Friday, January 15, 2010


Pat Robertson’s comments on Haiti’s supposed “pact to the devil” have, not surprisingly, elicited sharp criticism. I will not defend him: His comments were smug, condescending, self-satisfied and delusional. I suspect they made God cry.

But they illustrate well how desperately we seek explanations for why things happen. We discuss this at length in our forthcoming book Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in our World:

Peter Berger (1967), a sociologist and a Lutheran theologian, … argues that religion is “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant” (28). Berger argues that humans are fundamentally meaning-seeking creatures: It is our very nature to impose order upon our experiences and seek meaning in day-to-day events. In so doing, we reject chaos and the possibility that events are random in nature.

We see much anecdotal evidence that Berger is right about this. A child dies, and through their grief parents vow that the child’s death will “mean something”: they may start a foundation or lobby for passage of a law or speak publicly about a larger issue related to their child’s death. The child’s death is transformed from an isolated random event that happens with some degree of tragic regularity – diseases strike, drunk drivers kill, accidents happen – to an event with meaning and larger purpose, an event connected to the larger social order. Similarly, an elderly woman wins the lottery and believes she is being repaid for a lifetime of financial struggles and generous acts. It is entirely unsatisfying to think that picking the right lottery numbers might be just dumb luck and unrelated to the moral fiber of the lucky winner, to conceive that a selfish and callous person could be so fortunate as to beat the odds.

According to Berger, humans constantly seek order and meaning in daily events as a way to fight off the alterative – the admission that our lives are full of random unpredictability – that leaves us enmeshed in the terrifying and dark morass of chaos. Chaos, or the absence of order, is terrifying to humans because it suggests a dark abyss into which it is too easy to fall. One common type of order is what Berger refers to as nomos, the imposition of order by humans on everyday events so that events seem more predictable and stable. Schedules and appointments, laws of science, social norms such as driving on the right side of the road, and stereotypes, all take masses of information, actions, and events and place them in a system of humanly constructed and understood order.

But the most robust order is cosmos, a conception of order that links human experience to a transcendental order, providing a sense that our lives are not mere aggregations of random events but instead that our experiences are connected to some larger sacred order. As people often say in both good and bad times, “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Events that otherwise make no sense are explained through their connection a cosmic order. Terrorists crash a plane into a building, and Jerry Falwell, a prominent religious leader, claims that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way… created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection…” (CNN, 2001). That event must be connected to some larger and sacred order: Falwell is convinced. It cannot be an accident or a fluke, or a mundane failure of airport security. The universe cannot be so cruel. It must mean something.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people varied greatly in how they evaluated those who stayed behind in New Orleans. Some of the harshest evaluations came from those whose criticisms suggest that they would have done things differently: “I would have hoofed it out of there” said one student who was not the least bit compassionate toward--and indeed seemed disgusted by--the people who remained behind. She even said “They got what they deserved.” This student’s response was perplexing: She was so certain that those who stayed behind were basically flawed human beings and insisted that the suffering was not random but deserved.

Berger’s lens suggests a different underlying thought, something along the lines of: “I cannot believe this was just a random event that happened to random people because that would mean that someday something like this could happen to me. There is order in this world and nothing so awful could ever happen to a deserving person like me.” To admit that such a terrifying and tragic event could befall anyone at anytime is to acknowledge the significant degree of randomness in our day-to-day existence. It is this sense of inherent chaos that, with the help of religion, we fight so hard to fend off. Humans fight the notion that events are random by conceiving that they are meaningful in some larger cosmic order.

There are two kinds of why. There is the “why” that is really a “how” question. The answer to that – with respect to Haiti – is clear. Haiti was built on a fault line, not a metaphorical one, but literally a geological fault line. Over centuries of plate movement, energy built up until the earth shook. Science gives a comprehensive answer to this question. And the social sciences and engineering can help us understand the subsequent devastation: Long-standing poverty led to substandard construction, and substantially more damage when the earth did it was always going to do.

But the other kind of “why” – What does this mean? – is where Pat Robertson so small-ly, meanly and cruelly plunged. We shouldn’t be surprised: Did anyone really think that Pat Robertson would look to science for the answer to his why question?

He offers his listeners a myth about a pact with the devil that assures him and them that they could never experience such misfortune.

Me, I prefer our president’s answer to the big “why” question: “For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible…”

I prefer not knowing, when the kind of knowing embraced by Pat Robertson embodies cowardice, smugness and false superiority.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Common Sense?

There's a lot of talk these days about "Common Sense" as a political virtue. With apologies to Thomas Paine, here's what I think the people mean today when they invoke "Common Sense":

That which I find so obvious that I need not explain it to you.

That notion of common sense is problematic. First, because it assumes the speaker's obvious superiority over the listener: I know what's right and, if you disagree, it's because you are stupid. Where's your common sense?

But second, and more importantly, because it renders dialogue superfluous: We need not talk, we need not argue, we need not exchange ideas, because the conclusion -- mine, at least -- is self-evident. Don't weary me with your questions, your doubts, your alternative perspectives. It's so tedious. I was done thinking about this the moment my mind first formed this thought. I think it, therefore it is common sense.

It's a convenient cop out, allowing the person claiming "Common Sense" to escape scrutiny and challenge, to avoid thinking, to evade defense of his or her ideas.

The invoking of "Common Sense" is a dangerous trend in a democratic society.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Nelson Mandela and radical forgiveness

I saw Invictus recently and was reminded of Nelson Mandela's radical forgiveness. Twenty-seven years in a prison for dissenting from apartheid and, when freed and elected President of South Africa, he moved himself and his country forward by forgiving and unifying. Radical forgiveness that was hard for anyone to understand but essential to healing.

Nearly three decades as a political prisoner, and look how Nelson Mandela turned out.

I don't think that we are the captains of our fate, but I do think we are the masters of our souls. We don't determine our circumstances or our outcomes. But we do decide how we respond and who we will be. Nelson Mandela chose forgiveness and compassion, despite the horrible circumstances that stole nearly a third of his life.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, has spent nary a day in prison, more's the pity. Dick Cheney, a man of power and privilege, and look how he turned out. Mean, sour, angry, petty, vengeful...evil. A pathetic remnant of what once might have been a human being.

What's his excuse?