|Henryville, IN March 3, 2012
The latest natural disaster has brought to the fore something that I've always noticed but have rarely written about. It is always difficult to talk about the insidious poison of god-belief and the harm it does to humanity, but it is doubly hard when there has been a disaster. People don't want to hear about it and they often react very negatively to any attempt to talk about it. They feel that the atheist who decries the talk of gods during a crisis is capitalizing on the emergency to "proselytize" for atheism.
Yet, capitalizing on the crisis to proselytize god-belief is exactly what is already happening, and what happens every single time there is a natural disaster or human crisis of any sort. Theists use disasters to underline the privileged position of theism in society by inserting prayers and petitions to "God" into public activities around the crisis but, even more perniciously, they use disasters to further entrench irrational belief in the minds of a traumatized and psychologically vulnerable populace.
"It's a blessing. We praise God (that no one was hurt)"
"Thank God (few students were at school when the tornado hit), or they all would have been gone."
What is more, this pushing of god-belief is nearly always coupled with phrasing which disrespects real heroism and human effort, thus displacing the gratitude which rightly belongs to human beings who have actually taken action - who have actually provided real help - and allowing it to dissipate pointlessly into the "thank god" ether. Worst of all, theists rarely miss the opportunity to reinforce religious misogyny and bigotry in the vulnerable psyches of people who are grappling with a terrible situation.
I found remarks by Mitch Daniels - Governor of Indiana and fervently conservative Christian - both offensive and revealing, especially juxtaposed so closely with those of theists thanking "God" for the good luck of not being the ones killed in the disaster. Referring to the devastating storms of March 2, 2012, the governor repeatedly blamed them on "Mother Nature" throughout the day. Here and here are some news articles where the governor is quoted doing this on several different occasions. The remark most packed with WTF?, in my view, was this:
|Ferocious Mother Nature
"I am constantly amazed by both the unpredictability and the ferocity that Mother Nature can unleash, when she chooses to," Governor Mitch Daniels, Indiana.
Those damned females! Even female gods can't be trusted not to make "choices" which cause death and destruction! And don't get him started on how unpredictable and ferocious that female anger can be.
There is so much to talk about here that I hardly know where to begin. This quote is a tiny illustration of a topic that is so huge that there is no way it can be covered in one post. I expect that quotes like this, which crop up with depressing frequency in our god-soaked culture, will be an ongoing source of grim inspiration for countless posts on religious misogyny, privileging of theism, irrational thinking, displacement of natural human feelings and ideas, anti-choice ideology, bigotry, homophobia, racism... well, you get the idea.
For starters, let me try to zero in on the problems with the quote above, as briefly as possible.
|(One of?) The Loving Creator (s)
So, the general claim of Christianity is that it is a monotheistic religion. Except of course, there is Satan who is alleged to have nearly as much god-like power to do evil as God himself has to do "good". There is a lot of overlap there, too, because Satan is often credited with doing things that seem good to trick believers, while God is often cited as the power behind many terrible events (but always for loving reasons, of course). It is pretty confusing in the theist world.
|Mother Nature the un-goddess
But if there are no other gods but the Triune God why, then, do theists like Governor Daniels say foolish things like "once again Mother Nature has dealt harshly with Indiana" ? Apparently, when random natural phenomena occur - as long as the theist majority decides not to ascribe the events to judgement by an angry god - there is unspoken agreement that those events can comfortably be attributed to other supernatural forces. Forces that are not gods, you understand, but other anthropomorphous, supernatural beings.
With god-like powers.
There is clearly a problem of unacknowledged polytheism here, not to mention the privileging of the majority religion's god over less favored gods. "God" is praised and credited with saving lives in the midst of destruction, while "Mother Nature" is roundly blamed for causing the destruction.
The other problems are more difficult to untangle from the mess of misogyny, anti-choice ideology and polytheism that is all bundled up in these remarks by the Indiana governor. Some people will say that it is too much of a stretch to hear misogyny and anti-choice ideology in a remark about a devastating natural disaster, but I don't think it is. I think that reinforcing negative feelings and othering actually is the point of making remarks like that at a time like this.
I do not think it is mere coincidence that the supernatural force to which disasters like this are most commonly attributed is female. I do not think it is an accident that Mother Nature is characterized as both "unpredictable" and "ferocious". I do not think it was merely an odd choice of words to say that Mother Nature can unleash death and destruction "when she chooses to".
I think that quote contains more misogynist baggage than I have seen packed into so few words in a very long time. Much of it is probably unconscious. The fear of female anger, the casual attribution of unpredictable rages to a female source and the words which are so commonly used to derogatorily describe women are often so deeply and unconsciously infused in our society's language and cultural narratives that to point them out is often dismissed as oversensitivity.
But the suggestion that Friday's disaster was not a random occurrence in nature but the choice of a ferocious and unpredictable female supernatural power is a signal that the unconscious beliefs behind a remark like this are something deeper and more dangerous.
This is something that needs to be discussed.
I want to send my sympathy and best wishes out to the people in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Alabama who are dealing with the aftermath of yesterday's tornado outbreak in the USA. Yesterday was a terrible day for anyone unlucky enough to have been in the path of the destructive storm system which swept across the continent. Like so many other Americans, I kept an eye on the news and worried about family and friends in the path of the storms. I understand that rescue operations began immediately and clean up crews are already on the ground in the hardest hit areas. I am thankful for all of the people in those communities - rescue workers, emergency medical personnel and many other professionals and volunteers - who have rushed to help their fellow humans during this emergency. The Red Cross has launched a huge tornado disaster relief effort. Here is a link to their site where people can make donations toward providing real help for people affected by the disaster.