The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 3.
I believe that Andrea Yates, the Houston mother convicted for drowning her
five children, is a woman of high moral conviction. Yates believed, as many
people do, that there is a God who will judge us and, based on our actions here
on Earth, will either reward us with eternal bliss with him in heaven or condemn
us to eternal torment in hell. She was also convinced, as many are, that God
would not condemn to hell a young child who had no moral ability to choose
between good and evil.
The Yates's oldest child, Noah, was only seven at the time of his death. I
doubt there are very many who believe that God would actually condemn a
seven-year-old child to eternal damnation for "being bad." Yet Andrea
Yates was convinced that, if she allowed her children to grow older, they would
eventually reach the age at which they would be responsible for their actions in
the eyes of God. At this point their eternal souls would be in jeopardy. What
would any loving parent do? In Christ-like fashion she sacrificed her own soul
to eternal damnation by killing her children, but thereby guaranteed her
children eternal life in heaven with God. How commendable.
I can hear the yelling and screaming now. Some readers will argue that Andrea
Yates's actions were anything but religiously motivated and clearly illogical.
Some will claim that she was mentally ill and not responsible for her actions.
Others will claim that she is nothing but a cold-blooded murderer and knew
exactly what she was doing. In either case, they will say, whether due to mental
illness or to pure evil, what she did was illogical. But I beg to differ. While
Andrea Yates may be ill and she may be a murderer, her actions were fully
consistent with her belief in God and an afterlife. As reprehensible and
disgusting as I personally find them, they remain fully consistent with her
religious beliefs and flow logically from her religious premises.
The public's inability to reconcile these facts suggests to me that most
Americans are not fully comfortable with the logical ramifications and
consequences of their own religious faith. Actions, it is said, speak louder
than words: people of faith use this adage to implore the faithful not simply to
parrot the words of the Scripture, but to put their concepts into action. Even
the secular among us would agree that simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance
every day or reading the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution does
not make us good citizens; we must put the ideas these documents embody into
action. Yet this is what Andrea Yates did: she put her faith into action.
Others, individually and in groups, have put their faith into action, with
similarly negative public responses. The Heaven's Gate "cult" believed
a spaceship was coming to Earth to take them to "the next level." They
prepared themselves and then committed mass suicide in order to leave their
bodies behind. The Order of the Solar Temple also committed mass suicide. The
followers of the Reverend Jim Jones and his People's Temple are probably the
modern record-holders, with almost 1,000 people committing suicide for their
beliefs. Even the suicide terrorists of September 11 and the seemingly perpetual
suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine are putting their faith into action. How
many of us can say that we would willingly give up this life for our beliefs?
What does this say about the strength of our belief in an afterlife with God?
I'm sure there's even more yelling and screaming now.
Most religious people are ambivalent with regard to their faiths. Many truly
want to believe, and try very hard to believe. But no doubt, many fall far short
of what it supposedly means to really be a good Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu,
etc. Many are also confused about what faith really compels one to do to be a
"good" Christian, Jew, etc. So who is to say what is or isn't God's
will? Not that long ago, some clergy instructed their flocks that owning
dark-skinned people was God's will. Today some religious leaders inform their
flocks that it is not merely acceptable, but actually a duty, to kill Jews or
homosexuals or Americans in the name of God. In our own country there are people
of faith who act on their faith by killing doctors who perform abortions.
In each of these cases, all the actions taken are logical consequences of
each person's belief system. In the United States, when that belief system is
called Islam, we call the people who kill in the name of God terrorists. When
that belief system is called Christianity, we have a more difficult time
deciding what to call those who kill in the name of God.
Most Americans would agree that every person has both the legal right and the
moral justification to kill in self-defense. Further, few would argue that we
are not morally justified in killing someone who is threatening the lives of our
family. Finally, most would probably agree that if we see someone being attacked
or murdered, or have information that an attack or a murder is being planned,
then we have a moral obligation to intervene at some level. Given the premise
that an anti-abortionist believes that abortion is murder, plain and simple,
then he or she has a moral duty to stop it. QED.
How would any of us react if we discovered that a person we knew had just
bombed a building? Suppose we later learned that this building was full of
sleeping people and that dozens were killed. How would we react? Shock? Horror?
Revulsion? What if still later we learned that the building was a barracks full
of Nazi soldiers in a concentration camp and that the friend then helped the
inmates to escape? Now how would you feel? Would you condemn this person as a
cold-blooded murderer? Would you call him or her a terrorist? Or would you honor
your friend as a brave soul of high moral conviction? The concept in these two
examples is the same: you see murder being committed, you know it will continue
to occur, and therefore you must act. Apparently, most Americans do not believe
that abortion is murder. Yet those who think it is are just as morally obligated
to act violently to stop it as anyone else would be if they knew that the Jews
in their neighborhood were about to be exterminated and preemptive violence
against the perpetrators was the only means to stop it. Again, actions speak
louder than words.
When a child is born, we typically celebrate. Our faith, our culture, and our
actions are in congruence. When a friend or loved one graduates, be it from
kindergarten or graduate school, we typically celebrate. Again, our faith, our
culture and our actions are in congruence. When a friend or loved one gets
married, we celebrate. Once again, our faith, our culture, and our actions are
in congruence. Yet when a friend or loved one dies, we grieve: now our culture
and our actions are in opposition to the tenets of faith. While faith informs us
that our loved one is in a better place, that the worries of this life are small
potatoes compared to the next, and that we should rejoice-we grieve. Why aren't
we just as happy as we were during the other life transitions? Aren't our
actions speaking louder than our words?
The problem with Andrea Yates is that most people are not willing to
contemplate the full ramifications of their beliefs. In math and physics you
cannot simply ignore the results or the implications of an equation that you do
not like. Newton described the universe we live in to a remarkable degree of
precision, yet his equations were not perfect. They generated spurious data when
used to describe events at very high velocities or in the vicinity of massive
objects. Scientists did not like this, but they had to deal with it. Einstein
eventually developed relativity theory, which more accurately described events
across the full spectrum of speeds and masses. Theory was refined to portray
reality more accurately. Similarly, we who have faith must do the same with our
faith. We must either accept the ramifications of our beliefs (as Andrea Yates
et al. have done) or find a belief system that does not give so much offense.
Of course there is still more yelling and screaming at this point. Someone
will now inform me that people just can't go around making up religions to suit
them-only God can do that. Oh? If that is true, I really don't understand where
all of the current religions of the world came from. Perhaps God has some sort
of multiple-personality disorder, or maybe we really are just making it up as we
go along. But if we're not allowed to make up a religion that does not allow
for, much less encourage, the Andrea Yateses and Usama bin Ladens of the world,
then I suppose we'll all just have to live with the consequences. And that
continues to terrify me.
Stanley J. Alluisi is the chair of the Department of Aviation Management of
the Aviation Sciences Institute at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in