You didn’t hear many people saying that “it was God’s will” a few years ago when a kid fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. Instead, you saw memes featuring the gorilla, Harambe, and the words “I’m dead because a bitch wasn’t watching her child.”
Sympathy for the gorilla, who was shot and killed, makes total sense. Outrage against the mom doesn’t, unless you think she should have been on constant high alert against this and every other one-in-a-billion accident.
Unfortunately, that’s how we’ve begun to think. Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies at James Madison University, has a theory for why that is. Religion, he says, used to govern almost every aspect of our lives: what we ate, read, said, and wore—and how we raised our kids. But in a society where, for many, religion’s authority covers an ever-shrinking area of life, we’re left to come up with our own rules, taboos, and punishments. In some ways, our secular codes are more harsh and demanding than religions were.
Religion can explain a tragedy as God’s will, or as karma coming around. “The burden is outsourced to God,” says Levinovitz. If you’re suffering here on Earth, well, you’ll get your reward in heaven. Or in karmic systems, if you’re suffering, it’s thanks to a bad past life. Be good now, and next time around? Blue skies. “You didn’t have to feel guilty for your own suffering,” Levinovitz says. God was in charge and would even the score later on.
But as religiosity shrank, a tragedy—or even a simple accident—became incomprehensible and unredeemable. Why did it happen? What can make it right? How can we give it meaning? If we can’t tell ourselves that “the Lord works in mysterious ways,” all of us, but especially parents, have only three options.
The first is to try to prevent all accidents, no matter how minor and no matter what the cost of prevention. If perfection isn’t coming in the next life, by golly, we’d better make it happen here.
The second is to blame a human whenever an accident does happen, even when it’s completely random—the kind of thing we used to call an “act of God.”
The third is to make a new ritual (private or legal) that we will practice forevermore as a secular sacrifice to safety.
Parents feel it is their new job to be omniscient, “but there’s devastating guilt that comes with a vision of the world in which knowledge plus vigilance equals perfect safety,” Levinovitz says. If anything goes wrong, “it means you weren’t vigilant enough. So what do we do? We track our children more closely than ever before.” With a couple of iPhone taps, it’s possible to know not only where your kid is but who he has texted, what he ate for lunch, how he did on his Spanish quiz, and whether he’s running a fever.
Now let’s say something bad does occur. Your child gets hurt. What happens next? Blame. It’s easier to blame someone than to accept the idea that “tragedy is just kind of built into reality,” Levinovitz says, “and it’s nobody’s fault, and there’s no redeeming value to it. It just is what it is.”
That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive to be responsible. “It’s really about recognizing that there’s no such thing as a world in which everything is entirely free from risk and that striving for that world can actually be dystopic.”
When something terrible happens to a child, often there is a rush to pass a law in his name that we believe will prevent the bad thing from happening again. We do this no matter how anomalous the tragedy or how pointless, in reality, the law.
Meanwhile, at an individual level, parents rush to create new, often elaborate, safety rituals. They will take their kids out of the car rather than letting them wait for five minutes, for instance, because another child died waiting in a car for five hours. Then society deems the parents who don’t perform these rituals impure, even demonic.
Without God to absolve us, redeem our tragedies, and make everything right at some future date, we’re stuck sorting out the unfathomable mess known as reality on our own. We are not making it easy on anyone. Especially parents.