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May 15 2008

The end of god-12: God and natural disasters

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post, we saw how religious believer try to absolve god for his failure to stop wars and genocide by arguing that god gives us free will and that it is therefore our fault when things like that happens. This is a weak argument at best but it does not address another problem of theodicy: how to explain away the massive suffering caused by natural disasters and disease, where no human agency is involved.

Just this week we have immense death and destruction due to the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. A few years ago we had the Asian tsunami. And we have had hundreds of millions of deaths over the centuries due to diseases like the plague, malaria, and typhoid. We have horrible diseases even now, afflicting all kinds of people down to the youngest children.

Why does an all-powerful and loving god allow such cruel things to happen? No convincing answer has ever been given for this, though some radical clerics like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are quick to say that these calamities are deliberate punishments by god for people’s sins. Of course they mean the sins of people they disapprove of (like gays) and not their own.

But such weird attitudes do not come just from well-known crackpots like Robertson. Even high dignitaries of so-called mainstream liberal churches like the Church of England are not immune from this kind of childish thinking. Take for example the remarks of some Church of England bishops after floods devastated large parts of England a little over a year ago.

The floods that have devastated swathes of the country are God’s judgment on the immorality and greed of modern society, according to senior Church of England bishops.

One diocesan bishop has even claimed that laws that have undermined marriage, including the introduction of pro-gay legislation, have provoked God to act by sending the storms that have left thousands of people homeless.
. . .
The bishop [of Carlisle], who is a leading evangelical, said that people should heed the stories of the Bible, which described the downfall of the Roman empire as a result of its immorality.

“We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate,” he said.

“In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want,” he said, adding that the introduction of recent pro-gay laws highlighted its determination to undermine marriage.

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

In some sense, radical clerics like Robertson and Falwell and the bishop of Carlisle are only following to their logical conclusion where a belief in an all-powerful god leads them. If god is omnipotent, then he can prevent any natural disaster and if he does not do so, he must have a reason. The only reason they can think of is that this must be an act of retributive justice. Of course, earthquake, tsunamis, and floods that kill vast numbers of people indiscriminately do not look like the acts of a loving god, but these people tend to favor ‘tough love’ doctrines, as long as that tough love is applied to other people and not to them. Jerry Falwell died suddenly while in his office last year but I did not hear his good buddy Robertson suggesting that god had killed him because he thought Falwell was a major sinner in addition to being an annoying pest.

While one can think of many possible social and economic reasons why god might get mad, for some reason radical clerics tend to get really worked up by the thought of sexual (particularly homosexual) activities, and this is usually the reason they bring forward to explain any natural disaster.

Those people for whom the god-is-love idea is more important than the god-is-just idea have a harder time explaining natural catastrophes. They tend to have to resort to saying that god must be having some plan that we mere mortals cannot comprehend. When confronted with the problem of explaining massive numbers of deaths of even infants, believers shrug their shoulders and say the equivalent of “Well, stuff happens, and we don’t know why. We have to just assume god has a good reason for letting it happen even though he could prevent it.”

Some resort to saying that god created the universe and its laws and has simply decided to allow events to unfold according to those laws whatever the consequences (i.e., they invoke the God of the Ultimate Gaps when it is convenient to do so), and that the reasons for his leave-alone policy are inscrutable. This is the infamous ‘mysterious ways clause’, the get-out-jail-free card that religious people play when they are faced with something they cannot explain away.

They do not seem to realize that such a statement of ignorance of god’s intent is in direct contrast to their assured statements at other times: that they know that god is loving and just, cares for each one of us, wants us to be good and join him in heaven, and that it pains him when we stray from the path of righteousness. How could they know all that about the mind of god and yet not know why he allows droughts and floods and earthquakes?

In other words, popular religious apologists try to sidestep the theodicy problem by shifting between the contradictory beliefs of saying they know and understand the mind of god and god’s intentions and nature, while at the same time saying that the reasons for his actions are utterly inscrutable.

One cannot avoid the conclusion that these are the justifications of people who desperately want to believe. Some people have a deep emotional need to believe that there is a mysterious, invisible, father figure looking out for just them, and they will make up any story that allows them to cling to that, however irrational it may be.

Although the model of god-as-loving-father may look superficially more sophisticated than the god-as-authoritarian-puppeteer believed by the woman in Kansas, they both ultimately spring from the same source. First you decide what you want or need to believe, and then you make up some story that allows you to believe just that.

The only way that such people will abandon their beliefs is if they realize for themselves that their beliefs are divorced from reality and that a reality-based belief structure can be far more satisfying.

Next: What the more sophisticated apologists are saying.

POST SCRIPT: Colbert and O’Reilly

Blog junkies have probably seen the clip of Bill O’Reilly (on his former show) letting loose a profanity-laced tirade at his off-camera show producers. Stephen Colbert comes to his defense and reveals a dark secret from his own past.

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