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The Wages of Sin

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For a number of complicated reasons, including the fact that the state of Connecticut is insane on the subject of holidays, this is the start of a three day week-end for me–meaning not three days when I don’t have to work, but three days when I don’t have to drive people anywhere at insane hours.  I’m therefore down here with my tea and my music at an hour when other people might actually be up.

Maybe it was because I was half asleep when I sat down to read two or three pages this morning–I was waiting for tea water to boil and the computer to boot up and that kind of thing–but I suddenly actually focused on a piece of information I’ve been reading about for decades now, but never really thought about.

Or rather, I’d never really thought about it in its historical context, or about its having an historical context.  When Jerry Falwell got on the air and announced that the 9/11 attacks were–well, what he actually said was that the “feminists and abortionists and homosexuals” had to accept some responsibility for them, but you get what I mean.

But when Falwell said that, and Pat Robertson seemed to imply, when the news first came of the Haiti earthquake, that the people of Haiti had once made a pact with the devil and that explained why the place was such a mess all the time–I did notice those things, and generally threw them off as people acting stupidly on international televised hook-ups.

It’s really amazing to me not just that people are so fond of being stupid, but that they’re so found of being stupider the bigger their audience is.

At the moment, I’m near the end of the book on early Medieval history I’ve been reading for a week and a half or so, and that I’ve mentioned here before.  I’ve just reached the point where the Vikings have started a series of raids into England and Ireland.  And there, right there on the page, is Alcuin, one of the most learned men of his time, remarking on the idea that these terrible things would not have been happening to England if there wasn’t something deeply wrong and displeasing to God in her society.

And there’s something else.  This isn’t the first time this kind of thinking has been reported in this book.  Nor has it been reported only of Christian societies.  In several cases, we get the same kind of reports from Muslim societies when there is drought, loss in battle or other devastation.

I tried to think, this morning, about whether or not this kind of thinking had characterized other societies that I know of.  I have no recollection of reading anything similar about Greece or Rome, although there are certainly passages in the Bible that seem to imply the same kind of thing in Hebrew society over time.  I don’t know enough about Hindus or Buddhists to comment.

I am more acquainted than I want to be with the individualist version of this kind of thinking.  I will guarantee you that if you ever have the misfortune of caring for somebody dying young of some disease, half the people you meet will want to speculate on what he did wrong to make this happen to himself.   It’s his weight or her smoking or his drinking all that diet soda.  It doesn’t matter how farfetched or ridiculous, the healthy people around you want to be assured that the patient did something wrong. 

We do not accept the idea that we can do everything right and still fail, or still die young, or still be visited by catastrophe. No matter how much money we spend on lottery tickets or trips to Vegas, we are convinced, somewhere deep in our souls, that the world is run not by fate or luck but our own volition.

It makes me wonder, sometimes, why we react so violently against statements like Falwell’s and Robertson’s.

Mind you, I think it’s right that we react violently against them.  I think that that kind of talk is outrageous and morally wrong.

But then, I think that the talk about what a cancer patient “did” to cause his cancer is also outrageous and morally wrong.  Every once in a while there is such a direct link, but you’d be amazed at how often there isn’t.

Why is it that we’ve been able to give up blaming the victim in the case of whole societies suffering disaster and not in the case of individuals doing the same? 

And I mean that in a wider sense than you’d think–after Hurricane Katrina, there was nearly universal sympathy for New Orelans the city, but hundreds of nagging complaints about the individual people therein–why didn’t that woman get out of her house and go somewhere?  why did that guy stay in the shelter instead of heading out on foot to see if he could get to somewhere better?  He was young!

I don’t think I could count the number of articles and blog posts I read directly after the event blaming the scope of the Katrina disaster on everything from Hip Hop Culture to Welfare State Mentality to the personal corruption of various workers in nursing homes, h ospitals and even roadside diners.

At least the criticism of politicians–Ray Nyland, George W. Bush, Brownine–made a certain amount of sense, even if it was sometimes a little off the mark.  These men actually had a responsibility here, while private individuals do not have much more responsibility but to try to survive and (maybe) to help the people around them to survive.

It’s an interesting dichotomy–if we think that individuals are responsible for the bad things that happen to them, even the most random bad things (natural disasters, rare cancers, being hit by drunk drivers), why do we recoil so thoroughly when the same implication is made about entire societies?

The issue is not why we find Falwell and Robertson’s statements outrageous, but why we don’t find it outrageous when somebody says, of my late husband, for intsance, “oh, that must have happened because he was overweight.”

He was overweight, but weight is not a risk factor, never mind a cause, of the cancer that killed him.  It is, however, enough of an explanation for a whole load of people.

The other question, for me, is when we stopped assuming that disasters that happen to our society were the result of our society’s sin.

Because not only is that theme constant in the book I’m reading and during the period I’m reading about–up to about the year 1000–but it was fairly common in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, at least for the Christian majority of those societies.  The Plague, raging wildfires in Bavaria, right down to the eighteenth century Lisbon earthquake–all of it was assumed to be the result of that society’s turning away from God. 

When I finish this book, which I’m going to some time today, I’ve got one somebody sent me called Atheist Delusions–rats, can’t think of the whole title or the author at the moment. 

It’s a counterargument to all those New Atheist things (which is why somebody sent it to me), and I wonder if it will deal with the Falwell 9/11 thing.

I’d like to understand that way of thinking a little better, and understand whether we’re moving away from it (to a point where we’ll stop blaming human beings for getting cancer) or back towards it, because there’s something in us that cannot abide the power of chance and circumstance.

Written by janeh

February 14th, 2010 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Wages of Sin'

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  1. Actually, blaming communal wrongs on sin exists in the pre-Christian West as well. The ILLIAD begins with non-violent death “first the animals, then the men” because the Acheans won’t return a priest’s daughter. Oedipus knows the Gods are upset with something in Thebes because of the plague.

    And Robertson didn’t get beaten up for saying God punished Haiti for sin. He got beaten up for choosing the wrong sin. Watch after the next natural disaster as the Job’s comforters line up to explain that it was the result of ENVIRONMENTAL sin–overgrazing, destruction of wetlands, too large a carbon footprint, or whatever. There was quite a bit of that about New Orleans, for instance. The commentariat hasn’t changed from Alcuin’s day on that: they’re just environmentalists rather than Christians.

    Ah, but the individual! Well, there’s a good and a bad reason for blaming the individual for what happens to him. The bad reason is that if I admit bad things can just happen for no reason I can understand, predict and control, I’m saying that I might not see tomorrow’s sunrise. A lot of people who admit this is true in the abstract have serious troubles coping with it when they come face to face with the fact.
    The good reason to blame the individual is that many of my troubles really do result from my behavior. No, not all of them. But I much prefer living in a society that expects me to get training for a good job, work hard at it, save money for bad times and not to live on fault lines or flood plains. There will always be bad calls at the margins, but a society which doesn’t expect people to get up and do for themselves is going to have a lot more bad luck.

    (Incidentally, after New Orleans, I got in touch with the local historical miniature wargamers. Like book lovers, we aren’t all rich. We don’t all have reliable cars. But we all have beloved bulky, heavy, hard to move collections. But I needn’t have worried: ALL the miniatures players got their toys to high ground when things started to look bad. Of course, they know how much sympathy they get when they blame losing a game on “bad dice.”)

    And for those who don’t prefer their news filtered through the New York Times, Falwell’s initial observation was that Hollywood’s relentless promotion of various sexual behaviors in the world-wide media was earning us trouble with pious Muslims. Susan Sonntag said we’d earned the hatred of the Arab world by purchasing oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but only Falwell was held to be crazy. It’s good someone keeps track of these things.

    I’d heard reference to Haiti being “dedicated to the Devil” long before the recent earthquake. It is certainly true that part of Haiti’s founding myth is that in a voodoo ceremony at the start of the Haitian Revolution, the leadership rejected “the white man’s God” and embraced “the other God.” That Robertson knows about this may indicate that he’s paid more attention to Haiti than the critics who didn’t know what he’d talking about.

    Ayn Rand would have laughed at Robertson. But she might well have said that while earthquakes happen for natural reasons, huge death tolls from earthquakes come in poor countries, where the buildings are less stable and emergency services thin on the ground. She certainly said, repeatedly, that societies are rich or poor because of choices they make as societies–whether to respect the rule of law, whether to accept corruption, how much respect is given individual liberty and private property. In fact, she wrote that the prosperity of a people was almost a perfect reflection of their freedom.

    The line between blaming someone for something over which they have no control and expecting people to accept responsibility for what they can control is not always easy to draw.


    14 Feb 10 at 11:52 am

  2. It’s called The Just World Hypothesis, if you want to look up some writing about it. You’ll notice it not only with disease (autism can’t just happen–the vaccines must have caused it!) but with rape and other assaults (you shouldn’t have been wearing that!). It’s a delusion that keeps people feeling safer, because they think they can control the uncontrollable. It means that I haven’t just been lucky, I protected myself. The side effect being, of course, that the unlucky are also at fault. Accepting that shit just sometimes happens is apparently difficult for humans.



    14 Feb 10 at 11:53 am

  3. As Robert pointed out, blaming God goes back to ancient history. If we are allowed to reference well researched fiction, I would suggest “The King Must Die” by Mary Renault where the earthquake that devastated Crete was blamed on Poseidon Earth Shaker.

    Blaming people for being sick seems common. I’m bombarded with ads saying smoking causes lung cancer, strokes, etc etc. I’ve been waiting for the announcement that smoking causes pregnancy. :)

    Lately its been obesity and alcohol and lack of exercise that are making the news.


    14 Feb 10 at 2:44 pm

  4. I pretty well agree with the responses here. It seems to be part of human nature to want to explain things, and in this case, to explain why my neighbour got terminal cancer or my house fell down in a way in which (a) someone/something is to blame and (b) if I don’t do that something, or what that someone did do, I won’t get cancer and my house won’t fall down. Well, fall down again. Some religions may encourage this idea – it’s certainly Biblical – but the main ones at least (those being the ones I know best) generally also combine accepting God’s will with using one’s God-given intelligence to understand and deal with the world.

    I don’t think it’s an idea that’s necessarily connected to religion, certainly not to a particular religion, though. I think it’s just part of our human response to sudden and unexpected tragedy and suffering. We want to understand it and prevent it in the future, and a lot of the time, we can’t accept a straightforward scientific reason – lightening strikes in this way becaue of these atmospheric reasons and a certain percentage of the population is going to be killed by it even if they try to avoid going outside in storms or sheltering under trees. And we certainly can’t accept it when the reasons aren’t there. Sure, a lot of Haiti’s problems are a result of the choices of its leaders and population over centuries – but no matter how well Haiti were run, an earthquake of that magnitude would have killed some people. And it’s hardly practical to try to live only where there are no recorded risks of natural disasters – quite aside from the fact that transportation and other survival needs require living in such places, there’s hardly a place in the world that doesn’t have some risks! So you’re back where you started. Why me? Why, in a modern, well-run country, was I, well-educated in risks, the one who got struck by lightening? There’s no answer, and our brains aren’t structured to accept that fact. And as long as we have unexpected tragedies, we’ll have ‘sins’ to blame them on – environmental ones, as Robert says; those committed by the conspiracists who give vaccines that cause autism; and especially those lifestyle sins that cause all our diseases. Some people will admit that, yes, they’ve heard that some people who have never smoked get lung cancer, but they still get remarkably worked up about eliminating smoking – I used to be anti-smoking until that lot gave the position a bad name! I once told someone that one of my grandmothers, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. “She must have been exposed to asbestos.” I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know whether to point out that asbestos doesn’t automatically cause cancer; you need to be exposed to the fibres, which is why so many precautions are necessary when removing it, but it probably doesn’t cause too many problems if left in situ. Or perhaps I could have mentioned the unlikelihood that my grandmother, a middle class housewife, ever even lived in a house insulated with asbestos, much less mined or did construction work with the stuff.

    It would hardly have been worth it. SOMETHING must have caused my grandmother’s cancer. If it wasn’t tobacco, it must have been asbestos, and if she’d avoided those, perhaps she’d be alive today! Perhaps we needn’t die at all!


    14 Feb 10 at 3:50 pm

  5. I have a vague memory of reading about an African tribe that believed everything bad such as a death, a broken leg, a sick animal was caused by witchcraft!


    14 Feb 10 at 7:50 pm

  6. Some still do – and some forms of African witchcraft require the death of a human to work – look up what happens to a lot of albinos in East Africa.

    That’s just another form of looking to something, anything to control the natural world. Some people look to science the same way, and sometimes science works, as in when everyone gets injected for measles, and fewer children die from complications of measles. But sometimes science isn’t far enough advanced, or doesn’t and maybe never will give us the answers we want, as when we say autism or MS might be due to a combination of genes that don’t work quite right and the environment, and we can’t fix them. So we blame conspiracies, or something out of pseudoscience, or God or witches.


    14 Feb 10 at 8:03 pm

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