I’ve often heard it said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, but if you experienced 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or last night’s viewing of Contagion, you realize that not only is this saying wrong, but the exact opposite is true.
I wouldn’t say that people STOP believing in god, necessarily, when a natural or man-made disaster strikes. What I would say is that our natural instinct is not to pray to god for answers, but to survive. More importantly, what it means is that because there’s not a lot of time to drop to our knees or hit up the confessional, we have to rely on ourselves and others if we want to see another day.
What I really like about the movie Contagion or any disaster, end-of-the-world movie for that matter, is the concept of what happens when the social contract is broken, when the rules no longer apply…when god no longer matters. What happens when there are only a hundred antidotes and a million sick people? When a building is falling and it’s your job to search and rescue? When a town is abandoned or killed off, leaving every shop and home open for thievery? When a tornado is about to strike and you have to spend your last ten minutes on Earth with Bill Paxton?
What happens then?
What happens is survival. Now, survival happens typically in one of two ways: individually or communally. One scene in Contagion shows people waiting patiently in line (social contract at work) at a drug store…that is, until the pharmacist tells the crowd that there is no more medication to be had. I’m sure I don’t have to say what happens next. The point here is that our instinct is to survive, and if that means throwing a large object through the glass and attacking the poor pharmacist to get to the drugs in the back of the store, then that’s what it means (oops, I guess I did have to say what happens next). That’s individual survival – the idea is to LIVE, by any means necessary.
However, there are other scenes in Contagion that show the exact opposite: people who are willing to put their lives on the line to save others. I won’t give any more details, as that would spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but it should be said that the acts of certain people in the movie would constitute communal survival – the idea that survival sometimes means individual sacrifice for the sake of the species.
The great thing about Contagion is that it makes no judgment about either type of survival really. Obviously one is more helpful than the other, but in the case of natural disaster, both types are completely expected and warranted. What is clear about both methods, though, is that they are not religiously driven, nor are they answers or recommendations from god; they are completely and undeniably human.
Another human reaction in the face of disaster is the immediate turn to science – again, not god. When humans are facing a life-threatening illness, they want the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization on the ground. They are not calling in Pat Robertson (who would probably tell them, scientifically of course, that the cause of the illness is our tolerance of homosexuality and women in the workplace). When people are trapped under a building or on top of their houses, they don’t need god; they need EMTs and a helicopter.
We’re not cave people anymore; we live in the 21st century. When the shit hits the fan, we don’t turn to some dude stuck in a whale’s belly or a burning bush; no, we turn to people who can fix shit (or fix fans). And, while one of the major themes of Contagion (or 9/11 or Katrina) is that there are just some things we can NEVER EVER prepare for no matter how prepared we think we are, I remain comforted by the fact that I’m surrounded by human beings. Because when the shit really does hit the fan, the only help we’ll have in real life is each other.