Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 21 issue 1

The Asian Tsunami

Bill Cooke

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 1 (Spring 2005).

On Christmas Day 2004, millions of Christians gave thanks to the god they deem their creator. Some gave thanks by going to church; others may have said grace at their dinner table or given some passing thought to their savior between the presents and food. Most would have added some general wish about peace on earth after their own petitions for prosperity had been delivered.

But deep below the surface of the earth, tectonic plates were about to realign in a major way. The pious utterances of the faithful had only just been said when the earthquake struck. It registered 8.9 on the Richter scale, the largest quake in forty years, and sent a tsunami of horrendous power onto some of the most heavily populated coastal areas on the planet.

As the death-toll increased with each passing day, religious leaders were at pains to give some account of how this disaster could happen in the face of claims about a loving god. Any number of exquisite paths were taken, each one outdoing the other, to exonerate God from responsibility for the disaster and to insist that, contrary to appearances, he is still a loving father.

Quite the most tasteless explanation I saw came from the American evangelical Bill Koenig, who suggested that God was punishing these nations for persecuting Christians. Surely, God could have sorted this out at the cost of fewer innocent lives? Then there was Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, who said the disaster was the will of Allah. Why Allah should have wished to visit maximum damage on the staunchly Muslim province of Aceh in Indonesia was not explained. Aceh, after all, is the most conservative Muslim region of the country, and the only province to operate a form of Sharia law.

Less fanatical Christians than Koenig resorted to varying explanations, depending on their position on the spectrum. Some talked about God being with people in their suffering—an easy piece of sophistry to utter from the safety of their comfortable homes. Others resorted to the “mysterious ways” evasion, taking care to throw in a dig at presumptuous unbelievers who find such an explanation unconvincing. They all seemed more concerned to protect God’s reputation than to extend some help to those whose lives have been shattered.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Voltaire had similar thoughts after hearing of the calamitous earthquake, which devastated Lisbon on November 1, 1755. Thirty thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the resulting fires. Many victims were in church at the time the quake struck. Voltaire was sickened by the complacent reply of orthodox religionists and of deists, who were reduced to saying the quake was retribution for humankind’s sins. Voltaire’s poem “Poèmes sur le dèsastre de Lisbonne et sur la loi naturelle” (“Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon and on [the axiom] All Is Well”) is a brooding polemic against the callous defenses for the existence of evil in the world. For example, he asked:

But how to conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favours on the sons he loves,
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?

But through all the ghastliness of the tsunami disaster, some glimmer of new outlooks can be discerned. People around the world now understand the planet-wide consequences of a disaster of this magnitude. Part of the explanation is that more than fifty countries have lost nationals in the tragedy. But the impressive show of solidarity from ordinary people in different parts of the world who observed a minute’s silence in honor of the dead was a powerful symbol of our growing interdependence. Recall the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, in which upwards of 255,000 people lost their lives, or the cyclones in Bangladesh in 1970, which killed more than 300,000. Can anyone remember an event that elicited a similar degree of concern from the international community (which is now a meaningful term)? And, of course, the unprecedented quantities of aid promised by governments and nongovernmental organizations are positive signs. This is the practical application of planetary humanism.

Of course, there is still much injustice to anger us. Among the wealthy nations, there is the willingness to pledge huge sums of money while the media spotlight is focused on them, only to forget to honor the pledges in full once attention has moved on. And among the recipient nations, there is the problem of rampant corruption, which does so much damage to the giving spirit among the donor nations. But, these serious problems notwithstanding, we can no longer pretend that the calamity of one people does not affect the others. We are a planetary community now, both in suffering and in hope.

Bill Cooke is the Asia/Pacific coordinator for the Center for Inquiry/

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