“Men would never be superstitious if they could govern all their circumstances by set rules, of if they were always favored by fortune; but…being often kept fluctuating pitiably between hope and fear by the uncertainty of fortune’s greedily coveted favors, they are consequently, for the most part, very prone to credulity.”
- Benedict De Spinoza (1670)
About two weeks ago, my cousin was killed in a mudslide near Santa Barbara. The circumstances were horrific: she and her husband had been woken up at around 3:30 in the morning when they heard a nearby explosion caused by a ruptured gas line. Not knowing what was happening, they got out of bed and made their way towards the kitchen. Then my cousin turned back to make sure her daughter was OK. As she called out her daughter’s name while heading towards her bedroom, the wall of the living room crushed her, along with all the force of the mightily cascading mud, water, trees, and boulders.
They found my cousin’s body the next day, two miles downhill from her home, amidst the wet earth, rocks, and debris. Her husband survived, her daughter survived, and so did her friends staying that night in the detached guest house. But my cousin did not. A loving, graceful, sweet, kind, energetic, vivacious, and deeply positive woman – her death is a blow to many. Simply devastating.
So many other people were harmed by these mudslides; the latest count is 21 confirmed dead, with many others injured. Among those killed, besides my cousin, were several children. It’s truly heart-breaking. I can’t fathom how their parents can bear the grief.
Of course, many people also survived. The mudslide wove its own strange paths, killing here but not there. I was at the site of the wreckage the day after it occurred, and I could see just how capricious nature’s force had been; some homes were totally destroyed, while others only a few yards or even feet away, were left untouched. Some people were washed away by the flooding, while others nearby were completely unharmed. For example, the couple staying in my cousin’s guest house that night were able to break through a window, climb onto a car that the flood had smashed against the dwelling, and get up onto the roof. They made it. In an interview with NPR, one of them cited “divine intervention” as the thing that saved them.
I can understand the appeal to divine intervention – how else does one make sense of such a seemingly miraculous survival? However, I can’t help but skeptically ruminate on its implications. After all, what is suggested by such a sentiment is deeply problematic.
For starters, claiming that “divine intervention” saved some people but not others implies that there is an all-powerful God up there who magically picks some people for survival and other for destruction. But why? And by what reasoning? Why would God consider my cousin’s friends worthy of survival, but not my cousin? Why would God make it so that certain kids were killed in a mudslide, but not their siblings or parents? Is God that cruel? No. Because such a God does not exist.
The real reason that some people survived and not others is simply chance and luck. It just boils down to timing, location, geography, gravity, and physics. Nothing more. Had my cousin been 10 or 20 seconds quicker in her rush to her daughter’s room, she would have survived. Simple as that. Had the guesthouse been just ten feet further to the north, it would have been swept away. Simple as that. Some people made it, others did not. And if a magical deity orchestrated it all, well, then that’s one capricious, unfair, and unloving god.
Additionally, if a magical deity existed that could miraculously save some people from death in a mudslide, why not just stop the mudslide from happening in the first place? How about preventing the natural disaster from happening at all? Surely that’s within this magical deity’s power, right? I mean, why would God create or allow the cyclone in Bangladesh in 1991 that killed over 130,000 people? Or the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 that killed over 280,000 in Indonesia? Or the earthquake in 2010 in Haiti that killed over 160,000?
Such natural disasters test God’s loving nature, power – and even existence.
As Epicurus argued over 2,000 years ago, if God wants to get rid of wanton pain and suffering, but can’t – then he’s not all-powerful. And if he wants to get rid of wanton pain and suffering, but chooses not to – then he’s not all-loving.
Of course -- unavoidable narcissism aside -- the main reason people think that God miraculously rescues them from a burning building (even though the family of five down the hall was burned to a crisp), or that God miraculously saves them from a plane crash (while killing the other 142 passengers), or that God miraculously keeps them from dying of smallpox (while hundreds of thousand succumb) is because such a belief is easier and more comforting to cling to than accepting the reality of life: that it is fragile, precarious, and hard. And often unfair. Some people suffer terribly through no fault of their own, while others don’t. Some people survive longer while others’ lives are cut short – with no rhyme or reason. Because that’s just how it goes.
There is no Divine Intervention at play. This reality may be painful, but as adults, we need to give up on fairy tales. We need to grow up and face the world as it is: beautiful, dynamic, awe-inspiring, and sometimes, brutal and violent. Accepting such a reality may not feel good in the moment, but it is far healthier, saner, and rational.
Which, actually, does feel good. Even in the face of devastating loss.