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Watching the scenes from Japan over the last few days and listening to religious nutcases blame the earthquake and tsunami on the wrath of God reminded me of something I wrote in early 2005 following the earthquake to the west of Indonesia and the subsequent tsunami that affected countries around the Indian Ocean. It is just as topical now as it was five years ago.
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.
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. 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 had 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".
This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on March 23, 2011
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