Who to Blame?

With the recent and tragic events in Japan, we look back to 2004 when the world saw another terrible tsunami, that time in the Indian Ocean.

Shortly after, the former editor of The Skeptic, Barry Williams, penned the following editorial. We feel Barry’s sentiments apply just as well in 2011.

Who to Blame?

Few people could have remained unaffected by the tragic events that began in the Indian Ocean off Sumatra on the morning of December 26 last year. The tsunami, caused by the shifting of tectonic plates under the sea, cut short a quarter of a million lives, ranking it as one of the most lethal natural disasters in the entire history of our planet. That this tragedy touched the hearts of many in Australia is attested by the unprecedented generosity of individuals, government and organisations of all sorts in donating to relief efforts, and by the dedication of those who went to the aid of distressed victims. This generosity shows the better part of human nature, however certain religious issues have emerged that are not so benign.

Evidence from neurophysiological research indicates that our genetic make-up makes homo sapiens receptive to abstract beliefs that have no rational foundation. This ‘faith’ usually manifests itself as ‘religion’, but includes various totalitarian political philosophies that emerged during the 20th Century which, while they ostensibly eschewed supernatural causes, nevertheless embraced many of the trappings and certainly the dogmatism of religion in their application. Observation tends to support this conclusion; throughout history religions have emerged from all cultures at all times and most of them have died out or evolved with the passing of the cultures or of time. Simple logic dictates that the beliefs of all religions cannot possibly all be right; on the other hand, it is an impeccably rational proposition that all of them could be wrong. There is no evidence to suggest that Faith Brand X has a better explanation of the inexplicable than does Faith Brand Y; there is far more persuasive evidence that all religions, as constructs of the human mind, are prone to fallibility.

This proposed human predisposition to believe, and to invent things in which to believe, has, like most human institutions, resulted in both sublime benefits and grave faults. There can be little doubt that religious devotion has inspired wonderful art, music, architecture and literature, without which the world would be a decidedly poorer place. Nor can there be much doubt that religions can provide comfort to their adherents or can inspire great acts of kindness and sacrifice. But religion (and similar dogmatic beliefs) also has a dark side, with sectarian-inspired conflict, war and genocide remaining as constants throughout human history.

Thus we have seen statements from clerics of various faiths seeking to justify how such violent natural acts as the tsunami fitted with their concept of their particular deity. The tsunami was immaculately ecumenical in its effects, killing tens of thousands of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, adherents of many other faiths, sects, new age spirituality, as well as, no doubt, many skeptics, atheists, agnostics, humanists and rationalists, who were unlucky enough to be in its path. It did this without regard to their religious, political or other affiliations, age, sex, state of health, or whether they were good or bad people.

That this caused grave intellectual discomfort to the clerics was evident in the tortured logic they sought to use in their rationalisations. To the obvious skeptical question “How could any hypothetical omniscient, omnipresent and benevolent deity allow such indiscriminate killing?” the answers ranged from “punishment for straying from the true path” (including newborn babies, presumably) to “the Grace of God is shown in the generosity of the response from people” (surely any deity worth his salt could have found a less tragic method of demonstrating it). But by far the most common response was couched in terms of “Gods’s ways are not our ways and we cannot know the mind of God”, which might have sounded more sincere had it not issued from the mouths of those whose lives and livelihoods were precisely dedicated to promulgating and interpreting the mind, actions and words of God.

In passing, several of the more vocal clerics chose to chide those of us, skeptics, atheists, et al, who do not subscribe to their notion of deities, implying that we could find no comfort in our scientific view of the world in the face of catastrophe. It might surprise them to learn that what rational people derive from science is not comfort, but understanding. Part of that understanding is that we live on a dynamic planet where natural forces reign supreme; that these insensate forces are neither benign nor malign, they just are — a natural disaster is just that — natural. Sometimes no one is to blame — not even God.

It is not the rationalist who is discomfited by such an occurrence, it is those who strive, painfully, to justify the incompatibility of a benevolent deity with an horrific event.

On a personal level, if not comfort, I did derive some satisfaction when the service in which I spent 15 of my younger years, the RAAF, was first on the ground, carrying aid to Sumatra within 48 hours of the disaster, where it continues to provide assistance today. If any comfort comes, it comes from seeing people selflessly doing good when other people are in need. In this case such people are many, and they come from right across the religious and non-religious spectrum.

Barry Williams 2005