USAir Flight 1549: Do you believe?

So I was watching next-day coverage of the Hudson River airplane crash on CNN today and at some point one of the anchors brings up God and says something to the effect, “And if you’re not already religious, something like this may make you believe.”

And it made me wonder,




Well, of course not.

Look, what happened in New York yesterday was amazing. I’ll go even so far as to call it a miracle, in the sense that the very happy outcome was also a very unlikely one (although this fascinating and potentially useful Time article says a surprisingly high 76% of passengers in serious plane accidents survive).

But it’s another thing entirely to believe that God was responsible for what transpired, that He or She or It was the reason why the 155 people aboard USAir Flight 1549 survived yesterday’s crash.

First of all, that kind of blind faith minimizes the heroics of the people involved in yesterday’s events – the pilot who steered an engine-less plane safely into the middle of a river in one of the country’s most populous metropolitan areas, the passengers and crew who took charge of the plane’s evacuation, the ferry boat operators and other good Samaritans who helped in the rescue effort.

Secondly, if we are to give credit to God for yesterday’s good news, mustn’t that mean we also hold him responsible for all the crappy things that happen in this world. If we are to say that for some reason God thought those 155 people yesterday were worthy of being saved, then we must also admit that God thought all 230 people on TWA Flight 800, and all 1,836 people in Hurricane Katrina, and all 2,974 people in the 9/11 attack, and all 225,000 people in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and all 6 million people in the Holocaust, that God thought all of them deserved to die (of course, some evangelicals have argued just that – that these tragedies have all served some sort of divine purpose).

Don’t get me wrong: It’s nearly as tough for me to understand how someone can be an atheist, certain of God’s absence, as it is to understand how someone can be just as certain that there is a God (and even more incredibly, that they know what such a God is like). As far as I’m concerned, the Hudson River Airplane Miracle is no more evidence that God exists than the picture of the two towers above is proof that He doesn’t. But I’d venture to say that if you were to line up all the wonderful miracles that occur in this world alongside all the awful tragedies that happen, the list would be overwhelmed by the depressing side of the ledger.

But true believers have an easy, pat response when a seemingly incomprehensible tragedy occurs: “God works in mysterious ways.” I’ve heard people say that all the time to mourners who have watched their children die or suffered some other overwhelming loss, and the insensitivity of the sentiment astounds me.

If it gives comfort to you to think that there is a just and merciful God out there who has a plan for each and every one of us – a plan that we will never in our earthly existence fully understand but one that may at times require the deaths of innocent infants, the destruction of entire cities and the occasional systematic slaughter of millions of citizens – then who am I to take away your comfort and solace?? I cannot prove otherwise.

But as for me, I’ll stick with what I know. That life is usually short and sometimes sweet. It is precious and precarious. That bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. That for no other reason than there is already enough pain and suffering in this world, that I must do what I can to balance out the scales – by enjoying myself while I’m alive and able, by spreading joy and love to others, by being grateful for the blessings I have … and by celebrating happy moments like yesterday’s miracle, without ascribing to it some kind of divine meaning.

5 Responses to “USAir Flight 1549: Do you believe?”

  1. 1 dude January 19, 2009 at 5:29 am

    not bad deadman. i only find it curious that people need to be awakened by events such as this to consider the god problem. it seems most people just drag along life either blindly believing or disbelieving until something “big” happens that makes them reconsider their positions. the fact we all exist in a functional complex world is reason to enough to ponder this issue, and rare and strange (call em “miraculous” if you like) ought not be our deciding factors. as for your point that if you stack up all the bad against the good that the bad will certainly emerge overwhelmingly victorious is surprisingly short sighted of you imo. how can you possibly begin to to make such a calculation? seems to me its simply a glass half full or half empty calculation – there is no objective way of making such a determination, just perception. i would love to hear a sound argument to the contrary. try making a list of everything that happens and has happened and let me know how it’s so obvious there is more bad than good. let me know how long it takes for you to realize how silly your argument is. in the end i too am not a staunch believer or aetheist, just trying to do my best with what i got.

  2. 2 deadman January 19, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    interesting response, dude. let me address your points.

    you said: i only find it curious that people need to be awakened by events such as this to consider the god problem.

    i think people consider the god problem more than you assume, but even if they don’t, I don’t find that lack of consideration curious at all.

    surviving is tough, dude. just going about your day-to-day business and managing the million things going on in life is difficult enough without having to spend a lot of time thinking about larger, more complicated, and quite probably unknowable issues like the meaning of life and the existence of god.

    you said: as for your point that if you stack up all the bad against the good that the bad will certainly emerge overwhelmingly victorious is surprisingly short sighted of you imo. how can you possibly begin to to make such a calculation?

    it’s a fair point, dude. that’s an impossible calculation, as i’m sure there are zillions of tiny ‘miracles’ and ‘tragedies’ that happen every day (there are those who believe every birth is a miracle, and there are those who believe the deaths of hundreds or thousands of civilians in a ‘war’ are not tragedies but justified).

    i was of course referring to my perception of events, and mainly limiting my admittedly subjective viewpoint to the world’s big happenings. It just seems like for every story like the Hudson River Miracle, I read ten about enormous, immeasurable, incomprehensible tragedies (how many miracles after all must occur before you make up for one Holocaust??)

    whether my perception is accurate or not, I just feel like people who believe are so eager to laud the miracles and cite them as proof of god’s (merciful and just) existence while dismissing the countless tragedies that occur all the time. That’s when the devout go to the ‘God works in mysterious ways’ catch-all response. And how can you possibly counter that argument? Case closed.

    but you’re essentially right: I can no more prove that God doesnt exist than you can prove he does. So on some level, going with the philosophy that requires no proof but only blind faith would perhaps even be the most logical response to accept (and certainly the most comforting one).

    It’s just a shame that most religions and most religious people don’t appreciate this dilemma – that at the very least, they ought to be tolerant of other views and sensitive to the possibility that their ideas could be wrong. Instead, in many cases, the opposite happens: religions, possibly because they know their foundations are on the shaky, ultimately unprovable grounds of faith, show an alarming sense of intolerance. Complete obedience is expected, dissidence is not tolerated and often punished, and salvation only comes to a select few.

    that is usually when religions and belief in god stops being a force for good and becomes a problem.

  3. 3 dude January 20, 2009 at 12:54 am

    your last point is dead on – tolerance and sensitivity is the key. there is room for everyone in this world. even the believers ought to accept the existence of doubt, for if god exists and created everything, then he/she/it also created doubt. if those believers can so easily argue god works in mysterious ways in explaining mass murders and natural disasters, they need to be consistent and say doubt can also be one of those mysterious but positive creations. (along this line, perhaps the exercise of doubt is somehow a positive one, even for believers. but this is a different discussion). truthfully, as far as i know anyway, it seems the main world religions are very tolerant of doubt theologically and philosophically, but unfortunately their adherents are not. not exactly sure why that is so, but it is. the only thing i would add is your point goes both ways – the disbelievers/doubters/aethists ought to be tolerant of religion, for even if their arguments/proofs for god’s existence aren’t perfect, they aren’t any worse than the opposite. extreme anger and intolerance exist on both sides. (although, to be fair, the religious ought to held more accountable for it as they put themselves on the moral pedestal).

  4. 4 Dad January 22, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    It’s been a while since I have responded to one of your blogs, but now that I have a bit more time, your last two give me cause. It’s not that I haven’t appreciated all of your other blogs, but they hadn’t inspired me as much as these last two. Let me first say that I thought they were both great, but as I’m sure you can guess, there was a great deal in both which I didn’t agree with.

    For example, to me the big O’s speech (in my day the big “O” referred to Oscar Robertson) was totally inspirational. Quite frankly, it was more than I expected, although I did expect that there would be at least one of those phrases that would be oft repeated and used for years to come to identify the man. Perhaps there were a couple that came close, but just didn’t quite make the grade. You identified several yourself, but the one I think about is the one where he said in his discussion on the Muslim world “we will extend our hand if you will unclench your fist”. How meaningful is that? And does not that statement make it clear that he intends to do exactly what he said he would do during the campaign. Although you analyzed his speech more from a technical perspective, I heard it purely from an emotional one. To me he was totally dismanteling all that I hated about the Bush administration and showed me, without a doubt, that we were entering a new era–one that grabbed on to and would incorporate all those ideals that I love and believe this great country should be about. I think we will see changes that incorporate all the nobel ideas that the framers of our constitution and declaration of independence had in mind. I just can’t adequately express how wonderful I thought his speech was and how wonderful and meaningful that whole inaugeration day and what it represented was.

    In regard to your blog on flight 1549, I won’t dispute anything that you said although many (including me) will disagree with your conclusions. Your blog was beautiful none the less and certainly every thinking and open minded person (even those who vehemently disagree with your conclusions) would have to allow that your thoughts were valid and have meaning for YOU. As for me, I will choose to continue to believe in God and accept that we are witness to miracles AND unexplained and apparently meaningless tragedies on a daily basis. To me if it is a miracle in an individual’s mind, then to that person it is a miracle (God produced or otherwise). To me, the fact that I still exist on this earth is a miracle and I have attributed that miracle to God AND to modern medicine. The fact that the Jewish people still exist as a people, when by all rights they should have disappeared from the face of the earth long ago, is proof enough for me that God exists and performs miracles. For me being unable to say why God allows or creates the tragedies that I see is just not something I can even try to explain or believe that I should try to explain. And although I know this may seem a very simplistic, unscientific, irrational approach to all the mysteries of life, it is enough to sustain me, keep me happy, and make me want to be the very best person I can be while I am here.

  5. 5 mom January 23, 2009 at 7:47 am

    Just want to say that while I agree with you that President Obama could have had another type of Yes We Can memorable line or two, I still think his speech was right on, and spoke to everyone, at least those who wanted to hear what he had to say. He inspires me, gives me hope, and in times like these, it is what we all could use. Of course, time will tell, what he is really capable of getting done, but, at least for now, we have someone in the White House, who can put a sentence together, and it makes sense, as well. I look
    forward to the next four years, and wish our new President a safe and healthy productive time in office, and perhaps, he and his beautiful family will go another four after that, and in the meantime, we should all cut him some slack. He does have a tough job, and I am so glad he has the whole world in his hands, and it is not in mine.

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