Five days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a baby was pulled alive from the rubble. According to CBS News: “Her father knew it was a miracle, saying in French, “Grace of God. Grace of God!”
At the end of the story we get the actual reasons for this baby’s survival:
“CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who helped treat Michelle, told Smith, “In pediatrics, we say children kind of tend to the extremes. They can get sick very quickly and really crash quickly, but they have amazing reserve and resiliency, and they can compensate for a long period of time. So, again, she was caught in an area where she didn’t sustain any crush injury, and she was able to actually survive not only the rubble, but not have severe dehydration, which is amazing.”"
Amazing, yes. Very near the edge, yes, yet still within the realm of the humanly possible. But miraculous?
All we can say with any honesty based on the evidence is that blind chance and an impressive capacity for survival put this infant among the living as an enormous natural seismic event leveled cities and villages killing what looks to be nearly two hundred thousand people (the island of Haiti is on an active fault line and — as a geophysicist recently said — “That’s how you get islands”).
Our favorite national religious clown Pat Robertson famously blamed the earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with the “Devil” to get out from under the French more than two hundred years ago (blithely ignoring the reality that we live on a cooling, active planet with a molten core.) . This globe of ours has never required an external cause to rumble, erupt or storm. And yet believers in the goodness of an all-powerful God are somehow able to assign credit to God for the “miracle” of the handful of survivors that will be rescued from this overwhelming human disaster without ever questioning how this same (supposedly) loving God wiped out the two-hundred-thousand Haitians (and who knows how many equally loved and deserving infants) that didn’t qualify for a miraculous survival! (I think it was Christopher Hitchens who pointed out the obvious: it is only the survivors that we hear proclaiming that their faith in God saved them — we hear nothing from the dead whose faith in God was, it would seem, of little help).
When Captain Sullenberger successfully ditched flight 1549 in the Hudson on January 15th of 2009, with no loss of life and only a few injuries among his one-hundred and fifty-five passengers, it was quickly dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson”. I’m aware of no argument (at the time) with that moniker. About a month later I got an e-mail from a friend containing a cartoon from Rex Babin of the Sacramento Bee (that was apparently then making the rounds on the web), showing the hands of God gently laying the aircraft on the water, like it were a toy he could so tenderly bring back to earth (suspending, one would assume, the natural laws of gravity, physics and aerodynamics for the “miracle”).
I sent my friend a one-sentence reply: “Where’s the cartoon for the plane that crashed in Buffalo?” To which he replied: “What???”
For on February 12th (less than a month after the “Miracle on the Hudson”) Continental Flight 3407 fell from the sky (in icing conditions at night) on its approach to Buffalo International Airport. All forty-nine passengers and crew were killed, along with one person on the ground. Clearly, if the “Miracle on the Hudson” was proof of the grace of God, the complete loss of Flight 3407 must be taken as a judgement of God. So who did God kill this time? An historian and human rights advocate who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; and the widow of a Buffalo native who was killed in the September 11th attacks (the widow was on her way to both celebrate her dead husband’s 58th birthday and attend the presentation of a High School scholarship established in his honor). In the latter’s case Pastor Robinson might say it was because she shook hands with President Obama (she’d been at the White House with other relatives of those killed in 9/11 and the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole).
I think in order to believe that God held up Flight 1549 with his saving hands, one has to believe that God used the finger of one of those hands to flick Flight 3407 out of the sky. Or, at the very least, he stood by silent and still as the deadly ice built up on the wings of the commuter jet. Take your pick. (Neither speaks well of God’s character or temperament).
How does God, then, deserve credit for the disproportionate few that survive a disaster, but get a pass on the much greater numbers that do not? Simply put, He doesn’t.
Here’s what really happened to those two flights:
According to the New York Times (the final NTSB report has not yet been issued):
“The airplane, a Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 with two turboprop engines and room for 74 passengers, is certified for flight into “known icing conditions.” But when the pilots change the shape of the wings, by moving the flaps or other controls, sometimes buildups of ice that were not a factor in an earlier configuration are suddenly exposed to the passing wind and make the plane uncontrollable.”
And so the crew of this plane with ice already building on the wings and windshield (and no assurance that the de-icing boots were functioning properly even though they were turned “on”) dropped flaps and gear on approach and found themselves losing control of a wildly bucking aircraft that soon fell from the sky on an occupied house near Buffalo.
And (according to Wikipedia,) here’s what really saved Flight 1549 or “The Miracle on the Hudson” (as set forth in the citation from The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators as they awarded the entire flight crew a Master’s Medal on January 22, 2009):
“The reactions of all members of the crew, the split second decision making and the handling of this emergency and evacuation was ‘text book’ and an example to us all. To have safely executed this emergency ditching and evacuation, with the loss of no lives, is a heroic and unique aviation achievement. It deserves the immediate recognition that has today been given by the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.”
Note that the people that actually know flying correctly called the actions of the crew “heroic and unique”. That is a truthful statement well deserved. Notice that there is no mention of any miraculous suspension of the laws that govern flight.
I might be less averse to our irrational impulse to give credit to God (who — should he by some miracle actually exist — isn’t really earning it) if in that action we weren’t taking credit away from real humans that really do deserve it. To add to that injury, we dismiss the suffering of innumerable others by writing off the deaths of their loved ones as an “act of God” (or the Devil — same difference). How can we sit in front of a television and ignore the giant tomb of Haiti as we get giddy with the goodness of God for one infant that was in just the right place (and personally tough enough) to survive being buried alive? Why not rather honor that tough and tenacious kid?
I would do nothing to diminish the joy of that infant’s father at her rescue. But neither would I do anything to increase the suffering of thousands of others who will not see their friends and loved ones again. Attributing natural disaster to divine causes is a ludicrous insult to real and present human grief. It is callous and cowardly. It is also factually false. We have to stop letting such mindless pronouncements go unchallenged.
Living as we do on the planet earth, it is never a question of “if” but merely “when” the next earthquake, tsunami, tornado or airplane crash will occur. Stuff happens, and it is our fellow humans that will both suffer the loss and come to the rescue. Irrational and superstitious belief in spiritual causes of natural events only gets in the way of responding as caring human beings (and worse, doesn’t really do anyone any good).
Give me a warm human hand reaching out to really help me over an entire Church bowed in prayer any day.
We may be convinced that we are the believers in the one, true God, and are not among the credulous that occupy the dark corners of the globe (and who are absolute fools to believe the weird stuff that they do). But that’s what they think about us as well! (if you had no previous knowledge of religion and were given the task of deciding which religion was “true”, on what evidence could you make your decision? Number of adherents? Who has their prayers answered more often? Who has the most “miracles”? Who has the best hymns?)
If tomorrow the magma heaving beneath Yellowstone were to erupt into another “super-volcano” (it’s happened before), there would be cheers from billions of Muslims at God’s just and righteous punishment of America (attributing another purely natural event to cosmic forces). Pat Robertson would also find a divine cause, no doubt. (According to the USGS — by the way — we needn’t worry too much about Yellowstone exploding soon).
Ignorance of history and the sciences leaves us ever susceptible to cosmic bullshit from the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design to the (literal) hands of God taking time out of his busy day (watching over millions dying from starvation, disease and disaster) to gently set a bird-strike crippled jet full of terrified people down upon the Hudson River.
To God be the glory, indeed, for the things he hasn’t done.
In the meantime let’s not waste our breath on prayers and praise that do nothing practical to relieve human suffering. Here are some practical ways to help:
Non-Believers Giving Aid