Saturday, 21 August 2010

Unnatural Disasters

When the twin towers fell in 2001, the reverend Jerry Falwell proclaimed it was divine punishment for the US being tolerant of homosexuality - among other liberal vices. As the Victorian bushfires raged in early 2009, Catch The Fire ministries blamed the bushfires on God's wrath for the recent changes in Victorian law on abortion. When the tsunamis struck on boxing day in 2004 there were plenty of preachers giving their take on the events.

These are but three examples of taking disasters and attributing them to divine agency because of issues of morality. It seems a common phenomenon, and not just one that's related to the Judeo-Christian narrative in our present culture. Looking back to myths of different cultures shows the same phenomenon, from the Greek gods to Aboriginal cryptids. It's not just prudish Islamic scholars worrying about the public lack of female modesty...

So when I read stories like Noah's Flood, I see the same phenomenon. There was no global flood, nor was the flood sent by a divine agency to wipe out sinners. Floods happen, they happen due to the same mechanisms that allow for rain. There would still be floods without people to drown, that there are people to drown is incidental to there being a flood.

It's very human to personalise reality, our brains are wired for agency. It's not a bad thing, it's very helpful in some circumstances. Understanding when an agent wants to harm you could be a matter of life and death. But extend these cognitive faculties from a social group to a blind process and they misrepresent it. We have to catch ourselves when anthropomorphising reality because intuitively we can't help it.


Natural disasters are a part of living on this planet. Floods will happen irrespective of the wicked lives people lead. Bushfires will rage with or without changes in abortion law. Volcanoes will erupt without regard to whether homosexual conduct exists. Earthquakes and tsunamis don't hinge on cultures not accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. There will be plagues and droughts and crop failures with or without killing a witch.

It does seem odd in the 21st century that there are still those who look at disasters and attribute divine agency, as if the affairs of humanity are at the whims of the gods and goddesses atop Mt Olympus. Meanwhile people are punished and suffering comes to others because of these moral proclamations - as if the suffering of the disaster itself wasn't enough.

Perhaps a few thousand or even a few hundred years ago, this sort of intuitive reason might have meant something. These days we know better, and by participating in personalisation of indiscriminate forces, real agency causes harm.

3 comments:

Richard T said...

At least the key point from a Christian perspective is that God could well have caused those events for those reason but we have no way of telling if he has or not. It is also quite possible they had no relationship to God and are just part of this fallen world. Nobody knows so it would be pleasant if those nutbags kept their mouths shut rather than removing all shadow of a doubt that they are...

Kel said...

It's odd that someone could go from disaster to "it's punishment for X" where X happens to be the thing they have a deep moral aversion to.

Anonymous said...

Gods are invented to explain phenomena (thunder/thor/zeus), so it's no surprise that when you see a phenomenon, it must be the gods at work. For something.

As far as the tsunami goes, I blame Poseidon. That's what he's for.

cicely