Monday, June 20, 2011

Is Safety Now a Religion?

For many years I've been bugged by the constant appeals to "safety" in our society. It seems that, if a policy has nothing at all to recommend it, on rational grounds, then it's invariably supported by an appeal to safety. The very word has a kind of magical power, and is almost impossible to resist. "I'm sorry, but it's a safety issue." Who can argue against that?

More recently I've started to wonder about the sources of this practice, and begun to suspect that it has its roots in our post-religious culture. It is, I am starting to believe, the result of a religious impulse, the need for salvation.

The world is a fairly dangerous and unpredictable place. Of course life in Canada is relatively predictable, compared with most other places, and the dangers are relatively few, but it remains true that any of us could be killed, or be permanently crippled, tomorrow. This is scary. And I'm not sure that the fact that these risks are low in Canada helps reduce the fear that much. (I get the impression that we learn to tolerate the level of risk that we're exposed to.)

So what do we do with that fear? Our Christian ancestors had one strategy, and now we have another. The Christian approach (shared by other religions) is to acknowledge that there is no safety in this world, which is arbitrary and chaotic. Yet we have nothing to fear, since our safety is with God, who guards our life and will bring us into his kingdom. "And as surely, sinner, as thou canst put thy trust in God, thou art safe" (Charles Spurgeon, "Salvation and Safety", p. 4) It's this understanding of safety that comforted early Christians as they waited to be eaten by lions, for example.

The present approach is quite different, of course. With no God, our safety cannot reside in another world. We must be safe in this world. And here we see the source of the irrationality in the present safety religion. For the world just isn't safe. The Christians are right on this point: the world is arbitrary, chaotic and unpredictable. Our psychological need for a safe world just doesn't make it so.

I realise that, these days, saying that the world isn't safe (and cannot be made safe) is some kind of blasphemy. Our modern scripture says that there are no accidents, but only "preventable injuries", with the obvious consequence that injury-free living is a real possibility. (We just need more regulations, more inspectors, more safety gadgets ...) By denying the possibility of safety I am saying, to our culture, that there is no heaven.

For some time now I've been following the debate about bike helmets, looking at the arguments for and against. This case provides a very good illustration of the safety religion in Canada (and no doubt elsewhere). The arguments against wearing bike helmets, and especially against legislating their use, are simple and rational. The absolute risk of injury and death from cycling is very low. And wearing a helmet doesn't make much difference to that risk, if any. These arguments would appear to be irrefutable, yet the majority reject them. How do they respond? Judging from various internet discussion forums, that I've been reading, the typical response is emotional, fear-driven, and grounded in the need to be safe.

The human skull is only a quarter of an inch thick! Imagine that smashing into the hard asphalt, or the hood of a truck. You might think you don't need a helmet to ride to the corner store, but that could be the very time disaster strikes. Think about all those dead cyclists, and drooling scores of others with permanent brain damage. Strap on a helmet and be safe! (It sounds eerily like Spurgeon. "There is a hell for the wicked, but none for the righteous.")

I reject all false gods, including the modern idol of safety. I refuse to worship it. I prefer to live in the real world, and worship the real gods of reason, truth and love.

[Caveat: I'm not necessarily against all measures that are justified on grounds of safety. Some can be justified on rational grounds. I don't, for example, eat raw hamburger bought from a supermarket! I am trying to foster the virtue of prudence, in myself and my children. I object only to the worship of safety, and the irrationality that goes with it.]