How To Make Religion Feel Really Awkward

I often read Snopes.com, the Internet’s most famous source of hoax-debunkery and leading injector of common sense into unquestioning Facebook-based hysteria.

These are all the weird stories that people share en masse over social networking, usually taking them at face value, overreacting accordingly, and making no effort for themselves to fact-check.  Snopes takes these stories and makes the checks that you really ought to be making yourself, before you share Obama’s latest evil communist plot to your friends and family.

Other debunking sites, equally worthy, are also struggling to keep the flames of truth and rationality burning in the face of the hurricane-deluge of Internet codswallop.  Hoax Slayer is a constant warrior in this endless fight; and even Cracked.com occasionally have a stab at it.

Generally speaking, Snopes.com presents its ‘What’s New’ section as a series of punning headlines followed by questions that we should, in a sensible world, be reasonably confident in answering with “No”; or at least with “Probably not”.  A recent example:

“Has President Obama ordered the Federal Reserve to adopt the Euro?”

My answer: “Probably not, because as far as I know he’s never expressed a desire to be assassinated.”
Snopes’ answer: ‘FALSE’.  (They then explain why – apart from “Because of course it’s false” – the story is false.)

Still, I read Snopes quite regularly, and a few days ago, I came across an article entitled ‘Bullet Anoints‘: Student Jason Derfuss is said to have survived a school shooting because the bullet fired at him lodged in the stack of books he was carrying.  Here, I got it wrong.

My answer: “Probably not, it’s a bullet.  They’re just books.  They’re hardly ballistic cover.”
Snopes’ answer: ‘TRUE’.

Wow.  I read on.

Jason is 21, and offers the following account:

“Earlier tonight there was a shooting at FSU, right as I was leaving Strozier. I didn’t know this at the time, but the Shooter targeted me first. The shot I heard behind me I did not feel, nor did it hit me at all. He was about 5 feet from me, but he hit my books. Books one minute earlier I had checked out of the library, books that should not have stopped the bullet. But they did. I learned this about 3 hours after it happened, I never thought to check my bag. I assumed I wasn’t a target, I assumed I was fine. The truth is I was almost killed tonight and God intervened. I know conceptually He can do all things, but to physically witness the impossible and to be surrounded by such grace is indescribable. To God be the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”

An intriguing story, and I’m very pleased – in that abstract way we have to be when we’re talking about people we don’t know – that Jason is okay.

As I read further, though, and looked over more of Jason’s comments, I began to feel a bit troubled.

“I was leaving Strozier when I heard a shot behind me. I turned around and saw the gunman shoot one person who collapsed. I turned and ran to my car before driving off. There were a ton of people stuck in the library when this happened. I went home so I [didn’t] have any other details.”

I’m not going to hold a man who’s narrowly escaped injury or death by shooting to remain perfectly calm and utterly rational in feeling grateful to have survived.  But did you see the bit in that second comment about “I turned around and saw the gunman shoot one person who collapsed”?  Jason left the scene, as he absolutely should have done, and as I would have done in the same situation.  Our popular culture teaches us all about ‘heroism’ – but in the real world conscious attempts to be heroic generally mean putting people at further unnecessary risk.  I absolutely am not going to imply that Jason should have done anything other than leave.

But then I wondered about his original statement above:

“The truth is I was almost killed tonight and God intervened. I know conceptually He can do all things, but to physically witness the impossible and to be surrounded by such grace is indescribable. To God be the glory, forever and ever, Amen.”

‘To God be the glory for saving my life’.  A perfectly understandable reaction from a religious person. But, admittedly with the benefit of detachment and my state of not-recently-having-been-shot-at, I couldn’t help but wonder what Jason thought about God’s treatment of the other person, the one he saw shot down?  Has he since reflected on the possible reasons why God might have seen fit to leave that person to suffer?

This probably sounds very curmudgeonly.  But it goes to the heart of at least one reason that some people distrust religion – especially monotheistic religion – so much.  Monotheisms, the Abramic faiths in particular, posit an all-loving, merciful, omni-benevolent God, and are quick to attribute good things to His kindness and grace.  But faced with bad things, monotheists can find themselves painted into a corner.  The age-old problem of theodicy, the so-called ‘Problem of Evil’, wrestles with the question of why evil can exist if God is simultaneously all-knowing (He knows when evil is happening), all-powerful (He’s capable of preventing it), and all-loving (He would have an interest in preventing evil).

Without wishing to seem smug, we polytheists don’t face this problem because we don’t view divinity as an exclusively good, moral force: some of the gods (Venus, Minerva, Juno and the like) are kindly and interested in protecting us; some are doing a job and will roll over us without a thought if we get in their way (Jupiter, Neptune, Vulcan, et al).  But for monotheists, who don’t think of God as dispassionate, much less capable of vindictiveness, it’s a big issue.  It’s an issue that’s routinely picked up and exploited by anti-religionists who want to present faith as immoral; and it’s an issue highlighted starkly in situations like that of Jason Derfuss.

Jason is absolutely right to be grateful for his deliverance from this person’s act of cruelty – I’d be equally grateful. But grateful to whom?  Did God really choose to save him, and yet abandon the victim Jason saw shot?  Or is it simply more likely that when one human chooses to inflict mindless violence on another for no good reason, God simply doesn’t form part of the dynamic at all?  I suspect where God becomes involved is when humans return to showing love and compassion for each other.  Perhaps as wounds heal following something like this, then God gets to make contact with people again.

I suspect Jason was just lucky; his student colleague, not so much.

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