21 Sep

by David Norris

One of the things they don’t prepare you for in leaving a faith is how to deal with the family you have that still “believes.” How do you interact at major holidays, such as Christmas and Easter (for Christians), when practically everything is couched in religious language? Do you smile and nod when some bright-eyed old lady comes up to you and, grasping your hands warmly in hers, exclaims in a hushed and fervent tone, “The Lord is risen!” Ditto that for Christmas, Good Friday, Epiphany, etc etc.

And what they really don’t prepare you for is how to interact with your family in time of crisis, such as when someone is injured or diagnosed with a serious medical condition. What do you do when your mom calls you, asking you to pray for healing?

This past weekend I got a taste of what that might be like. My youngest sister has been dealing with serious headaches for several months. The doctors don’t know what might be causing it, though they’ve so far ruled out brain cancer or aneurysm (which is where my mind goes first), but this weekend she went into the ER after the pain became crippling and she lost sensitivity in parts of her body—which, by the way, is never good.

I’ve been keeping in touch and getting updates (she’s doing fine, by the way, and was released from hospital this morning—they still don’t know what’s causing the headaches but have gotten the pain to a manageable level), but the first thing my mom asked me to do was pray, “if I felt like it.” I’m out to her and she knows that I’m no longer religious; but I still felt somewhat backed into a corner. What do you say? This was relatively minor, but eventually it’s going to be stroke, or heart attack, or death. Do you favor convention for their sake? Obviously crisis time is not the time to argue semantics or religion.

But how do you respond honestly while conveying concern and care?

The sum of my response on Saturday was to say, “Well, what happens is what happens.” Because I don’t think that there is anyone benevolently looking out for us. Miracles are what happen when things inexplicably turn out in our favor, seemingly defying odds or explanation. Because things have gone well with my sister, emails have been rife with expressions like, “Praise the Lord!” or “Thank you, Jesus!” Her last email concluded with, “Praise the Lord for those hard times which open our eyes to how Jesus shows up!”

This afternoon I happened upon a Wikipedia article (where I get all of my material, since it’s such a scholarly source) about the “black swan” theory, which was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and comes from the idea held in previous times that all swans had to be white since only white ones had been previously observed, and a black one would have to be miraculous. Its essence is summed up on the page quite nicely: The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.

I’ve been trying to express that very idea for the past few weeks while having conversations with my “believing” family. The fact that an “event” happens to them is confirmation that miracles do happen—that black swans do exist. But we only see the outcome of an event, and miss most of what leads up to it—especially what takes place outside of our field of vision. To the observer, a “miraculous” event looks pre-ordained, even if there might be a rational explanation. “It was meant to turn out that way!” the religious mind thinks—because God works all things together for the good of those who know him (Romans 8:28). As my mom’s email illustrates, even when it doesn’t, hard times are still meant to help the believer “have faith” (or whatever lesson there is to be learned).

Now, Black Swan Theory (as developed by Taleb) applies generally to major world events and scientific discoveries but can have implications down to the microcosm of the individual. “A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world,” he wrote in the New York Times, “from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”

Everything from the Fall of the Roman Empire to the doctors finding the right drug combination to alleviate my sister’s headaches could be expressed in those terms. Looking back, we can see clearly how one event led to the next, as if guided by an invisible hand or will. But this, again, is the power of hindsight and the propensity for patternicity in the human race to attribute meaning where none exists.

What I fail to understand is how any of these things could be less grand if they are merely the results of human ingenuity—or chance. I was raised to believe that God orchestrated the whole of history, from the impossible complexity of the quantum universe to the banality of everyday life. If someone recovered from cancer, it was because “God has a plan for them.” If someone died instead, it was because it was “their time.”

It’s ultimately why my family can’t accept evolution—”How could it have all just happened?” my dad recently exclaimed. “We see too much complexity for it to have all been random!” It’s the most common fundamentalist objection to evolution, but this is case-in-point why. God is the micro-manager of the universe, having composed the whole narrative from beginning to end in all of its immense detail.

If anything, it’s more remarkable that my sister is okay because of the work, learning and skill of her doctors rather than because of divine orchestration. What’s needed is a good dose of rational thought—to turn black swans white again and delight in the true black ones.

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