On November 1, 1755 at around 9:40 in the morning the Portuguese capital Lisbon was struck by a devastating earthquake, which was followed by a tsunami and fire. The massive destruction which this disaster brought caused theologians and philosophers to see the earthquake as a manifestation of the anger of God. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism did not hesitate to attribute the Lisbon tragedy to sin, to “that curse that was brought upon the earth by the original transgression of Adam and Eve.” Voltaire demolished that kind of thinking in his Poem on the Disaster at Lisbon
Will you say, “It is the effect of everlasting laws
Which necessitates this choice by a free and good God”?
Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:
“God is avenged, their death is the payment of their crimes”?
What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these children,
Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?
Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices
Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?
This poem came to mind on hearing Sharon Stone’s idiotic comments about the earthquake in China. According to Ms. Stone, it may have been caused by bad karma because of Chinese repression in Tibet. Apart from illustrating why we shouldn’t listen to actors pontificating about the world, it is also a depressingly familiar example of applying moralistic or spiritual explanations to events that have a purely physical cause with. With the power of science to explain the world one would have thought that such nonsense would have disappeared from public discourse. Why complicate something that has a perfectly rational explanation? Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon. To try to interpret these as acts of God makes no sense. Sharon Stone’s comment is a New Age/Eastern rehashing of fundamentalist Christians’ assertion that Aids is God’s retribution for homosexuality and pre-marital sex. And ecologists seem to engage in their own variant of this behaviour; the term natural disaster is fast losing its meaning. Their denunciations almost seem to be tinged with that sense of righteous indignation. Such events as floods are seen as a punishment for our eco-sins.
Why do we do this? I think it is because the world is a place which is horribly random and we have to try to make some sense of it all. We are a pattern-seeking species and we’re willing to attribute natural phenomena to supernatural causes at the drop of a hat. Cancer kills vile Nazis but it also kills good people. It is a biological process. If you say that it is divine will that cured you then is it also divine will that killed someone else? Is it because you are good and they are bad? We like to think that by praying to God, He will cure diseases. But as one website says – Why does God hate amputees? Why is it that no amputee has ever had his leg grow back?
We live in a cold, impersonal universe. Personally I don’t find it very comforting but it’s how I see reality. But if Sharon comes on a visit to Madrid, I’m sure we could engage in a very stimulating philosophical discussion….