Lifestyle

From Blaming God to Blaming Parents

Religion can explain a tragedy as God's will, or as karma coming around. But in a secular world, blame is often shifted to parents.

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You didn't hear many people saying that "it was God's will" a few years ago when a kid fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Instead, you saw memes featuring the gorilla, Harambe, and the words "I'm dead because a bitch wasn't watching her child."

Sympathy for the gorilla, who was shot and killed, makes total sense. Outrage against the mom doesn't, unless you think she should have been on constant high alert against this and every other one-in-a-billion accident.

Unfortunately, that's how we've begun to think. Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies at James Madison University, has a theory for why that is. Religion, he says, used to govern almost every aspect of our lives: what we ate, read, said, and wore—and how we raised our kids. But in a society where, for many, religion's authority covers an ever-shrinking area of life, we're left to come up with our own rules, taboos, and punishments. In some ways, our secular codes are more harsh and demanding than religions were.

Religion can explain a tragedy as God's will, or as karma coming around. "The burden is outsourced to God," says Levinovitz. If you're suffering here on Earth, well, you'll get your reward in heaven. Or in karmic systems, if you're suffering, it's thanks to a bad past life. Be good now, and next time around? Blue skies. "You didn't have to feel guilty for your own suffering," Levinovitz says. God was in charge and would even the score later on.

But as religiosity shrank, a tragedy—or even a simple accident—became incomprehensible and unredeemable. Why did it happen? What can make it right? How can we give it meaning? If we can't tell ourselves that "the Lord works in mysterious ways," all of us, but especially parents, have only three options.

The first is to try to prevent all accidents, no matter how minor and no matter what the cost of prevention. If perfection isn't coming in the next life, by golly, we'd better make it happen here.

The second is to blame a human whenever an accident does happen, even when it's completely random—the kind of thing we used to call an "act of God."

The third is to make a new ritual (private or legal) that we will practice forevermore as a secular sacrifice to safety.

Parents feel it is their new job to be omniscient, "but there's devastating guilt that comes with a vision of the world in which knowledge plus vigilance equals perfect safety," Levinovitz says. If anything goes wrong, "it means you weren't vigilant enough. So what do we do? We track our children more closely than ever before." With a couple of iPhone taps, it's possible to know not only where your kid is but who he has texted, what he ate for lunch, how he did on his Spanish quiz, and whether he's running a fever.

Now let's say something bad does occur. Your child gets hurt. What happens next? Blame. It's easier to blame someone than to accept the idea that "tragedy is just kind of built into reality," Levinovitz says, "and it's nobody's fault, and there's no redeeming value to it. It just is what it is."

That's not to say we shouldn't strive to be responsible. "It's really about recognizing that there's no such thing as a world in which everything is entirely free from risk and that striving for that world can actually be dystopic."

When something terrible happens to a child, often there is a rush to pass a law in his name that we believe will prevent the bad thing from happening again. We do this no matter how anomalous the tragedy or how pointless, in reality, the law.

Meanwhile, at an individual level, parents rush to create new, often elaborate, safety rituals. They will take their kids out of the car rather than letting them wait for five minutes, for instance, because another child died waiting in a car for five hours. Then society deems the parents who don't perform these rituals impure, even demonic.

Without God to absolve us, redeem our tragedies, and make everything right at some future date, we're stuck sorting out the unfathomable mess known as reality on our own. We are not making it easy on anyone. Especially parents.

NEXT: Brickbat: Let's Go to the Tape

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  1. When something terrible happens to a child, often there is a rush to pass a law in his name that we believe will prevent the bad thing from happening again. We do this no matter how anomalous the tragedy or how pointless, in reality, the law.

    Sigh…..I have noticed that whenever politicians pass these named laws, the legislative solution often has unintended consequences that are worse than the problem it tries to solve. Personally, we should ban the practice of naming laws after people. The laws are generally terrible.

    1. Maybe the law banning these named-after-people laws could be called “Lenore’s Law”.

      🙂

      1. You can start by banning Murphy’s law.

      2. There already is a law (as in aphorism) that any law named after a victim is presumptively a bad law. See Ted Frank’s Law.

  2. Force majeure is all well and good, but subscribing to it doesn’t come close to the rush of superiority I feel calling out some parent for something I would never let happen.

    1. When a kid too young to talk hugs a cell phone like it is his favorite toy …

      But most mom’s on the subway don’t want me asking them questions about their browser filters. Long story short: Don’t hire the Bloods to babysit your kids.

  3. IOW, people are still just as stupid and assholy as they’ve ever been.

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  6. What if, God forbid, God doesn’t exist?

    What then?

    Maybe we could blame:

    The boogy-man
    An evil twin
    Your horoscope
    The “deep state”
    The media
    “Daddy” issues
    Um, penis envy?

    Anything but personal responsibility, amirite!

    1. You forgot (((lizard people))).

      1. And they forgot vaping.

    2. How about not blaming anyone or anything sometimes. Shit just happens. Pick yourself up and keep moving; which is covered under personal responsibility but without blame.

      1. That’s what those responsible for the Johnstown Flood said.

        Society disagreed and reformed torts.

        Most decent people consider that progress.

        1. He said “sometimes”, not “never blame anyone for anything”.

          1. The Rev is not educated enough to notice the details.

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  8. It is easier, and more likely true, to blame the socialists.

    1. +10

  9. “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?”

    Human beings are not just rational creatures, they are rationalizing creatures. Everything happens for a reason, if we can understand the reason we can control everything. Cancer, drug addiction, mass shootings, global warming, Donald Trump – we haven’t quite got a handle on those things yet but never fear, we’re working on it. There’s a simple reason and a simple fix to all the troubles in the world. There has to be, right? Because, I mean, if shit just sometimes happens randomly and we’re not in control of it, well, that’s a pretty terrifying thought that we’re at the mercy of a chaotic and unconscious Universe. Better not to think about it.

    1. “Cancer, drug addiction, mass shootings, global warming, Donald Trump – we haven’t quite got a handle on those things yet but never fear, we’re working on it. ”

      Missing from that list: Polio, thalidomide-induced limb malformation, measles (unless the slack-jaws have their way), rubella, smallpox (slack-jaws, again), malaria, infections treatable with antibiotics or avoided by sanitary practices . . .

      Why? We worked on it.

      1. Don’t worry rev. We all know that you and the “betters” will never “permit” the “slack jaws” to win. We’re counting on ya, old man!

        Don’t change a thing.

        Haha.

  10. This article nearly hits the nail on the head, but just barely misses.

    In fact, all of this religion, secularism, etc is a way for Humans to assert control over stuff that they have no real control over.

    Religion wasn’t a way for people to explain random acts, it was an attempt by humans to control random acts. That is why it held sway over so many millions of people- they thought that by following the scriptures of their religion, they would control what was ultimately uncontrollable.

    Over time, humans have figured out that religion can explain- and therefore control- very, very little in life. Science has gone a long way to give them new mechanisms for control. But ultimately, some random lineup of occurrences result in a perfect storm. Humans do not like that, so they try to find some way to explain it and control the uncontrollable.

    1. +1

    2. Science has become the new religion, because science has given us rapid technological advances that have allowed us to control more aspects of our lives, at least in the US. Activities that were once inherently risky and had a high likelihood of negative or tragic results are now relatively safe- childbirth comes to mind as one of them. Complications during birth were far more likely to kill a woman 50 years ago than they are today. My niece was born at around 22 weeks, she weighed a pound and a half. Even 15 years ago- within my own lifetime- she probably would have died shortly after birth, or if she lived, she would have been significantly disabled. She just started kindergarten this month.

      I think the point that Lenore is circling around but not quite making is, because we are so relatively safe in the US, we expect that every risk can be mitigated or eliminated, and if tragedy occurs, it’s because the individual is somehow deficient and should be blamed. We’re so comfortable, that we no longer understand that sometimes shit happens even when you do everything right. Yes, we can mitigate some risks, but we can’t account for all of it. You can wrap your kid in bubble wrap, but if he falls just right, he could still break his neck. It is possible to commit no errors and still lose.

      1. Science has become the new religion because it has an aura of authority about it, and as such can be used to convince people in positions of power to “do something.” Get a bunch of scientists to back up your political agenda, and anyone who disagrees is “anti-science.” Environmentalists, gun grabbers, and a host of other busybodies are cloaking their politics in science to silence their critics.

        1. The thing abut science is that it relies on producing repeatable results in theory and then experimentation or observation. If you don’t like what a scientist is telling you because it doesn’t jive with your political or religious philosophy so well, then you can try to disprove it with your own science. If you can’t do that, then you are wrong. Facts over feelings and all that.

      2. What is her legal birthday? The day she was “born at around 22 weeks”, or a date picked for when she would have been born if the pregnancy had gone full term?

        1. Date of birth is the day you exit the womb, one way or another. The predicted DOB is a WAG based on the mother’s last period. Most babies are not born on that day.

          My two each missed their predicted DOB by a week, one later and one sooner.

    3. Religion wasn’t a way for people to explain random acts, it was an attempt by humans to control random acts.

      I don’t really think that either of those things is true. I think that what religion really does is attempt to explain man’s place in the universe, and how to cope with it.
      At least in the Abrahamic traditions and some of the major Eastern religions, there really isn’t a lot of trying to control over the world. It’s more about trying to find meaning in the chaos we exist in. Which is pretty much what people do. We are seekers of meaning.
      I’m not at all religious, but I don’t think religion is all superstitious nonsense either.

  11. People blame their own bad actions on God not other people’s.

    Real parents are becoming scarce.

    Absent parents, whether physically or emotionally, aren’t good parents. Their children are by definition, bastards.

    Addressing this gets all the usual suspects upset.

    1. That is because mentioning absentee parents as a disparate impact on a protected class.

  12. Fortunately, there is this thing called math. Math can objectively describe risk, cost/benefit, and other parameters to help us intelligently decide how to deal with uncertainty.

    Unfortunately, most humans do not understand math. They react to the world like their pre-human ancestors, using instinct and emotion. For millennia, they created and blamed gremlins, spirits, and other gods for their own fuck-ups (or the fuck-ups of other humans). Now, some like to blame government, or wish for a mystical church-like government to control their reality.

    So shit happens, but almost always because of a human decision. But until people–and politicians–understand and use math, we should not expect much improvement.

    1. True. For example, your kid is more likely to be killed driving to and from school than by a school shooter, but no one wants to ban cars.

      1. Actually, AOC does want to ban cars, just not to keep kids safe – – – –

    2. Fortunately, there is this thing called math. Math can objectively describe risk, cost/benefit, and other parameters to help us intelligently decide how to deal with uncertainty.

      Only once what is actually valuable is decided. Math can’t help optimize the objective if the objective is unknown.

  13. “They will take their kids out of the car rather than letting them wait for five minutes, for instance, because another child died waiting in a car for five hours.”

    Or because they don’t want some busybody to call the cops and get them arrested for child endangerment.

  14. As a practicing Calvinist, I’ve found that everything is man’s fault but God’s will.

  15. re: “parents have only three options”

    No, we all have a fourth option, though it is by far the hardest. Option four is to study and really understand probability. Understand it at a level where you can emotionally accept that bad stuff sometimes happens and that the aggregate costs of preventing it really can outweigh the desired benefits.

    Option four is to reject the entire premise of the argument and to support the Free Range Children movement (or whatever variant of more open parenting you are comfortable with). Option four is to accept that whether or not God is omnipotent and omniscient, you are not – and neither was the parent to whom bad stuff happened.

  16. Sometimes, when danger makes me feel nervous, I take a deep breath and think, “There is nothing to worry about, because it is unlikely for me to die twice.”

    1. Kind of ironic how lots of these little kids get left in hot cars in part because of the increasing number of safety rules parents have to follow, like rear-facing car seats and cars with large headrests that block the view. Also, parents being OCD about protecting their kids are prob more likely to forget basic thing, like if they took the kid out of the car

  17. This phenomenon could also explain why vaping has become so popular among teens, I imagine that being constantly monitored creates a lot of anxiety that nicotine helps relieve

  18. Really not sure I see the logic behind “when bad things happened because God was punishing you, people felt less guilty.” You can easily find examples to the contrary. In some cultures, the sudden, unexplained death of a child used to be interpreted as divine punishment for the parents’ sins. Now, we know that, tragic as it is, kids sometimes just die because bad things happen. I find it pretty hard to believe that the parent who thought it was his sins that caused his kid’s death feels less guilty than the parent who knows about SIDS.

    Also, how do you know increased supervision is because of more secularism? Do less religious parents monitor their kids more? Is there any reason to think this isn’t just speculation?

  19. But in a society where, for many, religion’s authority covers an ever-shrinking area of life, we’re left to come up with our own rules, taboos, and punishments. In some ways, our secular codes are more harsh and demanding than religions were.

    Douglas Murray said that if we believe that it’s going to be “business as usual” as society moves from belief to non-belief, we’re deluding ourselves. And Douglas Murray is an atheist.

  20. Blaming the parents is stupid. Obviously it was the zoo’s fault for having an exhibit incapable of keeping out a small child.

  21. Lenore knows less about religion than she does about parenting.

    Her ignorance about both is encyclopedic.

  22. Blaming the parents is stupid. Obviously it was the zoo’s fault for having an exhibit incapable of keeping out a small child.

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