It is the sheer scale of the disaster that is its most salient and terrifying characteristic. On Tuesday 12 January, a 7.0 magnitude scale earthquake struck near the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, destroying – in a matter of minutes – the entire infrastructure of an already struggling third-world country, as well as taking with it somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lives. As the world’s media and aid agencies descended upon the devastated Caribbean landscape, the enormity of the task confronting rescue workers became rapidly apparent – aid struggled to get through, and the lives of the survivors hung in the balance. We saw – as if we needed knowing by now – what can happen to a densely populated region when natural disaster strikes. What was immediately apparent was that this was a humanitarian disaster on a scale that, for once, befits the epithet ‘Biblical’. Who could watch the footage of piles of corpses, of injured survivors, and of children being pulled from the rubble, dead and alive, and not be moved?
Pat Robertson, apparently. While the rest of the world dug deep into its pockets – not out of some spurious tribal loyalty, but from a shared sense of humanity – evangelical preacher Pat Robertson decided the Haitians had, in some strange way, reaped what they had sowed. While broadcasting – of all ironies – an appeal for the Haitians on his “Christian Broadcasting Network” Mr. Robertson seemed to suggest, in a roundabout way, that this earthquake was divinely sanctioned (or perhaps actioned) retribution. Turning to his co-host, Robertson said:
Y’know, Christie, something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French – ah, y’know, Napoleon the 3rd, or whatever – and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, “we will serve you if you get us free from the French” – true story. And so the devil said “okay, it’s a done deal” and, uh, they kicked the French out, y’know the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other – desperately poor. That island of Ispanola is one island, it’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti, on the other side is the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic is prosperous, its healthy, full of resorts etcetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty – same island! Ah, they need to have (and we need to have to pray for them) a great turning to God, that out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic that out of this tragedy something good may come, but right now we’re helping the suffering people – and the suffering is un-imaginable.
One seriously wonders if a man like Robertson is mentally capable of thinking through the implications of his own, somewhat garbled, words. What does such a bizarre piece of reasoning actually say about the God Robertson presumably believes in and is constantly enjoining us to worship? Was he seriously suggesting, as he appeared to be, that God – the supposedly all-seeing, all-powerful creator of the universe – is directly or indirectly responsible for this devastation? By Robertson’s reasoning, when we send money to the massive aid effort, we are trying, to the best of our meagre human abilities, to undo God’s great handiwork. Even if we grant Robertson his premise, and assume that the Haitians did indeed forge a pact with the Devil some 200 years ago, why did God choose to punish the Haitians now (rather than then)? Collective punishment is recognised as a war crime under the 1948 U.N charter. Robertson’s God apparently sees nothing wrong in indiscriminately punishing innocent people for an alleged historical crime; people who cannot, in any way, be held directly responsible for the actions of their ancestors. 100,000 deaths caused by natural disaster is a tragedy. 100,000 intended deaths is genocide. Why would I want to worship this entity again?
Robertson, of course, is hardly a stranger to such sentiments. The day after 9/11, in a televised conversation with the late Gerry Falwell, Robertson disgraced himself by nodding along in agreement as Falwell opined that “the ACLU has to take a lot of blame for this” and that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays, and the lesbians helped this [September 11th] happen.” Here, again, is the same twisted logic: God decided to help Osama Bin Laden kill 3000 innocent Americans because of the (allegedly immoral) actions of others. I wonder if it ever occurs to such people why God, if he really is capable of enacting such murderous retribution, doesn’t seem to be remotely interested in tackling those directly responsible, but instead chooses to enact his wise Godly wrath on innocents in a completely random and indiscriminate way? Falwell and Robertson later, under intense pressure, apologised for these remarks. That, though, changes nothing, as most right thinking people would never have dreamed of saying such repulsive things in the first place. Besides, in 2005 Robertson decided that hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans was God’s judgement on America’s abortion policy. Here God, in his infinite wisdom, decided he’s had enough of abortion, but instead of ending the phenomena of unwanted pregnancy (meaning there would be no need for abortions), he thought the best thing to do was flood New Orleans, leaving nearly 2000 dead and many thousands homeless. Which just goes to show that a tendency to believe in such entities as Gods and Devils betrays a way of looking at the world that is not easily abandoned, anymore than it is easily amenable to reason.
In case you are tempted to dismiss the words of Robertson as the senile ramblings of some fringe lunatic, it is worth bearing in mind that as far as America is concerned, Robertson represents one (among many) of the mainstream faces of Christian evangelicalism. Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps he is not. This kind of simple minded casuistry is not, as much as the British may smugly think, limited to America either. To bring things a lot closer to home consider the case of the Rt Rev Graham Dow, bishop of the Anglican diocese in Carlisle (where I currently reside). When Yorkshire was struck by floods in 2007, Dow decided that the floods were, “a strong and definite judgement” upon the immorality of Britain, singling out homosexuality (again) as the cause: “The sexual orientation regulations are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgement, which is intended to call us to repentance.” Where does one start? Whatever one may think of Yorkshire, a hotbed of homosexuality and immorality it is not. If God wanted to send a message about gays, he could’ve picked somewhere much gayer to make his point (Brighton perhaps?). Once again, God’s aim is way, way wide of the mark, and blameless people are at the suffering brunt of it. In case you think this a mere slip of the tongue, bear in mind this is the same man who a few years earlier wanted to remove a marble sculpture from outside Carlisle’s main museum because it has inscribed on it an infamous curse dating from the 16th Century. He even when so far as to point out that the city had been plagued by disaster since its instillation: there had been floods, foot and mouth, unemployment. A baby was murdered by his father in a local bakery. Even the football team had been relegated. And this from the supposedly liberal, mainstream (read: state-sanctioned) face of organised religion in Britain?
Liberal, moderate Christians, and those practitioners of that obscurantist sophistry we call Theology, will be leaping to object by now. They would argue that their beliefs are much more sophisticated than the pre-modern ramblings of Robertson, Dow, and his ilk. Nobody really believes in the literalistic God proffered by them. And yet, what is a non-believer to make of such comments? Especially if he or she is biblically literate. For the God of the Old Testament really does act in just such a punitive and casually genocidal manner, as anyone who is acquainted with the Exodus story and the plagues of Egypt could tell you. Who, then, is being ‘true’ to his religion in the light of this? The Robertsons of this world? Or those ‘moderates’ who are embarrassed by such comments and just as outraged as I am? More to the point: how is the non-believer to tell?
I’m often told, as a non-religious person, that I should leave people to their delusions. I am told that I should “respect” peoples faith; that it is, in short, rude, or at least in poor form, to openly criticise people’s most heart-felt beliefs. What people who say such things fail to realise is that they are asking of me an impossible request. It simply isn’t in me to respect such notions, and I can’t be compelled to say otherwise. If I think something untrue, I cannot be true to myself and say otherwise. It would, in fact, be disingenuous of me to pretend anything else. I don’t respect the belief that God is the “Great Invisible Punisher in the Sky” anymore than I respect the notion, proffered by Islamists, that God wants to kill all ‘infidels’. Furthermore, I am not only entitled to say so, but – being a moral animal – compelled to say so. What could be ruder than blaming the victims of the Haitian earthquake for their predicament? Or more immoral?
My partner’s cousin happens to be Catholic. Her husband is Muslim. They have two sons and have chosen to raise them as Catholics. At the youngest son’s Christening, which my partner attended, the priest who was conducting the service broke off proceedings to tell everyone a story from the pulpit. This story involved a man who awoke one day to find himself ‘outside’ in the cold. Then he noticed a warm house; a warm house where his wife and children lived. The man tried to enter the house, but couldn’t. There was something stopping him. He was trapped! Now, you don’t need a genius to figure out what this pathetically childish parable was alluding to. This man was actually telling an entire gathering of my partner’s family that her cousin’s husband (being a Muslim, and therefore of the wrong religion) was not able to enter heaven. He was not only saying to a loving husband and wife that they will be separated come the afterlife, he was also saying this to their children! What could be more disrespectful, unfeeling or insensitive, under the circumstances?
Similarly, late in 2008, my partner’s grandfather died. During his (C of E) funeral the vicar decided the occasion would be the perfect opportunity to castigate non-believers. The atheist, he told everyone, sees life bleakly as a straight line with a beginning and and an ending, whereas the believer sees life as a wonderful never-ending circle. (Like the Lion King song?) The believer, he then said, knows that my partner’s grandfather has now joined his late wife in heaven, and, he seemed to imply, is all the more moral for it. What, I ask you, could possibly be ruder or more disrespectful than to hijack an old man’s funeral and use it as a platform to take pot shots at those (such as my partner) who fail to share his beliefs? (The biggest irony of this is that my partner’s grandfather didn’t really believe in God, and would have laughed in this vicar’s face had he heard the naive suggestion that he was now safely in the company of his late wife.) Disturbingly, I was recently told by a friend that his partner had had exactly the same experience while attending the funeral of a friend who had died tragically young of a brain haemorrhage. Are these examples – emerging as they do from the mainstream heart of religion in Britain – to be dismissed, like those of Robertson and Dow, as isolated occurrences that have nothing to do with ‘true’ religion, which is all about love and compassion? Or, as I very much suspect, do they tell us something intrinsic about the very nature of such beliefs?
For it seems self-evident to me that beliefs in such metaphysical notions as sin, redemption, transcendence, immortal souls, heaven and hell, Gods and Devils, are prerequisites for the kinds of notions expressed above. It takes, in other words, a religious mind to say these things – no atheist could say the Haitian earthquake was divine punishment. Moderate believers and their apologists may recoil from people like Robertson and Dow (and in fairness, many of the most vocal criticisms of Robertson came from religious people themselves), but they must live with the uncomfortable fact that their own beliefs – as vaguely defined as they may be – exist on a continuum that includes such notions as divine punishment, and the sectarian exclusion of those who happen to have been born with the wrong religion, or with none.
Every believer on earth thinks that their concept of God is the correct one. How could they not? Yet herein lies the problem. They can’t all be right. (They can, though, all be wrong.) The few religious people I know personally would be just as disgusted by the remarks of Robertson as I am – they are good people, with a keen moral sense, who believe that their religion is an inseparable part of this. Whenever I have been brave enough to raise the spectre of people like Robertson with them, they tend to dismiss my criticisms by saying that their own concept of God is different – Robertson’s concept of God, and by implication the God I criticise, is not one that they recognise. I don’t doubt them, but I find this answer unsatisfactory.
The anthropologist Pascal Boyer points out in his survey of religious beliefs (Religion Explained, 2001) that many of the things things that are commonly held up to be an integral part of the religious mind are, in fact, not so essential. A concern for what happens to you after you die, for instance, is not of primary importance. What is central and intrinsic to all religion throughout the ages is the idea of unseen agency; that there are invisible forces at work in the universe, be they benign or devilish. (Oddly, this seems to be the same animating principle behind most conspiracy theories, which might be characterised as a secular recasting of the concept of the malign and the devilish.) This is what my religious friends share with Robertson and Dow, and a tendency to believe in such agents, I can’t help feeling, is something of a piece.
For it’s a small step from believing in God, to believing that you know what that God wants, who he likes and dislikes, and how he behaves. Is it really so rude or disrespectful of disbelievers to clearly and unequivocally, even vigorously, reject such notions? As hard as it may be for those liberal believers to accept, I reject their notion of God along with Robertson’s and Dow’s. I have no choice. We really shouldn’t, finally, be surprised at people like Robertson and Dow. We really shouldn’t be surprised at my partner’s experience either. Billions of people on earth believe they possess the keys to immortality, and that the fate of our very souls hangs in the balance. They believe – really and truly believe – that if everyone on earth simply believed what they believed, and acted as they acted, everyone would be saved, and God would have no need to rain down floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis. The one thing that I cannot doubt is their sincerity. We ought to expect them to say such things. And we shouldn’t be surprised when they do – they just can’t help themselves.