The Theology of the Tsunamiby Richard DawkinsOp-Ed column in Free Inquiry 25 (3), 12-13, April/May 2005
I have never found the problem of evil very persuasive as an argument against deities. There seems no obvious reason to presume that your God will be good. The question for me is why you think any God, good or evil or indifferent, exists at all. Most of the Greek pantheon sported very human vices, and the ‘jealous God’ of the Old Testament is surely one of the nastiest, most truly evil characters in all fiction. Tsunamis would be just up his street, and the more misery and mayhem the better. I have always thought the ‘Problem of Evil’ was a rather trivial problem for theists, compared to the Argument from Improbability which is a genuinely powerful, indeed knockdown argument against the very existence of all forms of unevolved creative intelligence.
Nevertheless, my experience is that godly people, who show no evidence of even beginning to understand the Argument from Improbability, are reduced to quivering embarrassment if not outright loss of faith, when confronted with a natural disaster or a major pestilence. Earthquakes, in particular, have traditionally shaken people’s faith in a benevolent deity, and December’s tsunami provoked a lot of agonized soul-searching on the question “How can religious people explain something like this?” The most prominent apparent quaverer was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican communion. It turned out that he had been traduced by the Daily Telegraph, a notoriously irresponsible and mischievous newspaper and one of several London newspapers which devoted many column inches to this knotty theological conundrum. It turned out that the Archbishop had not in fact said that the tsunami shook his own faith, only that he could sympathize with those who did have doubts.
The most famous precedent, several commentators reminded us, is the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which deeply disturbed Kant and provoked Voltaire’s mockery in Candide. The Guardian published a flurry of Letters to the Editor, headed by one from the Bishop of Lincoln who asked God to preserve us from religious people who try to ‘explain’ the tsunami. Other letters attempted just that. One clergyman conceded that there was no intellectual answer: just hints of an explanation which “will only be found in a life lived by faith, prayer, contemplation and Christian action.” Another clergymen cited the Book of Job, and he thought he had found the beginnings of an explanation for suffering in Paul’s idea that the whole universe was experiencing something akin to the pains of a woman in childbirth:
“The argument for the existence of God from design would be fatally flawed if the universe were seen as complete already. Religious believers see the totality of experience as part of a greater narrative moving towards an as yet unimaginable goal.”
Is this the kind of thing theologians are paid to do? At least he didn’t sink to the level of a Professor of Theology in my University who once suggested, during a televised discussion with me and my colleague Peter Atkins among others, that the holocaust was God’s way of giving the Jews the opportunity to be brave and noble – a remark which prompted Dr Atkins to growl, “May you rot in hell!”
My own initial response to the correspondence on the tsunami was published the following day:
“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.”
Letters to the Editor necessarily have to be brief, and I failed to insure myself against the obvious charge of callousness. Among the onslaught that flooded the letters page the next day, one woman wondered what comfort science could offer to a parent whose child had been swept out to sea. Three letters were from doctors, who could justly claim more experience of human suffering than I could match. One of them deployed a bizarrely literal-minded interpretation of Darwinism: “If I were an atheist, I can’t imagine why I should bother to help anyone whose genes might compete with mine.” Another lashed petulantly out at science “cloning sheep or cats”. The third lashed out at me personally, describing me as his personal bogeyman: “the atheist version of a door-stepping Jehovah’s Witness’. An ayatollah without a deity – God help us.”
I don’t usually come back for a second go, but I was anxious to dispel wanton misunderstanding, so I sent in another letter which was published the day after:
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.
One of the most popular of religious responses to natural disasters is the “Why me?” response. This underlay several of the replies to the first of my letters to the Guardian. One actually berated science for its inability to answer the ‘why me’ question. And that really doesn’t merit a response.