Most religions, ancient and modern, have a tendency to attribute things that happen to God’s will, whether those things are positive (blessings/wealth/power/success in war) or negative (cursings/bad weather/poverty/disability). These outcomes are seen as “God’s will,” but human effort can drive God toward more desirable outcomes.

For example, about 15 years ago I was in Tunisia, anciently known as Carthage, and even more anciently, a Phoenician settlement. While there we visited an ancient cemetery where the bodies of children (and later pets which elicited a horrified gasp from our fellow tourists) that were burned as sacrifices to Ba’al were buried. It was some straight up Old Testament stuff! They did this to avoid famine or weather-related disasters. If they experienced famine or weather-related disasters, it was seen as the fault of those who hadn’t made these sacrifices. The community would then ratchet up the number of children (or pets) sacrificed to get God back on their side. Eventually this practice died down, but it was a big thing for centuries.

In 2011, we visited a family friend in Bali, where locals currently spend a significant portion of each day making small offerings for the gods out of fruits and flowers which are then left out in the street. If a neighborhood family does not make enough of these and something bad happens, they are blamed. Neighbors shun them and don’t want to be friendly toward them. They are seen as not doing their duty to the community. When the terrorist attack in 2002 happened in Kuta, killing 202 and injuring another 209, the entire island redoubled their efforts to appease the demons who had so clearly targeted their community.

I recently attended the funeral of someone who died of Covid in which a eulogy included the statement that the deceased died because it was God’s will, not because of the virus. It’s understandable that grief pushes us to find reasons for things that have harmed us, whether we live in modern or ancient times. Our actions have consequences, but too often religious thinking substitutes unrelated action for things we can do that actually drive better outcomes. This sentiment has been expressed at most funerals I’ve attended, that God took the deceased home because he or she had important work to do. I’ve also heard many say that this idea is not comforting to them because it puts God in the role of causing pain to humans. It also exonerates us of our responsibilities, in this situation, to vaccinate, to follow masking and other safety guidelines, and to believe in science and follow community health and safety guidelines to prevent contagion. I know of others whose deaths have occurred as a result of poor life decisions who acknowledged this and cautioned others to make better choices, to avoid their mistakes. To me, this feels like a more responsible approach. A fatalistic view of God means that nothing we do in life really matters; only God’s will matters. Only God’s will drives results. In such a system, we don’t have to reflect on the consequences of our actions, on cause and effect relationships.

Consider another familiar scenario. Missionaries are often told that if they obey rules, they will baptize more converts. This is a logical fallacy. While it’s potentially true that disobeying rules can decrease effectiveness, that does not mean that obeying the rules has a direct effect on how many people a person will teach who convert and are baptized. There are many other factors at work, including the investigator’s free agency to choose and the missionary’s social and communication skills (or lack thereof), just to name two obvious ones. There are many, many more factors than this at play. Some of these are things a missionary has more control over, and many are things a missionary cannot control at all. Yet, it’s taught over and over that this is the way to achieve baptisms, to the point that I have become skeptical that convert baptisms are the goal at all. Perhaps the real goal is to instill self-righteousness in missionaries and a willingness to follow rules whether they make sense or not. Perhaps the goal is to create followers, not leaders.

This thinking is also at play when we talk about physical protection from harm for individuals who are wearing garments or financial blessings from paying tithing or other “righteous” efforts. While these may be worthwhile activities, tying them to an unrelated reward feels like folly. If you need money, get a better job, improve your education and skills, go to your boss and talk about a raise. If you need physical protection, drive safely, eat healthy food, exercise regularly, don’t pick fights, be vigilant for danger. These are directly related to the outcome being sought. Of course, anyone can do these with or without a religion telling them.

Mortality is not in our control, and the good and bad things that happen to us–even death–aren’t a direct reflection of our “righteousness.” Jesus taught this very clearly in the Beatitudes:

[H]e maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Matthew 5:45

There’s a joke somebody told once (can’t remember who) that people believe in Creationism rather than evolution because reading a children’s story is easier than learning actual science. Now that’s perhaps a bit harsh (I believe this was a critique of Evangelicalism, not Mormonism), but there’s something truthy at the core of it. I remember a time in my mission when there was a rule created that was just having terrible impacts to us as missionaries, and I prayed for the president to get rid of this rule. In the meantime, I kept following the rule (I literally had no alternative; it was strictly enforced by the district leaders). After praying for months that this rule would be eliminated, I switched tactics. I wrote directly to the president, explaining the impacts this rule was having to me, to my new trainee, and to the local branch. And you know what? The rule got changed. I don’t have proof that my letter was the cause of the change since we pretty much all loathed this rule, and I couldn’t have been the only one who raised the problems, but the direct approach from me or someone else prompted the change that me praying could not.[1]

What’s your take?

  • Do people ascribe negative outcomes to God’s will as a way to avoid personal responsibility for their actions?
  • Do people prefer to do unrelated religious things because they are easier than doing something more direct to get a better outcome?
  • Why is so much weight given to unrelated actions in religion rather than encouraging people to make direct changes that would alter outcomes?
  • Can you think of other examples of this phenomenon?

Discuss.

[1] Obligatory book plug: https://www.amazon.com/Legend-Hermana-Plunge-Angela-Clayton-ebook/dp/B07NQ4CXFB/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=legend+of+hermana+plunge&qid=1634085409&sr=8-1