cast a faint shadow of cognitive discomfort, there are two main strategies for responding.  The first: “God works in mysterious ways.  We cannot begin to fathom his judgments.”  Oh, but you just claimed that you recognize his hand in your escape from natural disaster, so his ways are in fact not mysterious to you.  These days, Catholic apologists in particular stress the rationality of religious faith.  If faith is so consistent with rationality, it should be able to offer a cogent explanation for why God worked a “miracle” on this person’s behalf, but not on the next person’s behalf.  I have yet to see such an explanation. 

The second strategy for responding to the inconsistent application of “miracles” is less frequently essayed today:   “God was showing his infinite love to the casualties of a disaster, because now they have entered heaven ahead of the queue and are enjoying his love face to face.”  Perhaps when death mowed down children and young mothers on a routine basis, this “now they are in heaven” justification for premature and random death may have seemed more palatable, since so many innocents were enjoying this windfall.  But now that medical science has fulfilled its promise of long delaying this allegedly gratifying early entry into heaven, and has made manifest how desperately we want to put off that heavenly entry, it becomes a bit harder to portray premature death as a boon. 

The solipsism of faith truly knows no bounds.  As the devastation from the March Japanese tsunami  was grimly mounting, an Iowa pastor claimed that God helped unseat three Iowa state justices who had voted to allow same sex-marriage:

“God used David Lane [a born-again Christian organizer] and his sphere of influence to bring together all the elements” of the campaign to oust the justices, [pastor Jeffrey] Mullen said.

However important an Iowa judicial recall regarding gay marriage may be to God, you would think that saving over 10,000 Japanese innocents from death and hundreds of thousands of Japanese residents from total upheaval would also be worth a certain amount of attention.  But if Pastor Mullen has ever considered why God stopped by in Iowa City but not in Fukushima, he doesn’t let on.  And as the world was still taking in the magnitude of the Japanese destruction, a member of my family told me that she prays to God whenever a wild bird flies through an open door into her house and that God guides it back out.  She also asks God to send his angels to hold up the back of her property against landslides.  If we are made in God’s image, we obviously come by our inability to think outside of ourselves in a consistent, neutral fashion from a good source.

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14 Responses to The solipsism of faith

  1. Matt says:

    Magical thinking such as this leads some to believe that these natural disasters are sent as punishment for allowing “rampant sin” in our society. Are the innocent victims of tornadoes and tsunamis just collateral damage of God’s wrath, then? You’d think an omnipotent being would use more precise weaponry, such as lightning or meteorites, to smite his enemies.

  2. Mark says:

    I don’t see the problem with stating that God has acted in one’s own personal life. When it happens, it is something you experience and you know the truth of what has happened, which is a quite different thing from inferring such a connection after an accident of chance, though I don’t expect many here to grasp the fact.

    As for why God may save X and not Y, what’s wrong with Inferring that God had unfinished business with X and not Y? And how do advances in medical technology disprove the proposition that those whom god does not act to save in this life continue into another?

  3. Mark:

    On your last question: is premature death a boon or not? If it is, why don’t Christians build their houses close to volcanoes?

  4. The Mark Who Was Here First says:

    “You know the truth of what has happened”–please distinguish this from every nut claiming some god has spoken to him.

    But it is good to know that when “God” had finished his business with you, you are tornado fodder (or whatever).

    I’ve probably seen a lamer theodicy, but honestly, I can’t recall it.

  5. Gary says:

    And to show his endless love at the end of his business with you, you get hurled miles into the air and slammed into the ground and a hundred miles per hour. What a loving way to be removed from life. Oh and as a bonus, your family gets to watch it happen. If this is love, I will have to pass.

  6. Mark says:


    I believe there is life after death. Whether death is therefore a boon would depend on individual circumstances I’m not privy to. Christians dont build their houses on volcanoes because they have the same biological imperative to survive that everyone else has. Now please answer my question (which was posed first) regarding how advances in medical technology disprove the proposition that the soul continues after death.

    Other Mark,

    I can distinguish it because I know I’m not crazy. Obviously that isn’t going to satisfy you, but so what? That would be an issue if i were trying to convince you of something, and I’m not. Faith is personal.

  7. Mark:

    I think Heather’s main point on that issue is to be taken from the clause “and has made manifest how desperately we want to put off that heavenly entry” — the point is that humans (even Christian ones) spend so much effort to delay death, including, in this example, investing in medical technology. Why would we waste our time with such efforts if we actually viewed premature death as a boon? Efforts to ward off death belie the Christian claim to actually welcome premature death.

  8. CJColucci says:

    I can distinguish it because I know I’m not crazy.

    How do you know this? How could you? I don’t know that I’m not crazy, and if I were, I wouldn’t know that I was. (This last part I have learned from formerly crazy people I have known. They uniformly tell me that they were, when crazy, unaware of their craziness.) I believe I am not crazy because my perceptions of reality match up fairly well with those of the non-insitutionalized people around me, and are often otherwise verifiable. If I start having non-verifiable experiences seriously out of line with what other, seemingly non-crazy, folks appear to experience, then maybe I am crazy. In any event, I might suspect my own sanity, as the formerly crazy people I’ve talked to sometimes did briefly before they went entirely around the bend.

  9. J. says:

    So what one might infer, spiritually speaking, from the monster twisters? The Creator obviously doesn’t care much for the dirty South.

    Serio, the …notion that Nature punishes the sinful via natural disasters does seem to be a common assumption among monotheists, whether xtian, jew, or mooslim–sort of what keeps a theo-bozo like Pat Robertson in business. At least in hinduism, they have some multi-armed, entropic hottie ..Kali, IIRC. She shakes her ass, and tidal waves roll.

  10. Susan says:

    Well, if anything else, natural disasters and the havoc they wreak would seem to underline the futility, or illogic, of petitionary prayer. If God wants you to die in the tornado, or the tsunami, or the volcanic eruption because your business on earth is finished, praying for an alternate outcome would seem to be a pointless gesture.

  11. J. says:

    That seems reasonable, S.–even Voltairean in a sense, but fundamentalists down Birmingham-way aren’t about Reason and don’t know Voltaire from Valvoline. Fundies will, ex post facto as they say, insist that the McCoys over on Elm did not pray hard or attend church enough, or one of their kids might have been queer, while the Hatfields on Beech did go to church regularly, etc–so Billy Bob McCoy, that lil’ rascal, was sucked up into the twister, whereas Daisy Mae Hatfield, in sundayschool each week, wasn’t. The preacher then pronounces “God works in mysterious ways”, and it’s settled.

    ( Miss MacD hints at the Evidential problem of Evil, as philosophical types call it. One may quite reasonable refer to natural disasters–quakes, tidal waves, volcanoes, plagues, etc–as evidence contra arguments in favor of the existence of a monotheistic, benevolent God)

  12. Slumlord says:

    it becomes a bit harder to portray premature death as a boon.

    I know it’s hard for you to understand this but I’ll try.

    What sort of “benevolent” father stands idly around letting his son get the shit beat out of him and then crucified without intervening?

    Either he is a negligent (evil) father or His conception of benevolence is not the same as ours. Your logic is the same one that a teenager employs when parents put limits on their behaviour.

    According to said teenager, ” A good father would….” but, because the good father is not doing what thet want him to do, he is therefore not a good father. It’s only with years of experience and maturity that the self-absorbed and immature teenager realises that the father was good all along.

    To traditionalist Christians, death is no big deal. That God let his son die horribly does not mean that God did not love him, it just means that God’s idea of suffering is different to ours. The fluffy bunny Jesus crowd are just as wrong as the atheists. God is more a drill instructor than a kindergaden teacher.

  13. J. says:

    Ah it’s the old Calvinist megadeath meme–so the spanish influenza epidemic of 1919-20 (which claimed more lives than did WWI) should be considered… a sign of His love!– that is, when you look at it right. Tornadoes and all disasters are not “evil” but in fact proof of His everlasting concern for the human race.

    The EPOE–why wouldn’t an omnipotent God prevent a spanish influenza, or never “programmed” it at all?– may be a bit obvious or trivial (in use, since at least the ancient greeks) but it’s rather difficult to refute, except by ….leaps of faith (ie, God somehow compensates the innocent victims of natural disasters in the afterlife or something)

  14. Susan says:

    If I’m recalling my reading of Greek mythology correctly, the gods and goddesses were pretty much immortal humans with superpowers. To wit, they had all the failings of humans: they were jealous, petty, spiteful, lecherous, greedy, thin-skinned, vain, envious, etc. So if one of them inflicted some appalling unjustified punishment on an innocent, the survivors could chalk it up to the fact that the god in question was just a semi-psychotic brute indulging a sadistic whim. And they might reasonably conclude it worthwhile praying to such an entity to placate him. Or her.

    I suppose it makes more sense than trying to rationalize why a loving God would send a tornado to rip a fifteen-month-old boy out of his mother’s arms, as apparently happened in Joplin.

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