Louis Theroux Meets Dr Pangloss

The story of the Westboro Baptist Church is one which I have been following with horrified fascination for some years now. When Louis Theroux’s first documentary on the church was broadcast in 2007 I was already familiar with Pastor Fred Phelps and the doctrines he preached, having been shown godhatesfags.com by an outraged friend. I must admit that at first I assumed that the website was nothing more than the work of a group of internet trolls trying to get a rise out of unsuspecting surfers. Failing that I thought it must be a clever, if exaggerated, satire on the excesses of the more extreme elements of the religious right in America. In retrospect this seems terribly naïve of me, but as well as godhatesfags.com and americaisdoomed.com, the church also maintained a downright bizarre site entitled God Hates Sweden, so I don’t consider it entirely unforgivable to have assumed that these websites were set up by people with their tongues firmly in their in cheeks.

The first of Theroux’s documentaries was compelling in its way, although there is arguably a limited amount of investigative journalism required to learn about a group whose beliefs are displayed on large, accessible signage and whose answers to questions about said beliefs invariably regress to “the Bible says so”. However, the recent follow-up was more interesting as it focused on the series of defections from the church by disillusioned younger members, all of whom had been forced to leave their homes and break contact with their families. The striking thing to me – and to Theroux himself as he mentions in an article on the BBC website – was the parents’ awkward and rather transparent denial of any sadness or regret at having lost loved-ones. It was clear that they were trying to convince themselves, just as they were trying to convince Theroux and the viewer, that this was God’s will and therefore something to be celebrated.

It is not uncommon and not necessarily wrong for people of faith to console themselves with the thought that everything that happens does so for a reason and in accordance with a divine plan, but the official line of the Westboro Baptist Church seems to take this much further, into a belief in what the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz called “the best of all possible worlds”. Leibniz is notable, among other things, for founding the discipline of theodicy, which tries to explain the seeming contradiction in the existence of evil – natural and man-made – in a world created and maintained by an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving deity. Leibniz’s conclusion, that this must be the best world permissible under the laws of logic, admittedly relies on some presuppositions about the existence and nature of God, but these are presuppositions wholly in line with Westboro beliefs. If God really is the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of this world, then it arguably makes perfect sense that everything that happens, including war, famine, plague and every other kind of human suffering imaginable, happens “for the best” and is therefore necessarily a cause for rejoicing.

Naturally there were many more levels of sophistication to Leibniz’s thought on this and many other matters, but they were not sufficient to prevent the great satirist Voltaire parodying this branch of philosophy in his novella Candide: or, Optimism, a tragic comedy following the life and times of the eponymous bastard nephew of the fictional Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh. Leibniz himself is represented in the story as the character Dr. Pangloss, a philosopher who accompanies the hero and repeatedly reassures him that “everything is for the best in this, the best of possible worlds”. This mantra looks ever more farcical as they suffer shipwreck, syphilis, torture and all manner of other misfortunes, until finally Candide rejects the philosophy of Pangloss, making the rather enigmatic demand instead that “we should cultivate our garden”. This is an injunction that has been interpreted in various ways down the centuries, but may simply be advice to keep oneself busy, rather than trying to reconcile the Problem of Evil with one’s own philosophy – Voltaire was known for his love of gardening as a pastime to stave off boredom. Whether or not there is any positive message to take from Candide, the case against Optimism as a viable philosophy for life is clearly set out.

The problem with Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds”, taken at its most simplistic level, is that trying to live one’s life according to such a belief is absurd for any human being. This is the reason Voltaire was able to make such great sport of it in his story. To act as though every twist of fate, every chance occurrence and every devastating misfortune is something to be happy about dilutes the very notion of happiness beyond recognition. Even normal, everyday, “lower-case-o”, optimism does not make this mistake; to say one ought to try to be happy with the developments in God’s plan is not the same as gritting one’s teeth and claiming to actually be happy when things go amiss. If despair, which is a natural response when tragedy hits, is wrong, or some sort of malady, then we really are “created sick, commanded to be sound” and sadness is a fault which lies with your creator and not with you. Furthermore, if you reject your own unhappiness, which is a fundamental aspect of what makes you a human being, it is almost unsurprising to hear that you, like the Westboro Baptist Church, also consider other human emotions motivated partly or wholly by unhappiness, such as compassion and forgiveness, equally disposable.

Whether it is because Barack Obama is the Beast whose appearance will signal the rapture foretold in the book of Revelation, or whether it is because internal feuds will tear them apart, the world of the Westboro Baptist Church is ending. Certainly while Phelp’s children follow the advice to “stop thinking about that” and “put that away” when they are confronted with uncomfortable thoughts, the cycle of irrational, “capital-O” Optimism will continue to damage their lives and the lives of those around them. Voltaire made comedy by taking the belief in “the best of all possible worlds” down from the philosopher’s ivory tower and applying it to real life – the tragedies in the story are not exaggerated and are of the sort which do occur in the world, albeit not often to a single person. Most defenders of Leibniz would not endorse such an interpretation, as they themselves would concede that Optimism of this kind, where every occurrence is a cause for joy, is neither possible nor desirable. But with placards which read “Planes crash – God laughs” and “Thank God for cancer”, the Westboro Baptist Church is making a spirited, if self-destructive, attempt to prove them wrong.

Louis Theroux’s documentary is available on iPlayer till this evening here.

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