At the latest count (according to several news sources), as many as ten children were killed on May 20, 2013, when a category EF5 tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma and destroyed the school where they were seeking refuge. Everyone agrees that it was a tragedy of horrific proportions, not only in the loss of life but in the estimated $2 billion in damages to the city’s buildings and infrastructure.
But those children …
In the aftermath of the May 20 storm, probably the most widespread reaction was that people were horrified at the violence and devastation. Horrified, not outraged.
The public was outraged when, on December 14, 2012, a young man entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and shot to death 20 children and six adults. “Horrified” would have been an appropriate description of how we felt (and still feel), but “outraged” just seems more fitting. Why? Because the Newtown children were victims of a moral crime, whereas the Moore children were victims of a natural disaster.
There’s no one campaigning for tighter weather control or background checks of low pressure fronts. It was simply a random event where atmospheric conditions were just right to spawn a twisting convergence of crosswinds. The tornado didn’t have a “purpose.” Just because we can explain how it happened, there’s really no answer to the question of why it happened.
Well, I take that back. There are some folks who claim that the Oklahoma tragedy was a moral event. God directed that tornado with the purpose of working out his vengeance on the sins of sexual indulgence, religious pluralism, and compromising the sanctity of marriage. That professional athlete shouldn’t have come out of the closet, and the rest of us shouldn’t have commended his courage. Big mistakes. Really big. Now God is punishing us.
According to this way of thinking, the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma paid for the sins of a few moral reprobates. And the children who died under the rubble of school buildings were … what, collateral? God killed them to make our lesson all the more costly, painful and personal? God can’t stand sin, right? Can’t be around it. Whenever and wherever it happens, he must condemn sin and punish the sinners.
God has, as we might say, a reluctant obligation to condemn. He loves everyone, and maybe even wants to save everyone, but he is constrained by moral necessity to suspend his compassion or mercy in delivering what we deserve. This logic must hold – it simply has to. If life is meaningful, it must be moral; and if life is moral, there must be someone in charge of the carrots and sticks.
My readers already know that I’m not a theist, either in the classical or conventional sense. The notion of a supervising deity who sets things up in the beginning (Genesis), closes the show at the end (Apocalypse), and monitors human behavior in the meantime is widespread. Historically it seems to have been the next step in the evolution of religion after superstition, where people believed in an invisible web of coincidence stretching over human affairs.
Planting your crop precisely when that bright light in the sky is positioned just above and to the right of that outcropping of rock would ensure a good harvest. It wasn’t simply that these things happened to be in visual proximity from a particular vantage point when the orbiting earth was starting its seasonal tilt toward the sun. No, the star-and-rock alignment was a critical causal factor in successful farming.
A holdover from this earlier mindset and worldview – stemming not only from our distant past as a species, but from early childhood when magical coincidences seemed to happen all the time – is when you pick up your lucky ball cap on your way out the door to the big game. Will the lucky cap give you the win? Maybe not this time, but it did once!
Psychologically we now know that wearing the cap (and not just any cap; this one) probably improves your performance by virtue of the confidence it instills in you. Something bigger is in play here, and when you cooperate with it your outcome tends to be better than if you don’t. Those occasions where you do play well and end up winning the game reinforce your superstition and keep it alive for the next time you head out the door.
Theism emerged when this invisible web of coincidence became centralized and personified in a committee of supervisors. Now a bountiful crop would be the answer to fervent prayers and sacrifices to the deity-in-charge of planting and harvest. Of course, everything would still be taking place at the precise time when the star and rock were in position. The real causal factor, however, was the grace and generosity of god, not some magical coincidence.
Despite what is depicted in the stories, no one has ever come across, interacted with, or peeked in on a deity doing business. Like the earlier “lucky cap” worldview, theism is a belief system that stays in effect so long as it gets reinforced by events – and random reinforcement schedules are more enduring, since they are unpredictable and keep us hanging on hope till the next time.
But anomalies and discrepancies gradually add up. Children can be killed in violent storms just so many times before people begin wondering about this god who’s supposed to be in charge of things. Either god made it happen – perhaps to punish Moore residents for their sins. Or he stood by and let it happen – which tugs at the integrity of our belief in a god who loves and cares for us. In either case, the event stirs up either really bad theology or some serious doubts.
Post-theism is another step beyond superstition and conventional theism. Contrary to the criticisms from orthodox defenders of theism, post-theism is not motivated by scientific materialism, secular humanism, or the depravity of human sin. It is not the same as atheism. It emerges at the progression threshold of a spiritual courage, a broader compassion, and the willingness to remain present to the pain and loss of meaningless tragedy.