Last week raging forest fires struck along the Garden Route, destroying houses and lives. At last count, the death toll stood at six, while 408 formal houses and 200 or more informal houses were destroyed. Thousands were left homeless.
The amazing people of the region, and of the country, did so much to help. While it was burning, Knysna was completely isolated for a time, without power or telephone lines. The community stood together to fight the fires, save the lives of people and animals, and give aid to those who lost everything. Similar scenes played themselves out in other affected areas along the coast. The strength and generosity of people in a disaster was heart-warming.
But to me, there was a sour note. Under normal circumstances, I avoid talking about religion, knowing that rational discussion of religious belief is impossible and my atheist views only upset believers. I don’t like to write about it for the same reasons. But while Knysna was burning, religion – and I refer here particularly to Christianity – became impossible to avoid. It was brashly thrown in everyone’s faces.
Not that it will spare me from being attacked by religious zealots, but let me be clear: Churches did a great deal to alleviate the suffering around here. They gave shelter to the displaced, support to the distressed, and food to the hungry. Christians are often kind-hearted, well-meaning people, but that does not make them unique or special. You don’t need to be a Christian to be good and generous. Many other people, companies and secular organisations did exactly the same thing, only without promising that a supernatural being would grant them everlasting life if only they abased themselves enough.
The religion began to grate when outpourings of faith became wildly inappropriate and actually endangered lives and property. Some Christians were so blind to the reality of the tragedy that they perfectly illustrated why I do not believe in a god and disapprove of religion in general.
At the outbreak of the disaster, early last week, emergency groups were established on the chat service WhatsApp. These became critical lifelines when the power and telephone lines went down. They were used by firefighters and other emergency personnel to locate threats to lives and property, to inform people of evacuation orders, and to co-ordinate relief efforts. At times during the next several days, the rate of incoming messages must have been hundreds per hour. Run by patient and dedicated volunteers, these groups were immensely helpful and saved many lives and properties.
Quite a few people, however, thought that it would be appropriate to send emoticons of praying hands, or even entire prayers, to these groups. Those who pointed out that thanks and idle chit-chat were hampering emergency response, or who suggested that those who wanted a prayer group start their own, promptly got attacked. The attackers were people presumably brimming with the love of Christ.
The presumptuousness that everyone should share their belief was astonishing. The lack of awareness that these messages might actually cause harm was angering.
Even their own book exhorts Christians not to make a public spectacle of praying: “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So … when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Another person copied and pasted an entire news article, book-ended by revealing comments translated here from the Afrikaans:
This is unbelievable to me. An absolute proof of our Father’s mercy and His love in South African hearts.
Residents from Knysna, surrounding areas and from around the country have since rallied together and have started helping those affected in several ways.
This is how some organisations and businesses have contributed:
• Gift of the Givers has supplied 32 tons of bottled water, blankets, diapers, food items and tents.
• Shoprite-Checkers offered the use of a building to store all the supplies, as well as donating supplies from various stores.
• Massmart, through Makro and Game, have sent six truckloads of supplies including bottled water, blankets, tinned food and dry food items worth R1m.
• Woolworths have given R500,000 to Gift of the Givers to help with the Knysna efforts, as well as donated supplies.
• Kulula airlines offered cargo space on flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg.
• Outsurance donated R250,000.
• Oxfam donated R60,000.
• The Australian High Commission donated R250,000.
• Discovery donated R375,000
• Mutual and Federal donated R400,000.
• Short-term insurer Santam also donated R1m and dispatched additional field assessment resources to support its clients and business partners in the Garden c and surrounding areas.
• DHL also opened up their 39 locations across South Africa as additional drop-off points where people can donate non-perishable foods and other emergency supplies.
• Many people opened up their homes to residents who had been left homeless because they had to be evacuated.
• The Jiwu Salon & Spa in Plettenburg have offered 30 minute massages focusing on muscles for firefighters and official fire brigade volunteers.
• FNB will be donating R10m towards relief efforts.
• ABSA donated R10m each for disaster relief as well as 5,600 tents
***And what did the Government do?
This is doubly insulting. Let’s deal with the last line first: the government did plenty. Besides for the emergency funding that comes with declaring a disaster area, extremely expensive army helicopters water-bombed the fires. Eight hundred firefighters were dispatched to Knysna alone. Officials were promptly on the scene to replace lost documents and provide other necessary assistance, especially to the poor. I guess this particular Christian likes to stir up racist resentment towards the ANC and couldn’t let this crisis go to waste.
Even more offensive is that this person takes credit for all this charity on behalf of their god. The list is unbelievable, yes, but if they want to thank someone, they should thank the people and companies who were so generous with their time and donations. It might not be fashionable to believe that corporate behemoths are staffed by real people with good hearts. Perhaps some of them were motivated by religious duty rather than personal morality. But thanking a non-existent supernatural creature in their stead is deeply insulting and devalues their humanity.
I also volunteered my time and energy. I don’t require thanks, but don’t you dare thank your god for my efforts. I don’t believe in any god or supernatural intelligence. My charity is not proof of your god’s love and mercy. The only thing it proves is that you don’t need a god to be a decent person.
At no time since the start of the tragedy did enough rain fall to make much difference to the fires, but when the occasional few drops did fall, Christians cluttered up the chat groups to thank their god. When the fires burnt out or were successfully fought, they praised the lord.
There really is no way to put this tactfully. Let me make an analogy instead. If the fire-breathing dragon of the Outeniquas set the forests on fire and burnt down the town, do you praise him afterwards for returning to his lair and sparing your life? Of course not. If you did, you’d be suffering from something akin to Stockholm Syndrome. If you thank your god for rain that turns out to be insufficient, after fires that he allowed to happen in the first place, you’re just not making sense.
Another Christian told me arsonists caused the fire, so I shouldn’t blame god. Stories of arson are at this stage nothing but unconfirmed rumour and speculation, and of course I would never blame a god that doesn’t exist.
But let’s assume it was arson, and god does exist. How does an omnipotent god get thwarted by a few kids with matches? If he wasn’t able to change the wind direction to let the fires burn themselves out against the sea, he is not omnipotent. And if he is omnipotent, he actively allowed the death and destruction, which is evil. If he could have sent rain, why did he send too little, too late? It is perverse to thank him for that.
Why shouldn’t one conclude that a god who lets six people including a three-year-old child burn to death is either evil or does not exist? Why would a benevolent god permit the destruction of hundreds of houses, in both poor townships and rich suburbs, leaving thousands homeless? If this is the god you believe in, your god is capricious and cruel.
Christians have pat answers to these sorts of questions. It’s the devil at work, and although god is omnipotent he will only get around to defeating this devil at some unspecified time in the future. Or they say there is some mysterious plan which we cannot understand and is never revealed. Or god is testing us, because, well, that’s just what a bored god does: cause us harm and dare us to stop loving him. We’re just supposed to trust blindly that this god isn’t as evil as he appears to be.
We will be told it’s a matter of faith, not reason. That has the merit of being true, at least. There is nothing reasonable about any of this. That is why one shouldn’t believe in this god any more than one should believe in the dragon of the Outeniquas, let alone thank him.
Many people find it hard to deal with life’s disasters, and religious constructs of one brand or another make it easier for them to cope. Many cannot conceive a morality that isn’t a prescription from some invisible person in the sky. As much as one might disagree with their irrational beliefs, it’s hard to hold it against them when it appears to comfort them so much.
But one should take offence when Christians interrupt emergency communications to impose their delusions on everyone else. Or when they thank their god for ending disasters without blaming him for starting them. Or when they take credit on their god’s behalf for the generosity and kindness of flesh-and-blood people.
Instead, we should all thank the people, companies and organisations that came to the aid of victims of the Garden Route fires, and are still helping. As I write this, helicopters remain overhead, and firefighters are still fighting hotspots. Residents are still feeding and watering these brave men and women. Some of them may be personally motivated by religious belief, but it’s people who make the difference in the real world.
Donations for the displaced are still flowing in. Volunteers are still sorting, packing and distributing aid packages. We should praise the resilience and spirit of humanity, and thank the people who worked tirelessly to help. They actually made a difference. God had nothing to do with it. DM
Haiti is the only nation founded as the result of a successful slave revolt.