Rats most probably were responsible for the bubonic plague that decimated Europe, and the Bible is maybe responsible for the current spate of genocidal and ethnic cleansing policies. But there are no maybes as to the root that causes us to link natural disasters to God’s displeasure. It’s – once again – the Bible.
The second story – after the dual and conflicting Creation story – is that of the Flood. The Bible very definitively cites human wickedness as the reason why God orchestrates the flood. Apologists have argued that the metaphorical story teaches us - as opposed to its Mesopotamian ancestor, the Epic of Gilgamesh – that humans can do something to protect themselves from Nature’s vagaries and capricious gods. Yet, the legacy of the tale is God’s remorseless, discriminatory and punitive nature. In the Koran (Sura 15:74-75) too, Allah acts vindictively against those who are unjust. God is just being God.
The next story in the Jewish-Christian holy text that has serious implications is the one where fire and brimstones wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah. In this case, too, the Bible attributes the destruction of the twin cities to the prevalence of immorality. The accompanying story, involving Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is offered as proof. Not only have these cities contributed to the etymology of the English vocabulary (the word “sodomize”) but it has laid the cornerstone for all future natural disasters. Insurance companies euphemistically refer to unpredictable forces of Nature as “acts of God.” From the first Fitna (a civil war that ravaged the Arab peninsula during the 7th century) until the recent explanations offered by scientists that drought and floods are God’s way of punishing us for abusing the blue planet He created, we tend to see the worst as thunderbolts directed by a fuming Overlord.
When superstition and religion ruled Western culture, which was up until the 18th century, the prevailing theory was that things that are bad for humankind are punishments directed by the Divine. That the righteous may have perished as well was dismissed as collateral damage. Even the secular Abraham Lincoln, in his last speech before his assassination, spoke of his belief that the cruelties of the Civil War were Divine retributions for acts of brutality inherent in a slave culture. (But wasn’t slavery permitted – even ordained and blessed - in the Bible?).
This linkage of disasters to God’s wrath is notably a Western phenomenon. In many Eastern countries, the deity (or deities) are absolved from conducting such mischief. In Shintoism, nature destroys, because that is what nature does. Today, perhaps because they have been influenced by the West, many countries not practicing the three culprit faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have also taken on this reprehensible approach.
As examples of this type of egregious error, Ioffer these random samples. They are vintage and current. Many more could be listed.
1 The Haitian earthquake – More than 200,000 people lost their lives, according to Pat Robertson, host of the “700 Club, ” because of their “pact with the devil.” It was the price they agreed to pay – as well as suffering other curses - for their independence from French rule.
2 Hurricane Katrina – Conservative Christians blamed the deaths of more than 1,800 people on gay pride events. James Hagee, an evangelical pastor based in Texas and leader of the Christian Zionist movement, argued that all hurricanes are acts of God.
3 September 11th - The Reverend Jerry Falwell blamed its destruction and the loss of life on the secularization of America.
4 The Holocaust – Six million Jews died, many Orthodox Jews believe, because Zionists wanted, with the establishment of Israel, to pre-empt the coming of the Messiah.
You get the idea. If something bad happens, it’s your fault because you have acted immoral, decadent or irreligious. The Nepal earthquake was blamed on the persecution of Christians by the Hindu population. Not to be outdone, the Hindus blamed the earthquakes on the Christian missionaries who ate beef. The common denominator, of course, was that God – and not shoddy structural materials and poor engineering – was responsible for the predictable tectonic shifts. Completely overlooked was the non-discriminatory nature of the disaster – both Hindus and Christians had their homes collapse.
Even when confronted by the sheer stupidity of their claim, leaders pandering to the religious impulse are reluctant to back down from the egregious claim. When Glenn Beck was admonished for suggesting that God was responsible for Japan’s earthquake of 2011, his response was: “I am not saying that God is, you know, causing earthquakes.” Rather, he opined, he is “not not saying that either.” When God kills for the noise that death makes, the unacceptable becomes acceptable.
It is often asserted that religion allows those who are devastated by the natural disaster to cope better. False. While monks or priests may be the first responders and the best NGO’s to offer help to those who desperately in need of recovery and to administer to their grief, the irreligious are usually better off because they tend to be the richer class and have taken preventive measure to stave off the disaster. Isn’t that ironic? The very people whom the disaster should have struck the hardest – if directed by God – are usually spared His wrath. I am sure the fundamentalists have an answer (God is saving their punishment for after their death), but I find it sadly optimistic that those who are most likely to abandon their childhood faith, usually avoid further banishment and disappointment.