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Religious Belief and Natural Disasters

Martin Kettle

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A few days after the 9/11 attacks on New York, I had dinner with the Guardian's late columnist Hugo Young. We were still so close to the event itself that only one topic of conversation was possible. At one stage I asked Hugo how his Catholicism allowed him to explain such a terrible act. I'm afraid that's an easy one, he replied.

We are all fallen beings, Hugo declared, and our life in this world is a vale of tears. So some human beings will always kill one another. The attack on New York should therefore be seen not as an act of God, but as an act of fallen humanity. Then he paused, and added: "But I admit I have much more difficulty with earthquakes."

Earthquakes and the belief in the judgment of God are, indeed, very hard to reconcile. However, no religion that offers an explanation of the world can avoid making some kind of an attempt to fit the two together. And an immense earthquake like the one that took place off Sumatra on Sunday inevitably poses that challenge afresh in dramatic terms.

There is, after all, only one big question to ask about an event of such destructive power as the one that has taken place this week: why did it happen?

As with previous earthquakes, any explanation of this latest one poses us a sharp intellectual choice. Either there is an entirely natural explanation for it, or there is some other kind. Even the natural one is by no means easy to imagine, but it is at least wholly coherent.

The tsunami took place, say the seismologists, because a massive tectonic rupture on the sea bed generated tremors through the ocean. These unimaginable forces sent their energy coursing across thousands of miles of water, resulting in death and destruction in a vast arc from Somalia to Indonesia.

But what do world views that do not allow scientists undisputed authority have to say about such phenomena? Where do the creationists stand, for example? Such world views are more widespread, even now, than a secularised society such as ours sometimes prefers to think.

For most of human history people have tried to explain earthquakes as acts of divine intervention and displeasure. Even as the churches collapsed around them in 1755, Lisbon's priests insisted on salvaging crucifixes and religious icons with which to ward off the catastrophe that would kill more than 50,000 of their fellow citizens.

Others, though, began to draw different conclusions. Voltaire asked what kind of God could permit such a thing to occur. Did Lisbon really have so many more vices than London or Paris, he asked, that it should be punished in such a appalling and indiscriminate manner? Immanuel Kant was so amazed by what happened to Lisbon that he wrote three separate treatises on the problem of earthquakes.

Our own society seems to be more squeamish about such things. The need for mutual respect between peoples and traditions of which the Queen spoke in her Christmas broadcast seems to require that we must all respect religions in equal measure, too. The government, indeed, is legislating to prevent expressions of religious hatred in ways that could put a cordon around the critical discussion of religion itself.

Yet it is hard to think of any event in modern times that requires a more serious explanation from the forces of religion than this week's earthquake. Voltaire's 18th-century question to Christians - why Lisbon? - ought to generate a whole series of 21st-century equivalents for all the religions of the world.

Certainly the giant waves generated by the quake made no attempt to differentiate between the religions of those whom it made its victims. Hindus were swept away in India, Muslims were carried off in Indonesia, Buddhists in Thailand. Visiting Christians and Jews received no special treatment either. This poses no problem for the scientific belief system. Here, it says, was a mindless natural event, which destroyed Muslim and Hindu alike.

A non-scientific belief system, especially one that is based on any kind of notion of a divine order, has some explaining to do, however. What God sanctions an earthquake? What God protects against it? Why does the quake strike these places and these peoples and not others? What kind of order is it that decrees that a person who went to sleep by the edge of the ocean on Christmas night should wake up the next morning engulfed by the waves, struggling for life?

From at least the time of Aristotle, intelligent people have struggled to make some sense of earthquakes. Earthquakes do not merely kill and destroy. They challenge human beings to explain the world order in which such apparently indiscriminate acts can occur. Europe in the 18th century had the intellectual curiosity and independence to ask and answer such questions. But can we say the same of 21st-century Europe? Or are we too cowed now to even ask if the God can exist that can do such things?


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As a scientist Earthquakes to me are simply a natural phenomenan. End of story. However, you may be interested in the idea (almost obsession) of Shamita Das, a senior lecturer in Seismology at the Univeristy of Oxford, who believes that most earthquakes occur on religious holidays, resulting in a higher survival rate (fewer people crowded into office blocks and schools).

As an undergradute I never really understood why she thought this happened or whether she simply thought it was a convenient co-incidence. But she was certainly convinced that there was a pattern there.


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Interesting to note that the U.S. Military gave specific warning to the island of Diego Garcia about the tsunami but found no need to do so for the nations/people around the Indian Ocean shows their thinking and prioities and most important [lack of] morality. Diego Garcia has NO native population [they were all removed long ago]. It is a secret spy and black operations base in the Indian Ocean with CIA/ONI/NSA and other nefarious things going on! Those in Washington thougth it important to protect these evil operations but not the millions of vulnerable non-Christian/white/American population.

If this is the case it is revolting. As was the paltry 18 million the US government have pledged in aid.

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No doubt the radical born-again apocaliptic crowd behind the neo-cons will see a tsumami that killed mostly non-Christians as god's will and vengence....but that kind of stupidity and evil thinking needs no further comment. Interesting to note that the U.S. Military gave specific warning to the island of Diego Garcia about the tsunami but found no need to do so for the nations/people around the Indian Ocean shows their thinking and prioities and most important [lack of] morality. Diego Garcia has NO native population [they were all removed long ago]. It is a secret spy and black operations base in the Indian Ocean with CIA/ONI/NSA and other nefarious things going on! Those in Washington thougth it important to protect these evil operations but not the millions of vulnerable non-Christian/white/American population.

I did not know that about the warning to Diego Garcia. That is truly disgraceful but it just illustrate the priorities of people like George Bush. It was interesting to compare his reaction to the tsunami with that of WMD in Iraq. After being made to feel guilty about his initial announcement Bush reluctantly increased the amount of aid to $18m. This comes a short time after asking for an extra $82bn in order to continue America’s occupation of Iraq.

Tony Blair is no better, he only offered £1m at first (now increased to £15m). Of the developed countries France made the worst response (£71,000). South Korea, on the other hand, has already pledged £1m.

A recent survey revealed that the richer you are, the smaller the percentage of your income you give to charity. In the UK the top five percent give the lowest of all groups (less than 1% of their income).

I have always found it difficult to understand how so-called religious people can justify giving large sums of money to politicians like George Bush but are reluctant to give money to those in poverty. They also seem to be the same ones who are in favour of increased spending on armaments and against the cancellation of third world debt.

It seems to me the main moral issue for all people in the developed world is the amount of aid we give to the underdeveloped world. Thousands of children die every day from starvation. These are all unnecessary deaths. We have enough money and food to go round for all. It just needs redistributing. Where are the political leaders in the developed world advocating this policy? Instead, they just allocate more and more money on armaments. We are proudly told that money will always be made available to protect the world from tyranny. They seem to be keener to keep people free than alive.

The scale of the current disaster is a result of poverty. If the countries concerned had more money they would no doubt have installed early-warning systems. The quality of the housing in these areas and transport network has clearly made the problem worse. I suspect the media in the developed world would be far less interested in the disaster if it had not had such an impact on holiday areas and the deaths of tourists. Once again it shows how we are interlinked with the undeveloped world. We ignore their plight at our peril.

I suppose if Bush or Blair ever addressed the issues of world poverty they would say they are prisoners of their financial backers (it seems there is more money from companies who want to build tanks for the army than for those wanting to provide food for the poor). Maybe so, but how do they deal with the moral issues that arise from this. It would seem that politics is no longer an honourable profession. They are just people willing to be hired out to the highest bidder.

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Richard Dawkins had an interesting letter published in the Guardian the other day. The reactions to the letter have also been interesting:

The Bishop of Lincoln (Letters, December 29) asks to be preserved from religious people who try to explain the tsunami disaster. As well he might. Religious explanations for such tragedies range from loopy (it's payback for original sin) through vicious (disasters are sent to try our faith) to violent (after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, heretics were hanged for provoking God's wrath). But I'd rather be preserved from religious people who give up on trying to explain, yet remain religious.

In the same batch of letters, Dan Rickman says "science provides an explanation of the mechanism of the tsunami but it cannot say why this occurred any more than religion can". There, in one sentence, we have the religious mind displayed before us in all its absurdity. In what sense of the word "why", does plate tectonics not provide the answer?

Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.

Let's get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering.

Richard Dawkins, Oxford

What exactly can science offer or say to the suffering of a parent whose child has been swept out to sea, to thousands who wait for news and to others who watched, powerlessly, as loved ones and strangers drowned in front of them, moments etched cruelly on their minds for ever?

Some will find a comfort in prayer that science, for all its undisputed wonders, cannot give. Richard Dawkins tells us to "get up off our knees, [and] stop cringeing before bogeymen and virtual fathers". An intuition of the transcendent and compassion are part of human evolution too.

Liz Byrne, Letchworth, Herts

Richard Dawkins sounds decidedly unconvincing on the subject of human suffering. I see more in a week working with dying patients than he is likely to see in a lifetime. Science is helpful in curing some and offering effective symptom relief in many, but cannot offer simple human comfort when death comes. Spiritual care and compassion can be given by believer and unbeliever alike, but science offers no answer to the question "Why me?".

The only bogeyman I have is Dawkins - the atheist version of a door-stepping Jehovah's Witness. An ayatollah without a deity - God help us.

Dr Paul Keeley, Glasgow

Mr Dawkins seems to forget that true faith can also "do something constructive about human suffering". Most of the charities in the Disasters Emergency Committee are faith-based. Many of these are themselves supported by congregations around the world who worship in churches, mosques and synagogues.

Mr Dawkins would deny these congregations the little financial support they get and divert it instead to the "religion of science", which he proclaims is the answer to everything. What if a small fraction of the money handed out to scientists for cloning sheep or cats was diverted to fund an early-warning system or donated to the aid effort?

Dr Victoria Johnson, Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset

Doing something about human suffering is precisely what churches have always done. Prayer is a preparation for doing. As a Christian, I know exactly why I should love and care for others. If I were an atheist, I can't imagine why I should bother to help anyone whose genes might compete with mine.

Dr GJ Welch, Chester

There is no mystery about any events in the natural world if God is removed. It all makes sense. But humans, probably since they developed thought, have considered themselves superior to other life on earth and perceived natural catastrophe as cruel and unfair. However, it is in the normal order of things - most creatures get eaten by other creatures. If we can come to terms with this reality, then we can understand our place in nature - and still have wonder for the complexity of our precious planet.

John Horsley, Cottingham, E Yorks

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This was Richard Dawkins reply today:

It is true that science cannot offer the consolations that your correspondents attribute to prayer, and I am sorry if I seemed a callous ayatollah or a doorstepping bogeyman (Letters, December 31). It is psychologically possible to derive comfort from sincere belief in a nonexistent illusion, but - silly me - I thought believers might be disillusioned with an omnipotent being who had just drowned 125,000 innocent people (or an omniscient one who failed to warn them). Of course, if you can derive comfort from such a monster, I would not wish to deprive you. My naive guess was that believers might be feeling more inclined to curse their god than pray to him, and maybe there's some dark comfort in that. But I was trying, however insensitively, to offer a gentler and more constructive alternative. You don't have to be a believer. Maybe there's nobody there to curse. Maybe we are on our own, in a world where plate tectonic and other natural forces occasionally cause appalling catastrophes. Science cannot (yet) prevent earthquakes, but science could have provided just enough warning of the Boxing Day tsunami to save most of the victims and spare the bereaved. Even worse lowland floodings of the future are threatened by global warming, which is preventable by human action, guided by science. And if the comforts afforded by outstretched human arms, warm human words and heartbroken human generosity seem puny against the agony, they at least have the advantage of existing in the real world.

Richard Dawkins, Oxford

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I've got a badge which says "Religion is man's attempt to communicate with the weather". Perhaps you could add "… with the plates of the earth's crust" too.

I can see why religious believers want to claim a monopoly over caring about humanity - religions have got a lot of ground to make up. However, it's difficult for me to look back at the development of the world after the industrial and scientific revolutions without seriously questioning the place of religion. Isaac Asimov has a good argument (in the introduction to one of his collections of short stories - I forget which now) that just about all the humanitarian advances in human society have come about as a consequence of scientific understanding, and in the teeth of opposition from religious believers. One of the examples he used was the abolition of slavery, which he claimed was brought about by engineers and scientists making human labour just too expensive, compared with horse-drawn and other machines.

The current developments in the USA are interesting, aren't they. My bet is that Dawkins would never have found a platform for his views in a mainstream US newspaper (and if he had, he would have been subject to the kind of crude intellectual terrorism that even this forum has been subjected to). At the same time, US contributions to relief in the area affected by the disaster are still pitifully small.

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I remember in bible class the tale of the widow's mite. The rich made efforts to draw attention to the amount of money they were giving to the poor. Jesus drew attention to a widow who gave two of the smallest coin of the realm and instructed his disciples to note that her sacrifice was the greater.

If anybody is impressed by American imperialism's contribution to the tsunami relief they might like to remember that for every dollar they spend in tsunami relief they are spending 4200 dollars in their brutal war in Iraq. Although the public in the west are promising two billion, Sri Lanka alone pays seven billion a year to the bankers, the flow of "aid" is in the other direction.

This tsunami was an act of God. I can only say that I am glad I no longer believe.

A BBC reporter mentioned that a majority of the population in Sri Lanka were Buddhists and therefore believe that life is full of suffering. So their faith is not disturbed by these events.

We either provide the poor with the same protection afforded to the rich (and to the Diego Garcia base!) or we say it is all in God's hands and (presumably) they are being punished for their sins.

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I remember trying to interest British MPs in the fate of Diego Garcia at the time of the Falklands crisis. Many of them wanted to know "who is Diego Garcia"....the numbers were similar to the number of Falkland Islanders but this was the United States evicting them at gunpoint so their rights did not exist. Might makes right.

According to reports in the world's press, including the Independent in London, admitted by the US government,

the US military base on Diego Garcia had forewarning of the tsunami whilst

the countries in the greater danger had no warning because the greatest

military power on the planet lacked the resources to put through a phone


This will come as no surprise to those who remember the 2000 Chagossians

that were illegally removed from their homes in the 1960's to make way for

UK-US airbase on Diego Garcia. They have no right to return to their homes.

Even their dogs were rounded up and gassed, all the animals were killed and

the islands left empty and uninhabited to make way for the American base.

Even though the UK courts have found their removal to be illegal they are

not permitted to return to their islands as there is "a need to uphold the

island's secure status." Or to put is another way, to protect America's ability to wage war within the region.

Thatcher went to war for the sacred rights of the Falkland islanders - the

British government meekly allowed the people on Diego Garcia to be kicked

out of their homes by US imperialism.

To conclude America and Britain removed poor people from their homes in

order to set up a base from which to bomb and harm even more poor people!

The American military machine has some odd weaknesses. They can deliver

bombs and missiles to any region however remote, yet they lack the ability

to get food and medicine to remote areas. The public have raised millions to help the survivors of the tsunami. Billions go from the poor to the bankers every year in interest payments.

Interestingly the New Your Times reports that

CIA detention facilities have been located "on Britain's Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean." This means that prisoners can be held indefinitely without legal counsel and without trial. American military personnel have written recently to the Guardian about what a paradise the island was for them....they didn't include any snaps of prisoners being tortured.

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Dear Rowena,

Indians are like that. C. V. Raman, the noble prize winner, placed Chandan dot on his forehead. Indians buy the finest computer and before they start it, they would place Swastika on it (it is different from what Hitler had adopted as his symbol.). They would buy the best car in the market but first take it to the temple and pray to Hanuman, the symbol of Mangal or Mars. If they meet an accident with the new car, they will propitiate the Shani, or the symbol of Saturn. They would raise the biggest refinery with the latest technology and complete it before the scheduled time but before starting it, they would perform the prayers of Maha Mritunjiya yagjna to safeguard against any major accident. If someone get angry, then he prays to moon and wears moti (white stone). From the name ‘Shamita Das’, I guess that she was an Indian and from Bengal, a highly conservative and superstitious place. However, Bengal was in the forefront of Indian Renaissance and National Movement because it was exposed to scientific temper due to the British government which was first based at Calcutta. It shifted to Delhi in 1911 to New Delhi in 1923

The science has never taken up any research on such issues. Is there need to pursue such a course?

When the Tsunami struck at India, a leading meteorologist who is also known for his knowledge of numerology, accused the factor of “8”. It was 26 of December that day. Similar, the last earthquake at Bhuja, to which even President Clinton gave so much care, occurred on January 26. Another even on the sub-continent was the death of Pakistan President and Military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The numerologist had predicted that he would die on August 8, 1988 ie is 8-8-1988. It was reported that he avoided that day. However, he died in a crash on August 17, 1988. That was again 1+7=8 and finally 8-8-1988.

Now in case of this forum also, the total members of this forum on December 26 was 1088. If you add the each numeral, then you get 17 and 1+7= 8. The Forum went off the net for three days I believe.

Well if you continue with this pattern then dates 8, 17, and 26 of every month would be ominous for the sub-continent. It is really horrifying. Now what would the year 2006 bring for this region? If there is a pattern, then I should get my passport ready and fly out of here. (I am based in India.)

Now let us stop here and end with your opening lines. As a scientist, Earthquakes to ‘us’ are simply a natural phenomenon. End of story. John Simkin is really coming up with right type of attitude and arguments which I think should be imbibed by all the researchers and academicians. Kindly take this reply in a lighter way. Well we can afford to do that only if someone very near to us has not perished in that catastrophe. This is also another way of response on the part of human beings. You come out of the cremation or burial of a friend and then just forget that someone like you, alive, kicking, feeling, seeking, all human is no more among us. Can we say, God knows !!!.

As a scientist Earthquakes to me are simply a natural phenomenan. End of story. However, you may be interested in the idea (almost obsession) of Shamita Das, a senior lecturer in Seismology at the Univeristy of Oxford, who believes that most earthquakes occur on religious holidays, resulting in a higher survival rate (fewer people crowded into office blocks and schools).

As an undergradute I never really understood why she thought this happened or whether she simply thought it was a convenient co-incidence. But she was certainly convinced that there was a pattern there.


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I said that the tsunami was an "act of God" but obviously God frowns on the poor and protects the rich with sophisticated technology.

In the aftermath of the tsunami I am really encouraged by my pupils whose first thought is to try to find a way to help. They feel that it is "one world" and that can only be for the good.

People in Thailand, some of the poorest, are giving the little they have to help the survivors. They shame the world leaders who "pledge" all sorts of things but seldom deliver.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think it is unfair to blame US military authorities for not giving warning of the tsunami to other nations.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) timeline of events is here:


Diego Garcia was given it's warning AFTER the tsunami had struck Sri Lanka, and just before it struck Indonesia.

In addition, the US State Department acted to warn people of the danger:

"Recognising the threat to east Africa, the State Department instructed its embassies to alert local governments. That probably saved many lives: in Kenya alone, 10,000 people were evacuated from the beaches around Mombasa before the waves struck. Only one person is reported to have drowned."

From: http://www.property.telegraph.co.uk/connec.../05/ixconn.html

There is debate about why Sri Lanka's own seismic detection systems did not provide warning:


After any disaster, hindsight always shows how things could have been done better. Perhaps now the nations of the Indian Ocean will co-operate in the provision of a tsunami warning system.

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Interesting topic. In our Western Civ. class we are discussing religious thinkers from the ancient Greeks to Thich Nhat Hanh - and many of them wrestle with "the problem of evil". We've just finished a selection from "The Brothers Karamazov" where Ivan tells Aloysha that many regard such awful events as a means of "instructing" us on the nature of good and evil. Ivan, of course, will have none of it. Such knowledge is not worth the suffering of one child.

As an evolutionary biologist who has seen Dawkins speak, I have to admit he holds all the cards on this one. Nevertheless, I can't help but turn to Gandhi, who we are also reading, who says "...in the midst of pain, we have hope, in the midst of darkness there is light..."

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  • 3 years later...

People fear what they can't see. They fear what they can't predict and they fear what they don't know.

Natural disasters are almost unforeseen , sudden events, which people have no control of.

Therefore, in times like these, they tend to find a spiritual reason for it.

They feel the need to explain what they can't understand.

In a disaster as big as an earthquake or a tsunami, people generally seek inner haven and

they choose to believe it is a punishment given by God because having the need for being kept under

control and pay penalty for bad deeds are of human nature.

Edited by Cigdem Eksi
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