Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Types of Faith, 2: Fire and Brimstone

Hatefulness isn't limited to the religious, of course. I've been meaning for some time now to comment on a brief posting by a fellow left atheist blogger whom I respect a great deal, and consequently disagree with often. When air travel in Europe was halted by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, he wrote a post called "I Like How Earth Is Celebrating Earth Day":
Am I the only one who's getting a gigantic kick out of watching Eyjafjallajökull spit in the eye of modern technological civilization? Take that, human air travel. And this has to be the best thing I've seen so far about this spectacular demonstration of planetary poetic justice:

While airlines hope to fly up to about half their regular schedules Monday, the potential for long-term air travel disruption still exists. Records show that the last time the Icelandic volcano stirred, in 1821, it erupted on an off for two years.

Two years? Oh god yes.

Go, Earth, go!

(If you think I'm being too flippant about all these suffering travelers or you'd just like something a little more substantive, go read George Monbiot's observations about the fact that in order to address global warming, we must drastically reduce the amount of flying we do. The point that struck me the most forcefully: "But I urge you to remember that these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world's people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.")

Well, no, I don't think he was being too flippant about the disruption of air travel, though that could be because I fly only once a year at most, so I'm arguably not included in that tiny proportion of the world's population affected by the eruption. I also think that scientific hubris about "our" ability to control nature can bear to be taken down a few pegs now and then, though I'm not sure this blogger would agree with me on that.

The first, relatively trivial thing I want to point out is how easily he falls into anthropomorphizing the volcano and the planet. This is one of the core symptoms of religion -- treating the impersonal as if it were personal. One of the reasons I insist that religion is not a discrete, separate, special creation in human culture, easily distinguishable from other areas of human thought and endeavor, is that unbelievers, even unbelieving scientists anthropomorphize too. That includes Richard Dawkins, well known for his didactic personifications of the Selfish Gene and the Blind Watchmaker. That's the trivial matter.

Not so trivial is Caruso's vindictive glee that He (Eyjafjallajökull, that is) has brought down the mighty, humbled the proud, smitten the wasteful in Coach and Economy Class with literal fire and brimstone. (His commenters joined in with hallelujahs.) As with Christians, taking this stance requires cultivating a debilitating tunnel vision. If Eyjafjallajökull was telling "us" that "we" need to fly less, what was the Earth's crust telling the Haitians? What was Hurricane Katrina telling the residents of New Orleans? What was the Cretaceous Mass Extinction telling the proud and selfish dinosaurs? (Did Earth take out a contract with an asteroid to rub them out? Pretty solid organization there.)

Every natural disaster, in this mindset, becomes a righteous act of the Biosphere, chastising its rebellious children. You can't celebrate just one; you have to account for the others. Once you've postulated that a god intervenes in our world, either by taking the BEST unto his bosom to be with him or by giving us a beautiful day after a week of rain, you can no longer claim that it doesn't intervene by killing off a quarter of a million Haitians, or by sending plagues or droughts or famines. The same goes for Mother Nature. It won't work to blame these disasters on Sinful Man with his Global Warming, partly because they occurred before human beings were a gleam in Gaia's eye, but mostly because that is the same rationalization the religious use to account for embarrassing suffering that they don't want to connect with their gods. You can't attack Pat Robertson for blaming the earthquake on the Haitians, and then praise Eyjafjallajökull for striking down the air travellers -- not if you want to see yourself as fundamentally different from Robertson.

I don't think that Caruso was all that serious, of course. He was speaking in parables for our edification, just like any other preacher. I don't mean to take him literally. But to paraphrase Gandhi, I find increasingly that I like your atheism; I do not like your atheists.