Why There Are No Atheists 2,000 Feet below Ground ...or Any Women Miners

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 17, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Why There Are No Atheists 2,000 Feet below Ground ...or Any Women Miners


IMAGINE yourself 2,000ft underground with 32 other people as vulnerable and unpredictable as yourself, with limited food and water and no idea how or if you are ever going to get out. Close your eyes and think about it. Reflect on it as a possibility that you might experience one day. What do you feel? What do you think about? How much of your current sense of your own reality could survive in such a situation? Very little, I'd say.

We think of the Chilean miners as having endured an experience at the extreme end of possibility, something deeply unusual. But it's not unusual at all. In Chile, 35 miners died last year. In China, the death toll was more than 2,600.

Nor, indeed, is what they endured an extreme experience when considered in the total history of human adventuring. We look at them being hoisted to the Earth's surface and think of them as exceptional.

But really, taking humanity in its total perspective, it is we, the viewers, who are exceptional. We watch in our centrally heated, air-conditioned homes, studded with buttons that respond to our every desire, and feel safely detached from this adventure. Sure, we respond to the 'message of hope' that the media repeatedly assures us lies at the heart of the drama but we are insulated from its true significance. In our hands, we have remote controls with which, in a moment or two, when we have had enough of the Chilean miners, we will tap ourselves out of Chile and into Coronation Street or Springfield.

We look at the spectacle of these men being dragged from the pit of hell and think of them as a different species. Nothing like this could ever happen to us.

BUT the story of the Chilean miners is more relevant to our lives than we may like to think. These men whose job it is to risk their lives to feed the technological needs of human civilisation have, in this episode, brought into view a version of human reality that our civilisation often serves to mask. Their courage and foradventure titude in the face of extreme danger may have been exceptional but their vulnerability speaks to us of a condition that afflicts us all and from which we are most of the time insulated by technology and social structures.

In the end, they were rescued by human ingenuity and man-made technology. But for most of the past two months, these 33 men were returned to their essential human state and were preserved in their sanity and their hope of redemption by the faith held to by the vast majority of them. They became, again, as though in the womb and were born again as dependent, mortal but chosen beings.

In this, they brought us on a voyage to the true nature of the human as we observed them returned to a sense of their own fragility in a way that civilisation rarely allows human beings to experience directly any more.

It is unsurprising, then, that much of the coverage of their rescue has alluded to the religious aspects of their experience. Most of the men prayed a lot and sang hymns and received gifts of Bibles and rosaries blessed by the Pope. I saw more than one man, on coming to the surface, immediately fall to his knees. Several who were agnostic rediscovered faith underground.

Our cynical, self-satisfied and secular culture sees this as a manifestation of fear - the men spreading their bets in case of the worst. But no: this was them rediscovering man's most truthful relationship with reality. Nowadays, we see the religious response as an outmoded reliance on an unsophisticated understanding of reality.

But in truth it is the only reasonable response of a human being faced with his own fragile humanity unsupported by man-made crutches and gadgets.

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