The earthquake off Aceh, like the explosion of Krakatoa and the Lisbon and San Francisco earthquakes seems to be resonating in Western culture, perhaps more than other natural disasters. Krakatoa was within sight of Batavia, the Dutch colonial capital of Indonesia, and the relatively primitive media of 1883 carried the story to the world. Simon Winchester’s book (and his recent articles) have underlined the fact that this event is going to change the way billions of people feel and act about God, life and society. Something has been swept away.
The tsunamis from Aceh destroyed the affluent guests of Thai resorts and poor peasants. The waves were recorded in amateur videos, and the relief effort is being recorded by the world’s media.
Strong believers – religious and atheist – have not been hesitant to find meanings in the waves. I hope that we will do better, because some of what I am reading brings little wisdom.
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas is on the extreme fringes of the American social conservative movement, and it interprets the Bible as supporting its socially conservative rejection of homosexuality. The domain name for its Web page is godhatesfags.com. It has a web site called God Hates America, proclaiming that God punished New York City for its acceptance of homosexuality by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. It has a related site called God Hates Canada. It has put itself in the news by peristently picketing against gay marriage and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws and by its persistent and vicious intrusions into the grief of families who have lost loved ones to gay-bashing violence.
It has discovered the hand of divine retribution against Sweden in the loss of Swedish tourists in the Indian Ocean disaster of December 26, 2004. It has opened a new web site called God Hates Sweden. It has a particular grievance with Sweden because of the case of Pentecostal preacher Ake Green who was convicted in Sweden of the crime of hate speech against gays and lesbians for a sermon criticizing gay marriage and homosexuality delivered in his own church.
I don’t think that arguments based on science and secular logic are going to appeal to this group, and I don’t want to start a science vs. religion debate over this issue. I won’t spend time on arguing about rational interpretations of the disaster. I don’t think that I can argue theology and scripture with this organization on its terms either. Perhaps other Christian fundamentalists might find the time to answer them within the terms of Biblical interpetation. They envision and portray God as a jealous tribal deity, intervening and managing affairs on earth for mysterious reasons. It seems to me that they are blaspheming by claiming to know the mind and will of God, and worshipping their own idol – the homophobic God. Their teachings bring to mind the many biblical warnings against following false prophets.
Richard Dawkins, the grand ayatollah of English atheism, has written a couple of letters to the Guardian which interpret the Indian ocean tsunami disaster around his personal value system. While he is a more presentable salesman of values than the homophobic pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, he is emotionally vested in his own beliefs, illogical about the lessons of the disaster, and ruthlessly determined to build his story on the bodies of the dead.
On December 30, 2004 he said that science is better than religion because plate tectonics explain “why” the disaster happened. In the same letter he complained that the money spent on churches could have paid for scientific research and an Indian ocean early warning system for tsunamis. His conclusion, in the finest tradition of British atheism:
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.
On January 1, 2005 he was back for more. This time, he was trying to be compassionate and philosophical. He said:
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.
Science does not tell us why so many people perished in this way at this time. Science can tell us how earthquakes and tsunamis happen, and it might provide a warning or might not, not that a warning could have done much in the impoverished coastal villages. He complains about the money given to churches, without looking at the fact that the churches – speaking of all religions – have done more than all governments for the relief of poverty, even in this century. He identifies money spent on churches as wasted, without looking at the money spent on entertainment, paranoid military defence, bureaucracy, and bad science. He attacks primitive magical ideas of religion, without addressing the rich spiritual traditions of the world religions. He offers us the hope that new technology will hold chaos at bay – talk about hopeful dreaming.
The disaster has nothing to do with religion. Religion tries to find meaning in life in our individual and collective wonder at being alive and intelligent, even while we know we are at the mercy of a chaotic universe. The disaster challenges some human ideas about God by proving – as if this was news to anyone – that God is not a magical superhero who protects humans from injury and death.
Religion, far more than science, has shaped a compassionate world culture that is responding to the disaster. Science and technology allow us to respond better, but that doesn’t make us better human beings.