By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In March 2011, a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and resultant tsunami devastated Japan. Within days, dozens of countries were sending help and supplies. But also within days numerous people were blaming the Japanese and their “rampant atheism” for incurring God’s wrath. I was immediately reminded of earlier disasters.
The 2004 tsunami
On December 26, 2004 a tectonic plate under the Indian Ocean seabed slipped. One result was a tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand and other countries in S.E. Asia. Over 250,000 people including 80,000 children drowned. It was one of the worst natural disasters in our history.
Scientists have natural explanations for earthquakes and tsunamis. Yet, many religious people still cling to medieval beliefs that such disasters are expressions of their deity’s anger for human sin. The following are actual quotes by mostly religious leaders, regarding the 2004 tsunami as reported in the news media.
Buddhist: “Karmic law determines who lives and dies.” The people of S.E. Asia “suffered collective bad karma, prompted by oppression and unjust wars that invited the calamity. Those who perished were paying the price of accumulated demerits in this life or past ones, while the survivors were reaping rewards.”
Hindu: “The tsunami was caused by a huge amount of pent-up man-made evil on earth.” …“The ocean is a terrible god who drowns people and boats, but also provides fish as food. The tsunami was a response by this ocean god to the negative actions of humans.”
Muslim: “The Qur’an recognizes no natural laws independent of God’s will. All that happens is Allah’s doing and displays His mercy and compassion. The tsunami has some hidden positive purpose. This is a test from God to measure the strength of one’s faith.”
Jewish: “This is an expression of God’s great ire with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing.”
Liberal Christian: “God’s infinite love and wisdom allows evil and suffering to exist in order to bring about far more long-range good than we can possibly foresee. God did not desert us; He showed His presence in the outpouring of good works that poured forth to aid the victims of the tsunami.”
Calvinist: “Human collective sin has been so monumental that it continues to justify every form of Divine wrath visited upon Earth.”
Christian evangelist: “God is trying to awaken people and help them realize that salvation is in Christ.”
“This tragedy is a sign of the last days, fulfilling Christ’s promise that devastation will precede his second coming. The end is almost at hand. Be concerned only about your status with the Lord when the final judgment comes.”
Christian fundamentalist: “The tsunami was divine punishment for America’s homosexuality, abortion, lack of God in the schools, and taking Jesus out of Christmas. God will not be mocked.”
Obviously, since there’s no scientific way to test any of the above religious explanations for natural disasters, how can any of them be considered knowledge at all? Skeptics also ask: “Why anyone would want to worship a god who drowned 80,000 innocent children, or worship a god who didn’t or couldn’t stop the earthquake?”
Hurricane Katrina (2005) was the costliest and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. It devastated much of the north-central Gulf Coast, particularly New Orleans. The mayor of New Orleans responded that “God is mad at America.” And a slew of Islamic bloggers claimed that the hurricane represented Allah’s judgment on America’s sins.
And then there was Reverend John Hagee, an extremely influential American televangelist. Hagee is president and CEO of John Hagee Ministries which telecasts his national radio and television ministry carried in America on 160 TV stations, fifty radio stations and eight networks and can be seen and heard weekly in 99 million homes. His ministries can also be seen in Canada, Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and in most third world nations.
Hagee asserted that Hurricane Katrina was an act of God, punishing New Orleans for “a level of sin that was offensive to God”.[i] He specifically referred to a homosexual parade that, he said, was held on the date the hurricane struck as proof “of the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans.”[ii] Another reason for God sending Katrina, Hagee claimed, was the Bush administration’s pressure on Israel to abandon the land God gave them 2000 years ago (the Left Bank). Therefore, claimed Hagee, God took American land in a tit-for-tat exchange during Hurricane Katrina.
In 2008 Hagee came out in strong support for presidential candidate John McCain who initially sought and welcomed his endorsement. Later, McCain changed his mind when Hagee said that God used Hitler and the Holocaust to send the Jews to Israel, the promised land.
Following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (Sept. 11, 2001), America’s churches were filled and millions were singing “God Bless America” at rallies and memorials all across the country. But many religious Americans were also asking themselves how their all-good, all-loving, all-merciful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing, all-powerful interventionist god could have allowed this to happen to us? Here were a few of their answers found in newspapers, magazines and on the web:
“God has chosen not to intervene in human affairs, since this would undermine our free will to choose to love Him.” Q: But then why pray for divine intervention at all? And why then do most Christians still see evidence of God’s interventions everywhere?
“9/11 was God’s way of bringing Americans (God’s chosen people) together through adversity.” Q: But, 9/11 led to our invading Iraq, which has seriously divided our country and alienated us from much of the world.
“Satan was responsible for 9/11.” Q: So why didn’t God stop Satan? Believer: “Who knows? God works in mysterious ways. We can’t know His Will.” Q: Then how can you claim to know your god’s will on anything, such as abortion, gay rights, stem call research, and so on?
“By allowing 9/11 to happen, God was sending us a wakeup call regarding the rapid and dangerous spread of Islamic fundamentalism.” Q: Or could your god be sending you a wake-up call for allowing the dangerous spread of Christian fundamentalism?
“God was punishing us because we’ve strayed from God’s moral laws by allowing the killing of pre-born babies and the spread of homosexuality.”
“God is pissed off at America because we are destroying the ecological life-support systems of his planet and are selling major weapons of death and destruction to over 160 other nations.”
Collective guilt & punishment
The Hebrews’ tribal god often punished entire communities for the transgressions of a few.[iii] Christian leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both expressed this collective guilt concept when they publicly declared that the terrorist attack on 9/11/01 was punishment from God for American’s sins, in particular homosexuality and killing God’s unborn children.
This belief in collective guilt—that God punishes us with terrorists attacks or hurricanes because our nation doesn’t condemn, for example, homosexual behavior—can ultimately result in the loss of personal privacy. In free societies there is a tolerance for sexual activity in private between consenting adults. But religious conservatives often have zero tolerance for private vices, especially sexual vices. Sexual freedom, they believe, will only lead to licentiousness and decadence, followed by God’s wrath on everyone. Thus, those who believe that God will punish everyone for the private sexual activities of some, in particular homosexuality, will take considerable interest in the private affairs of others. They will snoop and snitch and condemn.
Some final thoughts
a. Because religions offer no valid mechanism by which their core beliefs can be tested and revised, each new generation of believers is condemned to inherit the superstitions of its predecessors. The idea that certain fantastic propositions can be believed without evidence is something that most Americans share with much of the Muslim world.
b. The ability of religious leaders to explain away all evil only reveals the delusional nature of religious belief. It only proves that people can use their various gods to justify just about anything including genocides, witch-burnings, inquisitions, jihads, and on and on. This has been done in spades throughout the ages. After all, once people believe that their god always has a good reason for doing what He does, no matter how obscure, contrived and inconsistent it seems, then all debate stops. God’s assumed omniscience must always trump our meager understanding and exonerate the Almighty of any possible error or bad intention.
[i] John C. Hagee is the founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, a non-denominational evangelical church with about 20,000 members. Hagee had received millions of dollars in compensation for his position as CEO of his non-profit corporation, Global Evangelism Television (GETV). He is one of the highest-paid televangelists.
[ii] Actually the gay parade was scheduled for the next week. Hagee failed to mention that those areas spared the flooding and destruction included most of the gay neighborhoods.
[iii] The 2nd Commandment states “.… for I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6 – NIV)