The day after the Samoan tsunami I heard a tv reporter, after recounting the death and destruction and misery and coming plagues, say “their Christian faith will comfort them”. It’s the kind of thing you say on these occasions of course, and people nod wisely. Ah yes indeed, wouldn’t do for me, but if you are a believer it must be a comfort. Sort of like the “no atheists in foxholes” nonsense.
But having nodded wisely I stopped to think. Never a good move with religious mythology. And I said to myself “why?” Let me see if I understand the options. First there might be a big unfeeling brute of a god who when he gets bored, or has a hangover or something, pulls the Earth’s crust in such a manner as to set off a tidal wave just near some beaches occupied by one of the most inoffensive and nicest people on the planet, the Samoans. As a result these nice people, men women and children, old and young, have their lives taken, families taken, suffer horrible injuries, have their homes smashed to pieces, their animals killed. I’m not sure where Christian faith manages to comfort them for believing in such a creature.
The second option might be that there is an omnipotent but somewhat nicer creature, who, although he could stop the natural event of earthquake and tsunami (even though they are going to hit some of the most religious and god-fearing people on the planet), chooses not to. Instead, in a kind of video game, he decides to randomly save a few of the people who might otherwise have died etc. And they, believing that their faith saved them (though why it didn’t save their equally true-believing neighbours must be a mystery), might take comfort in that.
Or third, they might believe in some sort of distant figure in the sky, who neither starts disasters nor plucks a few survivors from their path, but, having noticed that some humans (and animals) have been killed on a planet he purportedly created for them, takes them up, 2 year olds and 82 year olds alike, and gives them another life in some distant part of the universe as yet unseen by the Hubble telescope. In that case, I suppose, survivors, believing in a god not powerful enough to prevent disaster in general, nor enough to save extremely religious people, instead believe in one that removes people from their families for no apparent reason and takes them somewhere out of reach to their loved ones left behind.
And the final option, I suppose, might be a kind of combination of the three. That is, whatever the hell god is up to with his earthquakes and tsunamis and random deaths and theoretical second life believers trust that if you just knew enough it would kind of make sense. And therefore they believe something that may have been said by someone who may have once lived who was a self-proclaimed god translator who thought that yes indeedy it did all make sense. All reminiscent of public attitudes to the war in Iraq, or to banking deregulation. At least one Samoan could be heard on a television report saying something like “help me christ to believe that this is all for the best” or words to that effect.
Look, I don’t know about you, but I think my atheist religion would be of much more use to me than any of that self-contradictory rubbish. I think I would accept that the movement of tectonic plates in the Pacific rim triggers earthquakes, and these in turn can trigger tsunamis. And that on low Pacific islands, or even high ones where people, naturally, live on beaches, there are going to be high mortality rates and great loss of property as a result. No pattern to it, no one to blame, no get-out-of-disaster free cards being issued, just a big wave with your number on it. As an atheist then I would make sure that scientists came up with the best possible tsunami and earthquake warning systems. I would try to make sure that infastructure and planning and building codes in seaside villages were of a high standard, and I would try to build appropriate refuges. And I would make sure that disaster planning and response was of the highest order to rescue and treat people (and animals) and then to rebuild. I wouldn’t waste time looking for answers in the sky to a question that has no meaning. Not feeling obliged to do that would be a great comfort to me. What about you?
6 October 2009