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Tragedies like this confirm the obvious -- minimizing the number and impact of such devastating events is up to human beings, not the fates and deities of religious faith...

by Conrad F. Goeringer
January 5, 2020


"In the process of being cautious, we
allowed the jubilation to go on longer
than it should have..."
--Ben Hatfield, mining company owner

"We had a miracle and it was taken from us."
-- Woman who lost her cousin in W.V. mine collapse

It was a drama that kept many Americans glued to overnight cable television news coverage, and fueled prayerful hopes of a "miracle" on behalf of endangered coal miners in West Virginia.

Forty-one hours earlier, an explosion trapped 13 workers in the state's deadliest mining accident since November, 1968. That incident in Marion County, an hour's drive north of the latest tragedy, prompted Congress to enact the Mine Health and Safety Act. Monday's catastrophe resulted in a small army of news reporters and politicians descending on the small town of Tallmansville, W. Va. as rescuers slowly worked their way to the point it was though the miners were trapped. One man was found alive, and this raised hopes that the other workers managed to make it out of harm's way and buy precious time until they, too, could be reached by emergency personnel.

Then things got out of hand.

Word broke last night at 11:52 PM in an Associated Press wire story that family members had been told that the 12 remaining miners had been found alive. Papers in the eastern part of the country were on or past their deadlines, but other media jumped on the story. The New York Times ran with the copy, saying that the accounts of survivors came from "family members and a state official."

Everyone seemed to praying for a "miracle." Aside from the professionals taking on the risky task of entering the mine, testing the air for combustible gases and slowly edging their way toward the last known location of the trapped men, the people on the surface appeared to be riding an emotional roller-coaster.
Headlines spread the cheer: "12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion," and "Joy At Mine: 12 Are Alive."

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette declared "Miracle at Sago, 12 Miners Alive."

As with many tragedies, religious faith was part of the tapestry enveloping victims, friends and relatives, public officials, rescue personnel and, of course, the news media. "Praying for a miracle" seemed to be a phrase on everyone's lips, including the news anchors and reporters desperately working to keep the information coherent while beating the competition. It was almost "de rigueur" that relatives gathered at a church, in this case the nearby Sago Baptist Church, where according to Associated Press reports, an "emotional two-day vigil" was underway.

Late last night, the church seems to have been the ignition point of joyous but unverified and inaccurate information rumor -- the 12 remaining miners trapped 260 feet beneath the surface, had been found alive. AP reported that "families began streaming out of the church, yelling 'They're alive!' The church's bells began ringing and families embraced, as politicians proclaimed word of the apparent rescue a miracle."

Religious faith in this state runs as deep as the mines which dot its landscape, with 79% of the citizenry embracing some variant of the Protestant creed. The occasional snake-handler can still be found (there are no statutes banning the practice), and any elected official -- including a Democrat like Gov. Joe Manchin -- has to acknowledge the role of religion at the ballot box and in the lives of many citizens. Manchin reportedly spent his time moving between the church and a "command center" trying to coordinate the efforts of rescue workers, and field the bombardment of questions from the media.

Everyone seemed to praying for a "miracle." Aside from the professionals taking on the risky task of entering the mine, testing the air for combustible gases and slowly edging their way toward the last known location of the trapped men, the people on the surface appeared to be riding an emotional roller-coaster.

Along with the reporters, rescue workers and officials on the scene, there were, according to USA TODAY a number of clergy and Red Cross volunteers "ministering" and trying to comfort relatives and youngsters. "Piano music and singing could be heard." So were "wonderful hymns" according to a relative of one of the trapped miners. A Red Cross spokesperson stated that "about 25 volunteers" were consoling members of the community. "We're counseling, we're holding hands." The Baptist church had become ground zero for everyone, including media.

"A few miles away, in the county seat, Buckhannon," reported the paper, "signs of support sprouted. 'Pray for the miners and their families,' read the sign at Domino's Pizza."

"Faith, and support of friends and family, are sustaining the miners' families..."

News anchors and commentators were relentless in describing how "people here are praying for a miracle." The language, abundant with religious and spiritually-charged vocabulary, is stock-in-trade for disaster of any kind, even in our scientific age. Only the cranky Village Atheist or campus skeptic might have a contrarian view about all of this. If God is being implored to work His magic to produce a "miracle," why did He allow such a tragedy in the first place?

How many prayers must be chanted before He listens?

Why delay for so long clear evidence of the fate of these men? Why torment relatives, friends, community members and the entire nation with this interregnum? What divine purpose could this possibly serve?

It may be too much in requiring human beings under such profound stress to be totally rational and level-headed, especially when lives of close relations hang in the balance. There are abundant cases where prayer seems less than efficacious or paltry at best in producing sanguine results. A tragedy that claims the lives of dozens or hundreds is just that, tragic. A lone survivor, on the other hand, is inevitably cited as vindication against disbelief, and proof of God's gracious benevolence, a "miracle" and confirmation that He is listening to our prayers.

It doesn't make any sense.

Did unrealistic expectation fueled by religious enthusiasm contribute to the double tragedy, though, that took place last evening?

After nearly two-days of vigil, prayer and emotional stress, did hope of a "miracle" short-circuit the process by which public officials, and especially the news media, are supposed to verify claims and confirm reports? It is a question with deeper significance, though, in an age of fast-moving electronic journalism where reporters, officials and others in the glare of the studio and camera lights are often enveloped in a frenetic "rush to judgment."

Did this, along with the inevitable cultural consensus against any criticism of religion, let alone any timid examination of religious claims and sentiments, result in the Tuesday night information meltdown in West Virginia?

There is disturbing evidence this may have happened, although the full autopsy about the story is pending. Word that the 12 miners survived may have been credulously accepted by anxious church-goers as well as the media. The intoxicating news that "hopes for a miracle" had been fulfilled and fervent prayers somehow answered was soon dashed.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams confessed, "The coverage was joyous, breathless and few cautions were ever voiced... What an awful night for the news media."

Larry Eichel of Knight Ridder news service noted that in the wake of the letdown, "Analysts generally were measured in their criticism, with some wondering how reporters could maintain skepticism in the face of ringing church bells and celebrating relatives."

And what about pronouncements from authority figures like the governor who also seemed caught up in the enthusiastic, hopeful yet unverified claim that there were survivors?

"The question that a lot of journalists probably wish had been asked of the governor is,' How do you know that?' said former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor Butch Ward, senior follow at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank based in Florida.

'The national press corps is asking it more often to officials in Washington and being called arrogant for asking. But it's an important question to ask.' "

Did network anchors go over the top, buoyed by the religiously-charged euphoria and claims of a "miracle"?

Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, a news media trade journal called the heady and unsubstantiated reporting "one of the most disturbing media performances of its kind in recent years..."

"For hours," Mitchell noted, "starting just before midnight, newspapers reporters and anchors such as MSNBCs Rita Cosby interviewed euphoric loved one and helped spread the news about the miracle rescue. Newspaper web sites announced the happy news and many put it into print for Wednesday at deadline. 'They're Alive!' screamed the banner headline in the Indianapolis Star. The Boston Globe at least added a qualified in its banner..."

"More than ever," added Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "journalists have to acknowledge the limits of their knowledge. If you have doubts, signal the doubts."

Even in the wake of this embarrassment, religious claims and sentimentalities go reported yet unchallenged and, for most people, totally unquestioned. Perhaps understandably, the relative of one victim lamented, "We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us."

Also generally unreported was the ugly, combative atmosphere at the Sago Baptist Church when people learned that the "miracle" was no more.

A lone AP story noted, "Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials."

The truth was hurtful and tragic. It is known that rescue workers conveyed the information that they had located twelve bodies. Somewhere between this news, the command tent, and the intense, emotionally-charged atmosphere at Sego Baptist Church, the word "alive" became part of the reportorial mix and no one thought to question.

We can confidently predict that there will be a hunt for someone to blame. This often occurs when individuals, and especially groups of people bonded around common belief systems, find themselves the victims of trickery or simply confusing, chaotic circumstances. Writer Dorothy Thompson many years ago wrote of the public reaction in the hours and days following Orson Welles' brilliant radio play "The War of the Worlds."

"People were furious," she recalled, as they thrashed around for an easy target, never once admitting their own credulity.

If there is "responsibility" for what occurred in West Virginia, it must certainly be shared by many. Everyone seemed to want, then expect a "miracle," although rescue and mine officials maintained a sober and almost guarded stance throughout the whole incident. Media was in frenzy; and many people turned to the refuge they often seek out in times of tragedy, devastation and stress -- religion. Alas, god did not answer. Religious faith became an instrument of unrealistic expectations and tragic self-deception.

As Atheists concerned about the human condition, we sympathize with the fate of the victims and survivors. Tragedies like this confirm the obvious -- minimizing the number and impact of such devastating events is up to human beings, not the fates and deities of religious faith. We can and should empathize with the profound grief of relatives and loved one who have endured an enormous loss. In times of catastrophe, however, unrealistic expectation in the name of god can magnify human suffering for survivors and warp the objectivity of important social institutions including the news media.


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