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Pathetic Fallacy: Why Are We Still Blaming God for Natural Events?

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A meteor from outer space explodes near Chelyabinsk, Russia, right after Pope Benedict XVI announces he will resign from the papacy. Immediately people start saying, “God is angry.” The same was said about Hurricane Sandy devastating the New York tri-state area. We deserved it, of course, our city being the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. And when a huge blizzard hits New York, a similar sentiment is echoed. We are being punished; we are being reminded who is in charge.

As (what I believe I am) a modern day Catholic, I am amazed at people still thinking this way. In literature it is known as “pathetic fallacy” when characters attribute natural events to the gods reacting to human affairs. It is rife throughout fiction and drama and poetry for characters to claim “the gods must be angry.” Consider in the great Shakespearean play Julius Caesar how the night before the conspirators are to assassinate Caesar in the Senate, a powerful thunderstorm rocks Rome. Immediately some of them think twice about their mission; maybe the gods are trying to tell them something.

More than 2,000 years later it is incongruous that people keep saying the same thing. To listen to some callers on talk radio shows here in New York City, you would think they have never taken a science class in their lives. They are convinced that the meteor was a sign sent from God. He is angry about Benedict leaving. There were predictions that this would happen, and that would signal the “end of days.”

Only a few months ago people were citing the Mayan calendar and were predicting the end of the world. These theorists make all kinds of arguments that their viewpoint is correct. We keep passing their “deadlines” (as we did with the millenium), and then they are left to recalibrate and find a new date that the world will end.

The Russian meteorite has really stoked the fires of this fanaticism to the point of lunacy. Unfortunately, as the world awaited the flyby of Asteroid 2012 DA14 on February 15, 2013, there were tensions that this rock (the diameter of which was about the length of an American football field) could hit us, even though scientists said it would not. Then along comes the meteor in Russia, and people start thinking the events are connected. This must mean the end is nigh.

This is all part of pathetic fallacy. The “gods” are not any angrier with us than they were 2,000 years ago. Each one of these events is a natural occurrence, one fully and completely explainable by science as part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe in which we live. One need only look at the turbulence in space, the violence of exploding stars, and know this kind of thing is happening everywhere. So the universe, for all its beauty, can indeed be a dangerous place. Welcome to reality.

Here on earth we have seen all sorts of natural disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, blizzards, and floods. People who read the Bible and take everything on its pages literally want to connect what is happening today to things that happened long ago. Since God brought plagues upon Egypt, can we not imagine it could happen again?

The truth is relative for each person, and everyone is entitled to his or her beliefs. It just doesn’t seem rational to link a human event like the pope’s resignation as something that needs a corresponding reaction in nature to show us God is watching. While, as a Catholic, I do believe God is watching, I also believe that it is not in any malevolent manner. On the contrary, I believe God loves us so much and would never send any disaster to hurt us; however, I don’t think God will put down a hand to stop a flood or put out a forest fire. These are events in the mortal world that are our responsibility to deal with accordingly.

I think most rational people will know that God didn’t put a hole in the ozone layer, pollute rivers and oceans, build nuclear weapons that could obliterate human life, or invent diseases like AIDS or cancer to teach us lessons. These are all things that come from within us or that we have created. The great minds of science attempt to find cures and clean our waters; politicians must find common ground to make peace a reality, and human beings everywhere must do their part to make the world a better place.

While I firmly believe God is there, I also think that his benevolence is constant and all encompassing. He wouldn’t harm us, but because we have free will we are able to murder or create; we can build or tear down, and we can heal or hurt, and that is all part of our gift of life. It is what we choose to do with it that is essential.

All these disasters are just part of the natural way of things. The first and last occurrence that God was directly responsible for was no doubt the event known as “the big bang.” After that I believe that God stepped back and, as the Bible tells us, saw that it was good. As the universe evolved, somehow or other this third rock from a star floating in the magnificent galaxy known as the Milky Way had all the right components for the elixir of life (as we know it). Here we are now living on a beautiful blue marble spinning in the black dark of space, the twinkling distant stars silent partners in a vast universe we may never fully comprehend.

The next time you hear thunder crash overhead and see the flash of lightning in your windows, remember it is nothing more than a dark and stormy night. Yes, it is the thing of gothic novels and scary movies, but nothing more than that. Of course, one day the world will end, and it probably will be as natural as any of the other occurrences we witness is space, our blue marble eventually being devoured by our dying star. That is, of course, if we don’t speed the process with weapons of our own creation. That is not a pathetic fallacy, of course, but simply pathetic.

Photo credits: Russian meteor – discovery.com; pope – nytimes.com; hurricane sandy – yahoo.com; Milky Way – NASA.gov

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • Babeouf

    The reason why God gets the blame is simple. Its the fault of God should any God exist. After all If someone had the power to stop a train wreck and knew the wreck was coming and did nothing to stop it I would hold them to blame for the disaster occurring. God’s existence puts it in the dock. And the verdict is of course guilty. With time off for good behaviour the sentence is eternity.

  • Dr Dreadful

    At least people who claim that it was God’s will when something goes wrong are being consistent in thanking God when things go right.

    The ones who really annoy me are those who claim the blessings in their life could not have come about but for God, then absolve him of all responsibility for the bad things that happen to them.

    Professional athletes are probably the worst offenders with their public prayers of thanks for their triumphs. You don’t ever see them thanking God, or indeed acknowledging him in any way, when they lose.

  • Costello

    A better question is why are people still believing in God? That seems more pathetic

  • Doug Hunter+

    #3

    The mystical feel of life? Science demonstrates we are nothing but a predestined chemical reaction acting out the bonds among the H, O, and C in our head, yet our feeling of consciousness creates an illusion of freewill. These feelings create the desire for some supernatural or religious understandings and those feelings are harnessed by organized religion.

    I admit it’s quite peculiar. Why I am I here to witness this life when it is just a chemical reaction? Cannot C, H, and O bond and unbond without me. I realize as I type this that it’s not my choice, it’s some ion placed there by the genes my parents were destined to give me according the nutrition that I absorbed bonding covalently with the next atom over triggering a cascade of reactions that fired the neuron that induced me to continue. I have zero control over that, so what is my purpose? (I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to outwit predestination as a youth…. ados kf-48gf4-mfpf… did you see that shit coming? Unfortunately, the scientific answer is yes)

  • Doug Hunter+

    Should read ‘placed there by my genes’ above. Ah, the old their, they’re and there… trips up a few of us at times. Don’t blame me though , I had no choice in the matter.

  • Baronius

    Victor, as a Catholic, wouldn’t you consider the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to be a direct divine intervention?

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Yes, Baronius, a spiritual intervention to be sure. Jesus manifestation as human was physical, as was his death, but it was to harness the spiritual tides and not the earthly ones.

    If you examine all of the miracles attributed to Jesus, absolutely none of them change the physical world (you could argue changing water into wine was physical as was the multiplying loaves and fish).

    There is a spiritual mission to his whole ministry. When Pilate confronts him he says his kingdom is not of this world. His reign is meant to be in another place, all elevated to the spiritual plane.

  • Baronius

    Leprosy isn’t physical? Blindness from birth? Uncontrolled bleeding? Deafness? Death?

    Calming a storm? Walking on water? Helping someone else to walk on water?

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    In #7 I used just two examples, but all of these other miracles you mention are spiritual and involve faith of the recipient. A frequent response from Jesus is “Your faith has saved you.” The physical miracle is always inspired by great faith.

    While I understand that calming a storm seems like a physical manifestation, it was in response to the faith of those followers Jesus loved. None of these things were done to alter the physical world negatively like a great flood or earthquake or rock from outer space.

    Of course, the whole Jesus story can be seen as an intervention in earthly matters, but none of the results are meant to be earth bound. Jesus didn’t die on the cross for our physical selves but for our spiritual ones.

  • Baronius

    There is a spiritual dimension to the miracles, sure. The spiritual realm is more important than the physical. But those miracles took place in the physical realm as well.

    Humans are both physical and spiritual beings. Jesus didn’t neglect either aspect. The Church seeks to serve both sets of needs, through the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy. The Church has always fought against heresies that deny the physical, and has always called for restraint in saintly mortification. We even have a sacrament that lets you bang your wife. And we believe that in the Eucharist, Jesus is present, body and blood, soul and divinity. So it’s very risky to try to separate the spiritual from the physical in Catholic thinking.

  • Dr Dreadful

    all of these other miracles you mention are spiritual and involve faith of the recipient.

    Miracles by definition involve faith. Without faith they are simply remarkable happenings that may or may not be explainable.

  • Baronius

    He means it in a different sense than you do.

    If I read this right, Victor is saying that Jesus’s miracles required the faith of the other participant as an initiator (“your faith has saved you”). Dread is saying that after the event in question has taken place it requires faith to designate it as a miracle. In both senses you could say that miracles involve faith.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Yes. Jesus is simply telling the witness that his faith is what made the miracle work.

  • roger nowosielski

    @12

    Just as hope is often cited as a major factor in the patients (miraculous?) recovery from an illness (as opposed to resignation).