Tornadoes, Quakes, and the Myth of Karma

05/14/2010 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rob Asghar Member, Pacific Council on International Policy

They say Karma's a bitch. They're too unkind. Recent floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes reveal her as a coolly indifferent, altogether inscrutable customer.

One wag noted a few years ago that the map of the Confederate slave states is pretty much the same as the map of today's Bible Belt. True. And it doesn't take a lot to see that those maps overlap nicely with a map of major tornado activity in the U.S.

So why exactly does Heaven so happily pummel the region that is God's last, best hope for bringing salvation and good values to His beloved creation?

But I realize that's just a matter of a conservative Christian perspective. A devout Muslim in Iran might say that his country is God's last, best hope to stabilize the world.

But wait: You say Iran represents one of the most seismically unstable regions on the planet? And that it was unstable before women started dressing immodestly?

No wonder even the Bible finds a few candid moments to confess that it wonders sometimes if it's all B.S.

But for those of you who are agnostics or skeptics, try not to snort too loudly at concepts of divine retribution. Even the most hardened skeptic, in everyday life, seems wired to find causes and effects in nature, and is ready to interpret a variety of events as convenient, cosmic proofs of his or her personal dogma and ideology.

Where does this universal tendency come from? Some evolutionary psychologists believe it's a result of social life. A tribe that has internal trust and internal altruism will outlive tribes lacking those traits. But a few unseen gods and devils and heavens and hells and future lives go a long way toward ensuring that no renegade within the tribe -- including ourselves -- will exploit the other trusting suckers.

That's one reason we've needed religion, and we may still need it. I'm often surprised by the outrage of the Richard Dawkinses and Sam Harrises of the world, who know better than anyone else why we've evolved as dogmatically rigid religious fanatics, but who are dogmatically, rigidly fanatical about beating religion out of us.

The hope of playing a harp in heaven or coming back to earth as a Brahman does motivate us to stay on the straight and narrow path. And maybe such coercive images are a good thing. But the old myths need a little overhauling.

Prayer and meditation and yoga and altruism offer psychological benefits -- but there is less evidence than ever for a reasonable person to believe that there is special value or protection in prayer to one particular deity or in service to one particular version of God. Heresy just isn't unreasonable anymore.

Sure, antiquity gives us accounts of people being struck dead for hiding their money from the church or for, um, spilling their seed in the wrong places. But science and travel give us more ability than ever to question these myths and to doubt the life-and-death stakes of dogmatic orthodoxy. When it becomes clear that "misbehavior" resulted in offenders being struck by lightning 3,000 years ago but today only results in coveted fame and adulation, we'll need new myths to guide human behavior in directions we find to be meaningful.

This may require an evolution, as it were, of mythology. That's something that has been happening all these years anyway. The Old Testament once implied all divine rewards and punishments would be meted out in this lifetime. When even the Biblical writers noted that their notions divine justice wasn't being served in this lifetime, lo and behold, the concept of an afterlife took hold.

Now that more and more people don't take seriously the idea that heterodoxy from formal traditions will result in instant death or eternal flames, and now that the Iranian clerics and their fundamentalist brethren of other religions can no longer scare large portions of their faithful, religion will change. The vexing question is how it might change in order to be a tool for betterment rather than a tool of power-hungry mullahs, priests, and politicians.

Rob Asghar is author of Lessons from the Holy Wars, a Pakistani-American Odyssey, now available in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.