Over at Slate, Mark Stern is calling on journalists not to talk about prayer, God, and miracles in the aftermath of a national tragedy, particularly with people who have survived said tragedy. He’s absolutely right on that point, but not for the reasons he lays out.
He starts with a story I’ve seen discussed in several different places. Wolf Blitzer interviewed a woman holding an infant who’d just escaped the tornado’s path, and asked her at the end whether she thanked God for the wisdom or luck or whatever that enabled her to escape. The woman, it turns out, is an atheist so she most certainly didn’t thank God – she didn’t believe any God existed. I can only imagine how having that question posed to her in that moment affected her. I mean, if I didn’t believe in God and had some reporter imply that my family’s survival was due to some being I didn’t believe existed rather than human engineering that let the house stand up long enough for us to escape, or my own courage, or whatever she found her strength in, I’d be completely peeved off. And that’s probably the least insulting scenario; if this woman had once been religious but left religion maybe over this very issue (how could God let stuff like this happen), to be faced with a journalist’s blissful ignorance on the point on this day of all days could be pretty devastating.
From here, Mr. Stern goes on to talk about the problem of evil. In his words:
There’s a glaring contradiction in those who appeal to God following a natural disaster. They see miracles among the wreckage, miracles they attribute to God—but the entire situation is an inescapable tragedy. If you believe your god could ensure that Briarwood (though not Plaza Towers) would have a relatively tornado-safe design, shouldn’t you also believe that your god had the power to make tornadoes skip over schools?
There’s another, bigger problem that arises once you place God in the picture. As Callan Bentley points out, a god with the agency to control tornadoes’ paths is a god with the power to send those tornadoes in the first place. The Bible concurs: “I form light and create darkness,” God proclaims in Isaiah 45:7. “I make well-being and create calamity.” These are thorny theological questions, but they’re inevitable as soon as reporters and politicians begin rhapsodizing about the grace of God while dozens of Oklahomans are in the morgue.
I actually think he’s on to something there: at the very least if the theist is going to praise God for the “miracles” we have an obligation to explain why He either chose to let other people survive or couldn’t have saved them all. I can imagine some possible answers to that challenge, but none of them leave us an image of God I’m at all inclined to praise. For example if you believed a la John Piper that everyone deserved to die and that God was under no obligation to do more than justice required, but free to do so if He wished, that might work. Or if you went in for a kind of dualism, where God could only do so much because Satan was a serious challenger to him in terms of power, that might work too. At least in a logical sense. But in my experience most religious people aren’t comfortable with approaches like these once they’ve thought through their implications. It’s one thing to say God is completely absent from a situation (though that has issues as well), and quite another to say God was fully capable of intervening but chose not to in some cases. This is hard stuff, and Mr. Stern is absolutely right that there’s a problem when newscasters present God in the midst of those tornadoes, in a way that makes this view seem natural and without difficulties.
Because of these problems, Mr. Stern says, reporters have no business talking about religion and God on the air. As he says,
In a country as religious as the United States, calling for prayer is almost always a popular move for politicians. But the trend extends into what should be fact-based news broadcasting. A reporter for KFOR, examining the footage of a razed school, noted that “we pray [the faculty and children] were somewhere else.” (They weren’t; seven children perished.) Even the anchors at the Weather Channel, normally a good source for solid meteorological reporting, repeatedly sent their prayers to Oklahoma on Monday night. And while interviewing Ben McMillan, a storm chaser who used his EMT training to rescue 15 people from tornado rubble, Erin Burnett on CNN exclaimed, “Thank God you were able to help them!” (Shouldn’t she be thanking McMillan?)
The thing is, today’s journalism isn’t just about facts. If I wanted to know the details of what was happening in Oklahoma I would turn into some website doing a “breaking news” thread, or perhaps tune in to Twitter and FB. With television journalism, we want someone who can give the incident meaning, who can assure us that things will be all right. They are in a way our emissaries. When I hear of schools being destroyed and children probably dying, I want to be there to comfort them, but people like Blitzer are on the scenes. Sometimes I wish they’d turn off their cameras, of course, but they are the few people who are there and I can see them being there. When we watch breaking news like this, I think people want more than just the facts. At least I know I do.
Mr. Stern’s clear implication is that religion or talking about God just isn’t any use in situations like this. He closes the piece with:
If tornado victims choose to thank God for their survival, I hope it gives them comfort. But politicians and reporters should keep their prayers to themselves. Politicians should work on fully funding the National Weather Service, NOAA, and FEMA instead. Reporters should tell us what happened and why—invoking atmospheric science, building codes, and human heroism rather than mysticism. If it makes you feel better, go ahead: Say a prayer. But if you want to help tornado survivors recover, open up your wallet and do something that will actually help.
I hear what he’s saying and I think he’s right, up to a point. Sometimes when people talk about prayer and miracles, this can make them feel like they don’t need to do anything more practical. That’s obviously no good. But I think it’s a mistake to say that talking about God won’t do any good. I imagine that in the months and years to come, some people in Oklahoma will be dealing with this trauma at an emotional level. They will want to know how God could let this happen. Some will reject God and become atheists, but some will probably want to give religion another go. Talking about God in the longrun can be very helpful. Even in the moment it can remind the victims of something that’s comfortably familiar to them, give them something to hold on to in that moment even if they decide it’s bunk down the road. And for the people looking on from a distance, talk like that can be a way of saying the situation is truly ineffable. If it’s paired with practical action rather than replacing it, prayers and talk of God can be pretty beneficial.
That said, I think there’s a big difference between saying “people” should talk about God and saying journalists should. This is the real problem with questions like Mr. Blitzer’s. I talked a bit about why I think atheists would very reasonably be insulted by this question. It’s important to remember that the world does not divide as neatly between atheists and theists as we seem to think, as though there were no atheists sympathetic to religion who might interpret a prayer as a wish for comfort – and, more to the point, as though religious people of a certain ilk really would be shaken to the core by tragedy. I lost my best friend in my senior year of undergrad and really struggled with what to make of God. In fact, it wasn’t until I came to Fordham about four years later that I felt truly at ease in a religious service. (And we’re talking Catholic mass here, not the Protestant services I was used to at the time.) I’m not saying I became nonobservant (while living with my parents I attended weekly services), or that I didn’t draw any comfort from pastors or church friends. But it was a crapshoot, and it took someone very close to me to figure out what would be offensive and what would be helpful.
I’m fairly sure Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t qualify. In fact, if he’d asked me a question like that mere hours after I’d found out my friend had died, I hope I’d have been strong enough to slap him across the face. More likely, I would have found a corner to cry in. In either case, the hurt would have been very real.
Particularly with those people most clearly affected –you know, the kind of folks Mr. Blitzer would want to interview– religion is something that really requires a more intimate touch. It’s something to talk about with friends, or a spouse or parent, or with your chosen pastor. It’s reasonable for journalists to talk about God and religion if they do it in the right way. A mention of prayer can communicate concern, and be meaningful to the religious, particularly those with a faith they’re comfortable in. But it can’t get in the way of reporting the facts, and it really shouldn’t presume that the people most affected approach the world through the same vantage point. Many religious folks would be just as insulted by Blitzer’s question, and rightly so.
A while back I wrote a piece for the Forward Thinking challenge, about public mourning and making room for those publicly affected. The tl;dr version? Their needs come before a general public’s desire for closure or security or catharsis. Maybe that’s a good place to start with situations like this. The bottom line? While millions of religious people may have wanted to hear that woman say she still had faith in God, it just wasn’t her responsibility to play that role.