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Earthquakes and God


J. P. Le Bas, Praça da Patriarcal après le tremblement de terre de 1755
in Recueil des plus belles ruines de Lisbonne, Paris, 1757
Engraving based on drawings by Paris and Pedegache

On November 1, 1755, an earthquake occurred on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal. An estimated 20,000 people died within minutes as buildings collapsed in Lisbon, and about 40,000 more died as a result of the tsunami wave which struck the city half an hour later and surged beyond Lisbon up the Tagus river. The vast majority of the dead would have been Christians who believed in a benevolent and omnipotent God. On December 26, 2004, an earthquake off the western tip of Indonesia sent a tsunami across the Indian Ocean which killed at least 125,000 immediately and countless more later as disease and starvation raced ahead of the relief effort. This wave was not selective for religion, and Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Jews who were leading observant, faithful and blameless lives were swept away with the atheists, apostates and sinners.

Following both of these events, the question arose of how a benevolent and omnipotent God could allow such things to happen. One of the philosophical arguments against the existence of God has always been based on the existence of evil, but this is easily countered in almost any religious tradition - Auschwitz and the attack on the World Trade Center were the acts of men who had freely chosen to commit evil. The concept of sin has to allow for the existence of sinners, as does the concept of redemption. If sinners cannot choose to sin then they also cannot choose to ask forgiveness for those sins.

An earthquake cannot, however, be explained away so easily. A natural disaster which causes this much suffering can only happen because God wanted to do it, because God could not stop it, or because God didn't care if it happened or not. If God wanted to do it and there appears to be no rational reason to punish good people along with sinners then God can hardly be described as benevolent, and a God who lacks benevolence lacks a possible virtue. As something more perfect than this God can be imagined, this God is not God. Similarly, if God could not stop the earthquake then God is not omnipotent, and again lacks a virtue which an existing God must have. If God doesn't care about us, then why should we care about Him, and if we don't need to care about Him then why does He need to exist in the first place?

Over the days following the 2004 earthquake I saw several religious figures trying to reconcile the thousands of deaths with their concept of God. Those who could be taken seriously seemed to be desperately preaching a synthesis of the three options outlined above. God had done this as a way of punishing sinners and warning potential sinners, it was unfortunate that the innocent had to suffer but this was a burden expected of believers, and God was sorry but things have to keep following some eternal plan. It was this very form of sophistry which made me an atheist (being asked to believe in creationism had pushed me out of organised religion long before). I can remember the precise moment when I came to the realisation that I did not need a personal god. It was at my grandmother’s funeral, and the priest was desperately trying to explain how, in a just world, a person who had led an unblemished and charitable life should have been stricken with a disease which caused her to spend the last years of her life in increasing pain. He finally decided that she had taken on the burden which rightly belonged to sinners, as saints are supposed to do (and as Jesus did). Apart from the blasphemy of the idea that my grandmother was taking up where Jesus had left off, the fact was that she had not chosen to be crippled - God had done it to her without asking. I realised that a god who could do that was not the sort of god that I needed to believe in. (I should point out that I have no problem with other people who want to believe in a personal god, unless that belief leads to harm to others.)

One of the differences between 1755 and 2005 is that in 1755 there was an Enlightenment going on across Europe, and people felt free to ask hard questions about God and His works, and even to freely criticise religion and religious bodies. Two-and-a-half centuries later, it seems that we are in the midst of an Endarkenment, where politeness, political correctness and cultural relativity restrict free criticism of religion. During the 2004 election campaigns in the United States and Australia (both countries with explicit constitutional separation of church and state), the incumbent President and Prime Minister respectively actively courted the lunatic fringe of Christian fundamentalism in order to increase their chances of re-election. Anyone who dares to suggest that fundamentalist Islam poses a threat to civilised societies is accused of religious bigotry and racism (as if religion, which is an optional mental condition, has anything to do with genetics). When the tsunami exposed land mines buried in the fields of northern Sri Lanka, no commentator made the point that those mines hadDetail from Dali: Slave Market with the Apparition of the Invisible Bust of Voltaire been placed there by people of one religion to kill and maim people with a different set of beliefs. I was criticised for pointing out that immediately after Christmas 2003, 30,000 people were killed in an earthquake which hit Bam in Iran and immediately after Christmas 2004, 125,000 people were killed by a tsunami and then asking the question: "Why does God choose this method of celebrating His son's birthday?".

I wonder what the world will be like two hundred and fifty years from now. Will the people of that time have recovered what has been lost over the last two hundred and fifty years and again be prepared to accept the idea that they can live without the need for superstition, or will the world have regressed even more and look like it was five hundred years ago, when supposedly civilised cities reeked of the smell of burning witches.

Think about all the good things that a God is supposed to be. Then think about 125,000 people killed in a single day by what insurance companies like to call an "Act of God". Ask yourself what's missing in this picture of a deity, and remember the last line of Voltaire's poem about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake: "He might have added one thing further - hope".

Poem on the Lisbon Disaster (1756)

F. M. A. de Voltaire, Poème sur le Désastre de Lisbonne et sur La Loi Naturelle avec des Prefaces, des Notes etc., Genève, n.d. [1756]. Reprinted from Selected Works of Voltaire, edited and translated by Joseph McCabe, Watts and Co., London, 1911.

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts--
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.
When earth its horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say-- "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?
Are ye so sure the great eternal cause,
That knows all things, and for itself creates,
Could not have placed us in this dreary clime
Without volcanoes seething ‘neath our feet?
Set you this limit to the power supreme?
Would you forbid it use its clemency?
Are not the means of the great artisan
Unlimited for shaping his designs?
The master I would not offend, yet wish
This gulf of fire and sulphur had outpoured
Its baleful flood amid the desert wastes.
God I respect, yet love the universe.
Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.
Would it console the sad inhabitants
Of these aflame and desolated shores
To say to them: "Lay down your lives in peace;
For the world’s good your homes are sacrificed;
Your ruined palaces shall others build,
For other peoples shall your walls arise;
The North grows rich on your unhappy loss;
Your ills are but a link In general law;
To God you are as those low creeping worms
That wait for you in your predestined tombs"?
What speech to hold to victims of such truth!
Add not, such cruel outrage to their pain.
Nay, press not on my agitated heart
These iron and irrevocable laws,
This rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds.
Dreams of the bloodless thinker are such thoughts.
God holds the chain: is not himself enchained;
By indulgent choice is all arranged;
Implacable he’s not, but free and just.
Why suffer we, then, under one so just?
There is the knot your thinkers should undo.
Think ye to cure our ills denying them?
All peoples, trembling at the hand of God,
Have sought the source of evil in the world.
When the eternal law that all things moves
Doth hurl the rock by impact of the winds,
With lightning rends and fires the sturdy oak,
They have no feeling of the crashing blows;
But I, I live and feel, my wounded heart
Appeals for aid to him who fashioned it.
Children of that Almighty Power, we stretch
Our hands in grief towards our common sire.
The vessel, truly, is not heard to say:
"Why should I be so vile, so coarse, so frail?"
Nor speech nor thought is given unto it.
The urn that, from the potter’s forming hand,
Slips and is shattered has no living heart
That yearns for bliss and shrinks from misery.
"This misery," ye say, "Is others’ good."
Yes; from my mouldering body shall be born
A thousand worms, when death has closed my pain.
Fine consolation this in my distress!
Grim speculators on the woes of men,
Ye double, not assuage, my misery.
In you I mark the nerveless boast of pride
That hides its ill with pretext of content.
I am a puny part of the great whole.
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle tears the vulture into shreds;
The eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.
Thus the whole world in every member groans:
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, "All’s well,"
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a, hundred times your mind’s conceit.
All dead and living things are locked in strife.
Confess it freely -- evil stalks the land
Its secret principle unknown to us.
Can it be from the author of all good?
Are we condemned to weep by tyrant law
Of black Typhon or barbarous Ahriman?
These odious monsters, whom a trembling world
Made gods, my spirit utterly rejects.
But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!
O wondrous mingling of diversities!
A God came down to lift our stricken race:
He visited the earth, and changed it not!
One sophist says he had not power to change;
"He had," another cries, "but willed it not:
In time he will, no doubt." And, while they prate
The hidden thunders, belched from underground,
Fling wide the ruins of a hundred towns
Across the smiling face of Portugal.
God either smites the inborn guilt of man,
Or, arbitrary lord of space and time,
Devoid alike of pity and of wrath,
Pursues the cold designs he has conceived.
Or else this formless stuff, recalcitrant,
Bears in itself inalienable faults;
Or else God tries us, and this mortal life
Is but the passage to eternal spheres.
‘Tis transitory pain we suffer here,
And death its merciful deliverance.
Yet, when this dreadful passage has been,
Who will contend he has deserved the crown?
Whatever side we take we needs must groan;
Nature is dumb, in vain appeal to it,
The human race demands a word of God.
‘Tis his alone to illustrate his work,
Console the weary, and illume the wise.
Without him man, to doubt and error doomed,
Finds not a reed that he may lean upon.
From Leibniz learn we not by what unseen
Bonds, in this best of all imagined worlds,
Endless disorder, chaos of distress,
Must mix our little pleasures thus with pain:
Nor why the guilt1ess suffer all this woe
In common with the most abhorrent guilt.
‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.
Like learned doctors, nothing do I know.
Plato has said that men did once have wings
And bodies proof against all mortal ill;
That pain and death were strangers to their world.
How have we fallen from that high estate!
Man crawls and dies: all is but born to die:
The world’s the empire of destructiveness.
This frail construction of quick nerves and bones
Cannot sustain the shock of elements;
This temporary blend of blood and dust
Was put together only to dissolve;
This prompt and vivid sentiment of nerve
Was made for pain, the minister of death:
Thus in my ear does nature’s message run.
Plato and Epicurus I reject,
And turn more hopefully to learned Bayle.
With even poised scale Bayle bids me doubt
He, wise enough and great to need no creed,
Has slain all system -- combats even himself:
Like that blind conqueror of Philistines,
He sinks beneath the ruin he has wrought.
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
But thinking atoms, whose far-seeing eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the faint stars,
Our being mingles with the infinite;
Ourselves we never see, or come to know.
This world, this theatre of pride and wrong,
Swarms with sick fools who talk of happiness.
With plaints and groans they follow up the quest,
To die reluctant, or be born again.
At fitful moments in our pain-racked life
The hand of pleasure wipes away our tears;
But pleasure passes like a fleeting shade,
And leaves a legacy of pain and loss.
The past for us is but a fond regret,
The present grim, unless the future’s clear.
If thought must end in darkness of the tomb,
All will be well one day -- so runs our hope.
All now is well, is but an ideal dream.
The wise deceive me: God alone is right.
With lowly sighing, subject in my pain,
I do not fling myself ‘gainst Providence.
Once did I sing, in less lugubrious tone,
The sunny ways of pleasure’s genial rule;
The times have changed, and, taught by growing age,
And sharing of the frailty of mankind,
Seeking a light amid the deepening gloom,
I can but suffer, and will not repine.
A caliph once, when his last hour had come,
This prayer addressed to him he reverenced:
"To thee, sole and all-powerful king, I bear
What thou dost lack in thy immensity,
Evil and ignorance, distress and sin."
He might have added one thing further - hope.

Note about the translation: I found several copies of the McCabe translation on the web and all of them contained the same obvious errors. I assume that the errors had been included when a printed copy of the poem was scanned, and as it still passed a spell check nobody noticed. I am a pedant, so I went back to the original French, dusted off those few brain cells that have survived since high school, and did my own translation of the lines in question. And who said that five years studying a foreign language were wasted?


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