The Acts of God and Act of Humans
We are told that injury, harm and suffering were once perceived as ‘acts of god’ but are now conceived as ‘acts of man’ (sic) or ‘acts of humans’. This is the new commonly accepted thesis branded as ‘the scientific view’. The idea that injury, harm and pain are ‘acts of god’ is supposedly now perceived as ‘primitive’ because we apparently now understand causality ‘scientifically’.
But what if this ‘scientific’ construct were not true? What if the current understanding of the nature of pain, suffering and harm were simply the result of a binary worldview? What if the traditional constructs of theodicy (theory of good and evil) were not true? What if pain, suffering and harm were neither the responsibility of humans or god? What if disaster and suffering were beyond the binary theology of heaven and hell? What if neither god nor humans were at fault or to blame? What if there was a theology that wasn’t confined to Abrahamic paternalism? There is other thinking other than the binary constructs of fundamentalism. One’s worldview about suffering, pain and harm depends on one’s hermeneutical (theory of interpretation) framework.
It is interesting to observe the language of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ used freely in the risk and safety world without definition, yet such study is not part of any risk and safety curriculum that I know of. Even the definition of culture in the SIA BoK is profoundly inadequate. How one can talk about culture without an understanding of religion, semiotics, the collective unconscious and semiosis is breath taking. Most diagnostic tools in the ‘safetysphere’ that purport to assess culture are really about systems. Just as the language of ‘human factors’ masks the privileging of systems over humans in its assumptions about risk.
I have written and discussed the definition of culture previously (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-culture-does-exist/), and produced some simple videos to help understand a more comprehensive view (https://vimeo.com/118458068) so, will focus more in this blog on religion. However, such blogs and videos cannot cover the complexities of understanding culture and religion which is why semiotics are required for a meta understanding of both.
There is an amazing level of information about the nature of religion. One of the most helpful and easiest summaries can be found here: http://faculty.smcm.edu/ccraney/restricted/PDF/Basic_Characteristics_Relig.pdf . One can also access introductory books on religious studies like Myhre, P., (ed.) (2009) Introduction to Religious Studies. Anselm Academic. Winona. However, one can’t really commence a study in religion without a solid understanding of semiotics (sign systems, iconography and symbols), culture and mythology. It is even difficult to nail down a definition of religion itself simply because like culture, the seeking of meticulous definition highlights the limits of a text-only and the scientific paradigm. Particularly when the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) paradigm itself has a history in positivism that seeks to discredit a semiotic understanding of ‘being’.
Perhaps for the purpose of this blog we might just have a quick look at the definition of religion by Clifford Geertz in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) Basic Books, New York. Although, there are many others that are worthy of study too such as Schleiermacher, Tillich, Niebuhr, Otto, Eliade, Hick and Baudrillard.
Geertz defines religion by its function in human society. Using a semiotic (the construction of meaning through signs and symbols) approach Geertz argues that one must understand the meaning intended by religious behaviour in order to understand its function as a religion. And for Geertz religion is understood as a cultural system with five critical aspects. These are:
1. A set of signs and symbols that serve to establish meaning.
2. A semiosis that establishes powerful motivations and climates
3. The formulation of conceptions that explain existence
4. The creation of factuality attached to conceptions and,
5. The establishment of myths of identity attached to reality
Before we venture too much further it is also important to define what is meant by ‘myth’ in the study of religion. To quote Ricoeur (1967) The Symbolism of Evil. Harper and Row, New York. P. 5:
‘Myth will here be taken to mean what the history of religions now finds in it: not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in the world’.
According to the positivist worldview, myth cannot be an explanation of existence and must be demythologized in favour of a materialist understanding of existence. In doing so the positivist view disconnects thinking from an historical understanding of religion and re-defines myth as a concocted falsehood. In so doing, the positivist assumption adopts an ahistorical view of significance robbing myth of its symbolic power. Whilst much more could be said at this point it might be best to just point towards the likes of Jung, Campbell and other scholars of semiotics such as Yelle, R., (2013) Semiotics of Religion, Signs of the Sacred in History. Bloomsbury, London. It is from a semiotic understanding of myth that one gets a more comprehensive understanding of religion and culture.
Myth connects the empirically real with the mystical and sacred in the form of signs and symbols and thus portrays how the world is with how people would like it to be. We see such an appropriation of this understanding of myth in popular culture and movies. Many of the blockbusters in the last 10 years have been focused on transcendence, the sacred and mythological explanations of the world. It is in myth and symbol that we find the yearning to express some transcendent meaning. The primary purpose of myth and symbol is to help manage perceptions of chaos, equivocality and fallibility. In the face of pain, harm, suffering and death we construct meaning (usually in a binary sense) in order to make sense of the problem of evil.
So, when we speak about the religiousness of Safety (https://safetyrisk.net/the-religion-of-safety/ ) what is implied is entry into the myth, symbol and transcendence of religion in cultural exchange. This no more greatly exemplified than in the sacralization of safety activities, and the de-secularization of safety rituals, zero vision beliefs and the semiotic denial of human fallibility (https://safetyrisk.net/no-evidence-for-the-religion-of-zero/). So, using Geertz’ five cultural criteria, safety ticks all the boxes of religion at the World Congress 2017. Why does this matter?
Within all of the structuralist and positivist assumptions of STEM thinking invested in safety, we see demonstrated such unbelievable blind spots in education, curriculum and body of knowledge (75% of the SIA Bok for example is consumed with regulation and related topics). It is from the STEM assumptions embedded in the WHS curriculum that it now cannot even perceive its own religiousity. In order to be professional, Safety (like real professions) needs greater transdisciplinarity (https://safetyrisk.net/isnt-it-time-we-reformed-the-whs-curriculum/) in order to re-secularise its activities, starting with dumping the ideology of zero.
Returning to the questions posed at the start of this blog, it is only through a more critical and transdisciplinary study that Safety can possibly escape the outcome of binary constructs around suffering and harm that lead inevitably to religious myth, symbols and ritual. If Safety can’t even speak the word ‘fallibility’ let alone explain it then, its trajectory to stronger religiousity is inevitable along with all that is associated with religion and so return Safety to the realm of ‘acts of new gods’ rather than ‘acts of humans’.