On Powerlessness: God, Government, Guns
In my recent talk at Victorian Skeptics, I suggested that in times of stress and peril, ones where we have little or no influence over the situation, humanity often looks for reasons for the unthinkable happening. Partially this is so that we can remember the happenings leading up to a perilous situation, and partially so we can gain a sense of owning the situation, or have a sense of agency within the situation. For instance, if a town is truck by a tornado, like the one that recently tore through Oklahoma, many will, instead of letting the situation slide and focus on rebuilding their lives, turn to their god for solace in tough times. Others, feeling the weight of powerlessness, look for someone to blame for the situation.
When god is invoked in situations like this, it’s either done in a call for forgiveness (because they must have done something very wrong to have deserved this fate), or as a call for protection for themselves or others (because we feel especially vulnerable after a horrible situation.) If it’s a call for forgiveness, the feelings of powerlessness seem to be lessened, because the person has given over their own agency in the world to the one creature that controls all of the universe. The person no longer wants agency over the situation, as they’ve handed it all over to god. If the prayer is for protection, this allays the fears of vulnerability, because the most powerful being in the universe is now making sure everything will be all right. And, in the mind of the person praying, if they truly believe it, the prayer works, at least in their own minds.
Perceived blessings in situations like this come in small and strange ways. For instance, the person’s house may have been destroyed, but “thank god” the family survived. (It’s a miracle!) In the mind of the one praying, the fact that they have been spared death is in itself a gift, and they never question exactly why a god that loves them so much would flatten an entire street’s worth of houses. After all, god works in mysterious ways.
As a coping mechanism in times of stress, turning to god is a clever coping mechanism which allows the person to get on with life, to pick up the shattered pieces and move forward with repairing damages. It makes it easier to move forward because the futility of life is lessened when there is a perceived plan in action. It is, after all, god’s will.
Sometimes however, the prayer and turning to god are not enough for people, and within surfaces an idea that “someone” is responsible for the horrible situation. In events like 9/11, the culprits were clear, though the exact details of that day are somewhat obscured by noise. in the situation like a tornado, if god is not to blame (because we are less likely to blame an all loving god for horrible situations) then it must be the fault of a human or humans. For instance, maybe the town that was flattened was secretly full of sinners, who brought the wrath of god upon them. And for some this is enough. For others however, their god would not do something so horrible, so it must be man-made.
This is where the conspiracy theory gains traction, and we see people trying to place the blame on some great unseen secret organisation, like the CIA, or the American government. To a rational mind, blaming Obama for the tornadoes in Oklahoma is nothing but delusion, but within the confused mind of a person in a post-traumatic situation, conspiracies like this seem not only credible, but likely. Exactly how the Obama administration could control the weather to create a tornado in the first place isn’t really brought to the table, but it’s usually through a “secret underground weather-control device” and can be found in “a secret location in the Rocky Mountains”.
For some, however, this irrational view is what they need to get through a bad situation. And it’s a perfectly natural reaction. In an article from the New York Times from May of this year titled “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories“, Maggie Koerth Baker writes:
The recent Boston Marathon bombing, the shootings at Sandy Hook, and 9/11 all hold one thing in common; In order to cope with the horror of the man-made situation, people invent ways that the “outsiders” have conspired to kill and terrorise American citizenry, either as an attempt to control them, or to draw their minds away from some covert action by the military. Besides, “normal” people don’t go around shooting innocent children and teachers, set off bombs, or fly planes into buildings, do they?
Or do they?
Slate have created an online and ongoing archive of the amount of people killed in gun related violence in the USA since the Newtown shootings in December of 2012. At the time of this article, there have been 5,238 gun deaths, not including suicides involving guns. This staggering number, gun debate aside, shows that seemingly normal people do in fact kill other people with guns. Who knows how many were mentally unstable or irrational at the times of the killings (I’d hazard a guess and say “most”), but it points not to conspiracy, rather to a culture that places the owning of firearms above the safety of its citizenry.
And what of the 9/11 plane attacks on the World Trade Center? Or the brutal murder of the British soldier in Woolwich in broad daylight? Were these relatively normal people, or people on the fringes of a conspiracy? More likely, in the cases of terrorism, disenfranchised individuals, vulnerable from their seeming exclusion of mainstream society, are co-opted and coerced by groups that prey on vulnerabilities to strike fear into the people around them. But this is all speculation.
That aside, conspiracies do in fact happen, and seemingly more commonly in the American government than anywhere else. So it’s east to assign conspiracy to any event out of the ordinary.
Americans have, by and large, shown that they are surprised by the NSA’s ability to spy on their online communications, which I find to be incredibly ironic. After all, the current generation of people tell us, online, where they are, who they are with, what they are eating, what they buy, what they are doing all the time. All the time. Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, Untappd, and any other of the myriad social networking apps out there are all freely available information, and of course someone is collecting the data. If you willingly give up this information, it is no longer yours. Facebook owns your photographs, and you gave them to Facebook.
There are reasons to believe that there are covert operations going on in the world. Some have more weight than others, and some are just paranoia, but there are things happening that you are not privy to. Such is the nature of governments. But the conspiracy theorist stands to gain some power over their situation by having access to “insider information”, therefore making them feel like they are somewhat in control of the situation. If you hold information that your neighbour does not, then you are more prepared for an eventual situation that may arise than they are. You feel like you control the situation because you can see past the veil of “presented reality”.
Humans have a great ability to work out how cause and effect is enacted in our world. The progress of humanity is due to our ability to judge a situation by the event leading up to it, and the events that follow it. Science and technology owe their existences to our ability to assess what is happening, and to predict future events based upon the data presented. But in times of stress, our minds are short circuited into a spiral of fancy and fantasy, where larger players are conspiring against us, or where gods are punishing us. There is no reason to believe either of these scenarios, but in these times, our rational thinking goes out the window and we start to dwell upon the small and insignificant.