This past weekend, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Joplin, MO and volunteer with the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the recent tornado. It’s a daunting, sobering task that can’t help but make you pause to reflect on a number of things. Here are just a few thoughts that paraded through my mind while picking up debris in the June swelter.
Sometimes media gets it right.
It’s no secret that we live in an age of media exaggeration and sensationalism. (That’s one of the reasons for the existence of this blog.) As I came into Joplin, it appeared they’d done it again. Seeing initially the part of town that was little affected, I noted only a few trees down and some spotty structural damage to houses, and I figured the TV cameras had just zoomed in on a few buildings that got hit exceptionally hard. And then came the reality: miles and miles of total jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, mind-numbing devastation. The media actually may have understated the case this time.
People want to help.
Despite what you hear about people being greedy, selfish and cutthroat, most of us jump at the opportunity to help out someone in need. Sometimes it takes a disaster to jolt people out of their ruts and make them realize that their help is needed. But we have an innate drive to be of service – ALL of us, regardless of age, race or creed.
The God Bias
Disaster relief is a conspicuous manifestation of the bias toward religion that permeates our society. Most of the people you see – no, strike that – most of the people that you NOTICE reporting to volunteer are affiliated with a church group. They arrive in vans, wearing custom made T-shirts advertising their congregations from all over the country. Hey, it’s great to see them, from southern fundamentalists to Middle Eastern Muslims. Joplin needs all the help it can get; even the Scientologists are a welcome sight.
What’s annoying is that it’s often difficult to find an outlet for volunteering without going through a religious group. The official spin is that churches have cornered the market when it comes to charity. And this perception has contributed to the belief that one must be religious in order to be moral, in order to be a good person. The truth is that secularists are just as caring and helpful as anyone else (see above); they are just not as massively organized nor as publicly visible as the religionists.
Religion is, for better and for worse, a highly conspicuous thread running through American society, especially in this part of the country – they don’t call it The Bible Belt for nothing. Just try having a ten-minute conversation with someone about their social life without having them mention their church. The work these folks do for charity is an extension of everything else they do; but contrary to what many believe, it is religious people doing the good deeds, not religion itself.
God does not play favorites.
One aspect of the God Bias is the strange but persistent belief that faith will protect you in the face of such calamity – while simultaneously blaming God for the very disasters he is expected to shield you from. (“Act of God” is even a legal term is this strange world.)
Sorry, but the reality is that such tragedies often strike (think Joplin and Katrina, for instance) in areas having a high concentration of believers. Just around the corner from the houses where I was picking up the sad traces of some family’s home and life were the sparse ruins of a church building, with only a couple of pews remaining, and its hymnals scattered to the winds.
It’s a trend.
In case you haven’t noticed, there has been an increase in storms of this type in recent years. And it’s likely to get worse. Because it’s quite probable that global warming is contributing to it. Of course, the Cult of Denialism will poo-poo this, and find some other explanation. (See above.) They believe that global warming would be linear and consistent, and therefore having a cold day now and then totally discredits the exhaustive research of climate scientists. What they don’t realize is that global warming produces extremes of many kinds, including cold weather and winds. But don’t worry, the extreme heat is still there too: while I was cleaning up debris, the thermometer reportedly hit a new record for the date.
Finally, note that Joplin still needs a lot of help, and will continue to need a lot of help for a long time. You can contribute hours, money or goods – even if you’re not religious. Honestly.