Taking stock; guilt; atheism

It’s been a day of processing for us: a dawning realisation of the work we will need to do to reconstruct our life. We still don’t have any idea whether our house, with all our possessions, is still standing, or when we will return; what we can, should be doing – especially with two small kids.

For the moment, however, we are safe and well when so many other families have been destroyed.

Haiti’s tragedy is beyond counting. The United Nations also has suffered another blow comparable – it now appears – to the Baghdad bombing in 2003, although this time due to natural catastrophe rather than human intent. Over coming days the organisation will need to take stock; there will be many important stories to tell about the people who lost their lives in service of a better world. I intend to relate some of them. We have almost certainly lost friends.

On a personal level, it is decidedly surreal to be so connected to, yet so far from, a crisis which has commanded global attention. Miami is just across the water, yet a world away.

We have been inundated with kind comments and offers of help, and – notably – references to miracles, divine providence, prayers. I do not want to jump to any conclusions, but Anna may be one of the last remaining members of the civilian management of the UN peacekeeping mission. Through sheer random chance. Had we been in Haiti, had the quake come next week instead of this, had we not delayed our holiday until after the New Year, she would have been in that building.

I was religious as an adolescent, but later turned to atheism due to my difficulty with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed. To my developing morality, that was incompatible with our sense of common but diverse humanity.

I also found alternative sources of deep morality in humanist thought, and feel that we can strive to be better people without reference to a divine being. I followed my heart.

But moments like this test atheism to the limit. I have found myself, almost despite myself, whispering a word of thanks. I remember the old religious me; it is down there somewhere. We are hard-wired to see agency, especially in moments of great change, great import; we find it unsettling to see our lives as random events, whatever our rational selves say. Even though I fundamentally see our escape as pure luck, it comes with a niggling sensation. And I do appreciate the prayers, as they are sincerely meant, acts of pure kindness.

The question is what to do with our reprieve. Hopefully something useful.

I also feel a slight sense of guilt.

Not at the fact we were not in Haiti… that was sheer good fortune, and I have no regrets (except a creaky old journalistic pang at missing a major event).

But at the fact that I am considering our own fortunes – the loss of our house, the challenge now facing our potentially homeless young family, our careers – whilst those of others are so much worse. We will be fine. Others will not.

Still, we can’t help it. We all need a sense of where we might be going. That is intrinsically human.

PS This horrifying story about Pat Robertson is a powerful reminder to we humanists why we have chosen the path we have.

On the same issue, someone alerted me to this bizarre claim by some Christians in 1998 that they had actually taken Haiti back from the Devil. Such demented stuff.

It is also disturbing to see David Brooks’ invocation of voodoo as an explanation for why Haiti is “progress resistant”


28 responses to “Taking stock; guilt; atheism

  1. My deepest sympathies for your losses.

  2. Mark

    I really can’t understand how incidents like this can test your atheism. I would have thought that, like me, having seen countless examples of the horror (man-made and natural) visited on humanity around the world, it would reinforce your belief that there is clearly no compassionate, loving God anywhere that religion would have us believe.

    I do, however, empathise with your “thank fuck I wasn’t there but pity I missed it” sentiment. A natural journalistic instinct!



    • Well David, rationally you are right, and I will almost certainly remain atheist for the while. But deeply ingrained instincts remain, and it is a rare or supremely self-confident atheist, I suspect, that doesn’t occasionally whisper a sneaky thanks to the heavens after dodging a bullet.

  3. I remembered coming across your blog by chance several weeks ago. I spent some time trying to remember keywords of the blog entry I read, so that I could find your blog again, and see if your family was okay. I’m very glad to read that you are well. I’m very sorry for the loss of your friends and your wife’s co-workers.

  4. Markey,

    I am so grateful to have happened on your blog with its beautiful writing and photos before this tragedy.

    I and I hope you can feel kinship with the so many around the world feeling empathy and sorrow for those so hurt and frightened.

    From the streets of Port au Prince to the outpouring of words and material, the first reaction from those surviving is to help. That is what is intrinsically human.

    I can only speak for myself but that is what I hold to during the dark night, the knowledge and faith that for most human and even other creatures the first impulse is to bring forward love. And believe there can be a day when that is the sole enduring reaction to each other.

  5. I am no where near Haiti, (San Francisco, actually) but feel for your family and the loss of your friends.
    I have been following the blog of a family friend who is in Haiti (she and her family are fine – as is the orphanage they run) and every comment being left involves some sort of religious overtone. While I would never fault anyone for having faith in a divine being, it is refreshing and hopeful to read this post.
    Good luck to you and your family, and if there is something I can do to help, please let me know.

  6. Ah, Mark. I feel guilty too, in a way. Nice to hear someone else say it.

  7. Trying to fix or make orderly things or events is what makes us human. So when a disaster like this happens people look for something that will solve it. Depending on your critical thinking skills the solution people come to varies.

    Feeling guilty about an action is what makes some organizations the most money. If from the information you have gathered about the event they need of money/time/etc spend the amount you can afford. Giving people a sustainable income is much more important than a temporary boost in standard of living (relating this to other charities).

    You shouldn’t feel guilty about anything that you done your part to help.

    Good read thank you!

  8. I actually become LESS religious (if that’s possible) during times like this. The earth is just a big ball of dirt and molten lava (and other stuff too). There is nothing to protect us. Sorry.

    But the reason you find yourself considering religion is because you’re looking for a safety net. Haiti just collapsed and you want to grab something that can never let you down. This is why many people believe in God in the first place. They don’t want to be hurt and they always want to be loved by a “perfect” thing.

    I can still offer my words of hope and that you will get through it.

  9. The horrifying Pat Robertson story is also a powerful reminder of what genuine religious faith must be – not some ignorant blame game, but true and loving communication. He is not representative of us, and I hope you see it this way too. My sincere prayers to you and your family and to your country of 9 million beautiful people.

    a Catholic (also named Mark :D)

  10. Hi Mark,
    I know the feeling, in December a car got hit by a train right in front of us in Benin and all the people in the car got out of it alive and even more amazing, with almost no injuries. I’m a wavering Christian/Atheist and all I felt I could say at that stage along with the rest of the locals, was “Grace a Dieu”. It’s sometimes nice to kind-of believe in SOMETHING.

  11. That Pat Robertson story is truly shocking. How can people like that sleep at night?

  12. “I was religious as an adolescent, but later turned to atheism due to my difficulty with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed.”

    I’m not challenging your right to believe what you want, but this common atheist reasoning is a non sequitur.

    The implicit “I grew up in a bad sect, therefore religion is bad” suffers from both selection bias and unwarranted generalization; it ignores (and slanders, through stereotyping) those religious traditions that do not condemn people in other faith communities.

    The same argument from another angle — “I grew up in an atheist communist country, but turned to religion because atheism suppresses free thinking” — would be similarly flawed.

    Implicitly disparaging the category of “religion” because you disagree with how a sub-category of that class condemns those who disagree is, to put it mildly, ironic.

  13. Mark, I have been thinking of the four of you non-stop since yesterday. I am so relieved to know you are safe, and speechless in the face of your loss. Are you in London? I would love to see all of you before you head back, if that is possible.

    I’ve written to Congress in a campaign to request that Temporary Protected Status be alloted to Haitians in the U.S. who may be facing deportation/removal, or who don’t have legal status, but please let us all know if you have thoughts on the most effective ways to give to support the relief effort.

    With much love and support,

  14. I agree with Mark’s comment. I’m a Catholic too and Pat Robertson doesn’t represent ME! Our God is a loving, forgiving God and He works through people. Maybe this is the reason why there is such a tremendous outpouring of prayers and constructive, helpful action coming from people around the world but, especially, from the US. You can torture yourself with ‘How could God let this happen?’ thoughts, but the explanation is too lengthy to go into here. Trust your Faith and trust God – He made us all.

    Best to you and the people of Haiti, Mike

  15. As they say–there are no atheists in foxholes. Perhaps you were spared for a “reason.” I look forward to reading your reports from the front.

  16. Haiti’s Ambassador Joesph on Robertson here:
    Makes me love Haiti even more.

  17. Just another Christian wanting to say that we are praying for the people of Haiti and that Pat Robertson is not one of us.

  18. Hi Mark,
    Am glad you, Anna and the family are safe. I was friend with Mamadou Bah, a UN very nice chap who spent a few years at the information department of MONUC in Kinshasa. I just got the news that he died in the disaster. It’s so sad…
    Maybe you are an atheist because as a journalist you need pieces of evidence to believe in anything… maybe until you get that piece of evidence you can consider yourself as an agnostic?… In circumstances of great risk, I also found myself trying to believe in something… maybe in hope…. Take care. Am glad you, Anna and the kids are fine.
    Best wishes from Lubumbashi, Katanga, DRCongo

  19. I think many of us are missing the miracle here – that the airport was spared enough to allow others to fly in and help. I believe in God, and believe this is God’s way of testing the compassion of the world based on their response to Haiti.

    I do not understand what the author means when they say “with belief systems that condemn others who – by accident of birth and geography – do not follow a certain creed.” There is nothing biblical about this – all are able to come to God, and Jesus said we are to worship in spirit and in truth. “All who are weary and heavy-laden, come to me and find rest for your souls.” This means everyone.

    I also agree it is extremely unfortunate what Pat Roberts said. Jesus himself referred to the tower of Siloam falling and killing people in his time, and pointed out this was not necessarily due to sinfulness.

    Life itself is in God’s hands. He takes it at the proper time. We are all tested in this – how will we do? How will you respond?

    • I believe in God, and believe this is God’s way of testing the compassion of the world based on their response to Haiti.

      Yes, because killing thousands of people is a perfectly reasonable way for God to test the compassion levels of developed nations.

      Ironically, when Christians spout such nonsense, they make it harder for others to see their God as the loving, compassionate deity they insist he is.

  20. I appreciate your honesty.

    And, I am praying for all of you.

  21. I see the pouring out of people giving as a reminder that we do come together to help others in times of need. Upsetting that words of Pat Robertson can undo so much good with rantings of poor faith based information. If God punished, I would have been smitten years ago. I am still here and thankful for mercy. Hang in there. You are in my prayers.

  22. Friend, there is a divine stamp in each of us. The sense of purpose you feel and the appreciation of beauty are the whispers of a God who transcends geography or creeds. I’ve been to almost every continent in the world…humanism is the Western equivalent of religion. It takes out a god/God and places humanity there. It is times like these that we see that humanity as a whole doesn’t fill the gap very well. But, one human does. He welcomes you to know Him.

  23. I came across your blog through wordpress’ homepage. I’m glad that you and your family are safe. I pray that through this tragedy, you will find comfort, strength and ‘maybe even’ a loving and caring God … and my apologies for the statement that Pat Robertson made.

  24. Stephen Burgoyne Coulson

    Saying “thank you” isn’t a sign of religion. That is a sign of being human.
    I’ve been without a god for forty years but I bargain with my car when it’s hard to start and I curse my computer when it hangs for no reason. I’m born to interact with intelligent beings and if the side effect of that is I talk to inanimate objects or even the entire universe I’m not particularly alarmed by it.
    Saying “thank you” when you are grateful is not religious though religion may claim it is. Another thing religion likes to claim is the ability to explain random inexplicable things. When disaster strikes there is no reason for the outcome. One person may get up to go to the bathroom and be saved by that. Another may get up to go to the bathroom and die because of that.
    Personally I am more comfortable with the idea of random tragedy than with the idea of an omnipotent being who could save everyone but chooses to let so many die instead. That does not mean, however, that I am comfortable with tragedy.
    I am gladdened to hear that you and your family are safe, I am saddened to hear of all those who aren’t.
    In gratitude for good fortune be generous to those less lucky and forgive them when they are angry because of their misfortune. They are human. So are you.
    I am going to ask the universe to grant you strength and serenity now, not because I think it will happen, but because I want you to have it. Good luck, human.

    I am Human Too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s